We espouse many mottos in Pittsburgh: A most livable city. ‘We build bridges, not walls.’ And more recently, one inspired by the white supremacist terrorism at the Tree of Life synagogue: ‘Stronger than hate.’
But these feel like platitudes not supported by action. As neighbors, we should recognize that being on the same bridge does not mean we are having the same experience.
In a city marked by segregation across racial, socioeconomic and cultural lines, we have created few opportunities to learn about our neighbors and neighborhoods. We can continue to exclaim that we are ‘a most livable city’ because we do not recognize the many residents whose lives do not reflect this declaration.
A few months ago, I wrote about how many fellow Black Pittsburghers felt about the solidarity shown for the Jewish victims and families after the Tree of Life shooting. The Black community felt left out, devalued — never had they seen such cohesive action and support in this city when Black neighbors were the target of violence. For this reason, I looked to the people, ideas and organizations who are building an inclusive and justice-centered community beyond the slogans and mottos.
The lessons we can learn from each other can help us shape a stronger, more connected city, rather than a city of disconnected neighborhoods. We can begin to build bridges that allow us to look around and really see what others are experiencing. We can be better neighbors by learning where our fellow Pittsburghers are going and how they are getting there.
Several interconnecting themes appeared while speaking with organizations and people doing this work in Pittsburgh. I witnessed a desire to truly connect, even if the process is uncomfortable; a willingness to learn and teach concurrently; flexibility paired with a system to continue connections; and finally, the social justice artistic practice of celebration to solidify these connections.
Being uncomfortable is part of the process
It was the evening of Dec. 5, and about 40 people, mostly strangers, entered a University of Pittsburgh room with a long table. Nervous laughter greeted organizers Mercedes Zandwijken and Machiel Keestra of the Netherlands. Zandwijken and Keestra instructed us to sit on one side of a table based on cultural identity: Jewish or Black (recognizing that you could be both).
I did not attend this event as a journalist or writer. I attended as a resident of Pittsburgh — someone in despair but hoping for a connection, a way toward each other when my response had been to hide away. I had, in fact, built a figurative wall to protect myself from a city that was proclaiming loudly who they cared about: not me or anyone who looked like me. This event was forcing me to tear down that wall, and it was not easy.
That discomfort was an essential part of the process. The meeting was part of a global project, called Keti Koti, which means “cutting the chains.” Its intent is to connect the Jewish and African diasporic communities, based on Jewish Seder and West African traditions.
Conversation pairs were formed, and each person took turns answering challenging questions and reflecting on identity. ‘How does it feel to sit and talk in this manner?’ ‘When was the last time you engaged openly and felt truly heard by someone of a different ethnic identity?’
Zandwijken reflected via email: “We’re struck by the generally shared craving to actively contribute to Pittsburgh’s commitment to ‘Love stronger than hate’...We were moved by the participants’ willingness to listen to what their dialogue partners from other minority communities were experiencing and feeling, particularly with regard to the absence of such cross-community empathy and solidarity.“
Teacher and student
The Keti Koti program showed the importance of being open to both learning and teaching. Often in rigid societal structures, we are given titles and roles to perform. However, an essential part of creating connections is to develop the space where people can feel free to express themselves. One way is to create a circular learning and teaching process — one in which the role of teacher or student is organic rather than linear.
An organization that embodies this idea is Arts Excursions Unlimited [AEU] housed at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh [CLP] in Hazelwood. Born from the artist residency of Edith Abeyta, the inclusive intergenerational program offers free monthly arts and cultural visits, art-making workshops and public art projects. The program connects people across age, income and ability, forging true bonds among people who previously just happened to live in the same area.
Marce Nixon, an AEU artist assistant, explained to me why she thinks AEU activities, like crafting or making jewelry, have a deep effect on participants: “It is the connection of everyone learning new things continuously. We all make mistakes together, we learn techniques and ways together, we just sit and talk. The genuineness — authenticity is one of the biggest things.”
As associate director of the Braddock Carnegie Library, Dana Bishop-Root said “walking into a space and knowing what knowledge you’re bringing will be valued” is key to a bridge-building environment. “Everyone can be teacher and learner same time... The assumption is everyone knows something...so we are building knowledge.”
Ash Andrews, executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (PCCR) also talks about the importance of celebrating everyone’s knowledge, value and creativity: “We are creating the kind of world we want to see in the future. And that world, to us, is one where people of all types are creative with each other and supportive of each other.”
In an email, Andrews wrote that the PCCR is “a kind of oasis where [people] know they will be respected and safe. That includes “Black and Brown people, families, LGBTQIA people, people who walked here, people who drove in from other states, elders, artists, teachers, crafters, collectors, people who are differently abled, school groups…”
Flexibility and continuity
The built environment: It includes roads, railways, buildings and parks and much more. And it shapes our communities. It impacts our experiences.
The influence is not always evident, but think about an intersection that is easy or difficult to cross or how a building may seem intimidating or welcoming as you pass by or enter.
A built environment that is designed to positively impact and engage — not only those who actively use the space but also those who interact with it — operates in an open and compassionate manner. It presents a space that can be flexible in its use, open and evolving, as the community in and around the building needs it to be.
Sarah Rafson, an educator, writer, editor and curator working primarily in architecture said: “Architecture has a big role, and architects can be more mindful of insisting on buildings that operate in a generous way. The building can serve its own users. But if there is something that a building can give for free to the public to people who are not necessarily the inhabitants, customers, tenants of a building but can offer something to the street that can play a large role in creating conversation, connections, community.”
Programs for the public can be (and must be) even more nimble to responding to community needs than most aspects of the built environment. Mary Ann McHarg of CLP-Hazelwood said: “We are constantly evolving, taking another direction. [AEU] became really organic and, although Edith is at the helm, the community started bringing life to this project.”
Bishop-Root’s work at the Braddock Carnegie Library has also changed to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Take the Neighborhood Print Shop, for example. When Ruthie Stringer, adult library manager of Braddock Carnegie Library, and Bishop-Root first opened the shop, nobody came. They realized this was because the community had not asked for a print shop. So they had to rethink what the print shop was for and how it would benefit the community.
Bishop-Root and others working on the print shop realized its “real purpose was a place to get an idea out of your head and into the streets.” They kept the art-making function of the print shop but enhanced the purpose to provide tools for the community to communicate to each other and to a larger audience.
People who would never be in the same place were working side by side. “There was an artist, there was someone making an album cover, there was an elder making church T-shirts,” Bishop-Root said. “I was like, ‘This is it.’” Providing a space for multiple voices to use and reuse the resource of “making their voices heard” created continuity and connections.
In Braddock, Bishop-Root talked about the celebration of neighborhood and being a neighbor through “creating culture together, especially in a place like Braddock where the dominant narrative is that it is always lacking, without, scarcity. But no. The wealth is here, culture is here...there is an assumption of wealth and value.”
At AEU, Abeyta talked about celebration as a direct artistic practice. “We view art in a really broad context. Celebrations are really big here,” she said. As an example, she spoke of “taking the birthday party as a format for creative art expression to more traditional temporary public art.”
Chelsea Pitzarella of AEU explained how this abstract concept becomes tangible when “fixed-income families still have birthday parties thanks to Arts Excursion Unlimited." It has direct impact on the children of the community.
Imagine that moment when people you may not have ever invited to your birthday party are standing in a room, celebrating your existence, your life. Especially at a young age, the experience would reinforce how much the community values your presence.
These connections are summed up well by AEU‘s Andrea Coleman Betts: “When I was a child, I played connect the dots, so everything had a reason for one dot to [meet] another,” Betts said. “The reason I connected this dot is because I love books, I love art, I love people...” There is an “intergenerational value” of connecting the dots, Betts said.
True bridge building is connecting the dots of our shared and different experiences. It is when the saying, ‘Love thy neighbor, no exceptions,’ extends beyond the people you know on your street to neighbors you have never met, but in the end have the same desire and right to freedom, safety, opportunity and respect that you do.
Tereneh Idia is a designer and writer. They can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Kieran McLean.