All on board? Powerful Pittsburgh-area panels are more diverse, but progress is uneven

PublicSource’s Board Explorer reveals more representation for women and Black residents on panels that make many of the region’s decisions, but less progress on other minorities, young people.

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Left to right: Alberto Benzaquen, of Pittsburgh's Commission on Human Relations; Cori Frazer of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities; and Morgan Overton of the Gender Equity Commission are helping to diversify the region's power structure in ways that weren't even envisioned 15 years ago. (Photos by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Left to right: Alberto Benzaquen, of Pittsburgh's Commission on Human Relations; Cori Frazer of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities; and Morgan Overton of the Gender Equity Commission are helping to diversify the region's power structure in ways that weren't even envisioned 15 years ago. (Photos by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Women hold nearly half of the seats on major boards and commissions that make many decisions in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and Black residents hold more than one in every four, PublicSource has found as part of the year-long Board Explorer project.

Both figures represent steps toward greater diversity in the region’s power structure. In 2005, women occupied fewer than ⅓ of seats on county and city boards, according to a study done then by Carnegie Mellon University students in partnership with the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. Black residents held 23% of the seats for which the race of the member was known in 2005, but now hold 28%.

Presented with PublicSource’s findings, diversity advocates were united in one sentiment: Progress is no cause for complacency.

“That’s great that we are better than we were 15 years ago, but we’re probably still 15 years behind” in terms of overall inclusiveness, said Morgan Overton, 26, among the youngest panelists since her appointment this year to the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

PublicSource examined 56 boards and commissions and gathered data on the people who hold 474 seats on those panels. Among the findings:

  • In a county in which people age 20 to 39 make up 28% of the population, they hold just 18% of the seats for which PublicSource could determine the member’s age. People in their 60s, by contrast, are 13% of the county population but hold around 26% of seats.
  • People of Asian and Latino heritage — undetected in the 2005 study — now hold around 3% and 2% of board posts, respectively. That’s in line with the county’s demographics. Those backgrounds, though, are absent from many boards.
  • While many people do not disclose sexual orientation or gender identity publicly, and PublicSource did not gather data on LGBTQ representation on boards, advocates believe those voices are just beginning to be heard.
  • While women fill well over half of the seats on 23 city boards, they still hold just 43% of the seats on 33 county and joint city-county panels.

Boards and commissions vote on everything from transit service and economic development decisions to sewer improvements and the placement of shade trees. Most members are appointed by Mayor Bill Peduto or County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and approved by the city or county council.

Board Explorer allows citizens, for the first time, to easily explore the backgrounds of the members of these powerful panels. Board Explorer also provides information on public meetings and contact information for many members.

Heather Arnet,  CEO of the Women & Girls Foundation, said increased diversity at the board and commission level has brought more inclusive policymaking to many areas of city and county life. Panel seats are also important stepping stones that women and minorities can use to climb into more prominent civic roles, she said.

“We’ve seen some success," Arnet said. She noted that there are still panels that don’t include voices from across racial, ethnic, sexual and gender identity, disability and age spectrums. "We are not at equity, and certainly we have a lot of work to do.”

Does age matter? Morgan Overton and the case for millennials

Every generation has formative experiences that shape its perspectives. Overton, a community engagement and policy associate at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, believes that the millennial viewpoint can help the region to avoid pitfalls of the past.

Past generations “say they worked by the bootstraps, and they worked their way through college and were able to pay off student loans, and they were able to buy a house at 25, right?” she said, as she sat on a concrete bench near the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

Morgan Overton talks about her path to the Gender Equity Commission on the campus of her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Morgan Overton talks about her path to the Gender Equity Commission on the campus of her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

History had different plans for the millennials. “We’re not even 35 yet, and we have seen recessions, we have seen disastrous presidential elections, we’ve seen global implications,” she continued. That makes millennials “more equipped to kind of push things along, so that our future generations aren’t going through a broken record.”

Local government, though, can be as repetitive as a timeworn vinyl LP. The typical member of the 56 boards reviewed by PublicSource was born in 1963. County and county/city board members average around 60 years of age, while the average city panelist is 50.

“When you see a certain group of people, part of a certain generation, they look a certain way, think a certain way, that sends a message, right?” Overton said. “It seems like they’re the only ones who can even have the power to have the power.”

Whereas young adult Pittsburghers may have seemed an endangered species a few decades ago, that population has rebounded somewhat. Has that earned them seats at the grown-up table?

“We don’t see that being translated into seeing young people being in positions of power,” said Katie Phillips, the advocacy and public policy coordinator for PUMP, created in 1995 to make Pittsburgh more attractive to people under 40. PUMP is preparing a new Lead the Change Project that will aim to address that by matchmaking young adults to civic roles.

Board and commission seats are volunteer posts that typically meet during the work day, often Downtown. That’s perfect for retirees or late-career professionals who can skip out of work for an afternoon, but not convenient for many young professionals and parents.

“These situations are unpaid and it takes a lot of time, so a lot of working class people, a lot of people who are trying to survive, may not have the ability, even if they have the interest, to serve,” said Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy at 1Hood Media.

Arnet said there's a case to be made for modest stipends for board members, which might make service more viable for people of modest means. She added that the COVID-19-driven move toward virtual board meetings could, if it continues, make it easier for some busy people to serve on panels.

Overton attended her first meeting of the Gender Equity Commission virtually.

She was on the city’s radar in part because she interned for city Chief of Staff Dan Gilman when he was a city councilman, and later interned in Peduto’s office. She ran into Peduto at an event last year and shared her thoughts on community engagement. This year, Gilman called and “said, ‘Mayor Peduto would like to know: Would you like to serve on the Gender Equity Commission?’ I’m like, ‘Is that even a question?’”

Confirmed by city council in July, she chairs the commission’s Equity Action Planning Committee, which is reviewing city operations and seeking to establish liaisons with each department. She hopes the effort will lift up women, minorities, and everybody else.

“If you address disparities for the most-impacted people,” she said, “it’s going to feed out as a victory for everybody else, right?”

Are LGBTQ voices heard? Cori Frazer won’t hide

Cori Frazer, of Wilkinsburg, showed up for a conversation in Frick Park wearing a shirt honoring feminists Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis and bell hooks. Frazer, though, does not identify as female, but rather as non-binary.

“I don’t fit neatly into this world as a multiply disabled non-binary person," said Frazer, 29, a county appointee to the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, and also the executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Austistic Advocacy. Representing multiple marginalized communities “is painful, and it’s a lot of work. But I guess my other choice is to hide, and that doesn’t feel like much of a choice.”

Cori Frazer stands near a tennis court fence in Frick Park. A non-binary person, they aim to break down barriers for disabled individuals. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Cori Frazer stands near a tennis court fence in Frick Park. A non-binary person, they aim to break down barriers for disabled individuals. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

At one task force meeting, Frazer recounted, a guest was "talking some really pro-institutionalization talking points, and ablesplaining some things. I was in the room and was able to interrupt that and say, ‘This is not the way we’re going to talk about autism at this table.’ … And the task force has done better since.”

Frazer added, though, that the City-County Task Force on Disabilities “feels like it doesn’t have teeth, frankly.” It communicates with officials, but has not, during their three years on the board, fulfilled its mission of advising the city and county on legislation, Frazer said. They'd like to see the commission build bridges to the city and county councils and municipalities "and actually fulfill that [role] as an advisory body. But I think right now, nobody is calling on us, or knows that we’re there.”

Frazer’s path to activism began at age 16, when they organized a Day of Silence to oppose and expose bullying of LGBTQ students at West Greene High School, outside of Waynesburg.

Advocates for LGBTQ communities indicate that those populations are represented on some boards, though there does not appear to be definitive data. “A lot of people still have to serve in secrecy so they don’t face discrimination,” based on LGBTQ status, said Miracle Jones, a member of the city’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council. (City Council voted in July to replace that advisory council with a permanent, 11-member commission, charged by legislation to "develop action plans to address challenges facing LGBTQIA+ residents and visitors.” Members have not been appointed, so that panel is not yet included in Board Explorer.)

How could intersectional representation on pivotal boards make a difference?

As an example, Frazer pointed to their partial-fare bus pass. Granted in light of their disabilities, it has “a big F on it,” for female, a characterization at odds with their identity. “Why do you need to disclose my genitals every time I get on a bus?”

The Port Authority of Allegheny County began, in February, to review options including eliminating gender references from its partial-fare passes, or including a third option — perhaps an X. That process was put on hold as the transit agency grappled with the coronavirus, according to spokesman Adam Brandolph. He said the authority expects to revisit that discussion soon.

In the meantime, reduced-fare passes remain salmon-colored, with an M for males, and green with an F for females — and for Frazer, who said that’s “a little strange!”

Should representation match demographics? Liv Bennett asks who boards serve

The Port Authority’s board is, unusually, partly appointed by Fitzgerald, and partly by state leaders. It is now 20% Black, 80% white.

Is that a representative mix? That depends on whether the measuring stick is the county’s demographics, or the breakdown of riders on buses and light rail cars. An analysis of ridership done by Port Authority in May showed that 28% of the agency's clientele were African American, with another 10% from other racial or ethnic minorities.

That kind of data should be considered when making board appointments, said Liv Bennett, a county council member. "Who's that board serving, and what are the demographics of that particular thing that we're trying to serve?” she asked. “That's what representation means, and that's where it matters."

Bennett said she and Bethany Hallam, both elected last year, have increased council’s scrutiny of board appointments. Board Explorer data indicates that county boards have lagged behind their city counterparts on the road to diversity, especially in terms of gender.

Arnet gave Fitzgerald’s administration credit for the executive level leadership at the Port Authority, Airport Authority and Health Department.

The prevalence of men on county panels, and the higher average age, may be a reflection of lower turnover.

PublicSource was able to determine the exact or approximate dates on which 430 of the board seats were filled. The average tenure of members on county and county/city boards is around 6.7 years, versus 3.6 years for city panels. Put another way, at least 54 county or county/city board members have held their seats for 10 years or more, while only 13 city panelists have been in those roles for a decade or more.

Bennett said that some longtime board members are “worth their salt,” while others “just don't have the will or energy to live out the mission of the boards to which they are appointed."

She added: “We are a region who wants to sit in a seat until we're buried.”

What do immigrant groups offer? Alberto Benzaquen’s Thunderbolt to influence

Alberto Benzaquen’s road from washing dishes to combating discrimination went directly through Kennywood.

A native of Venezuela who earned his masters of business administration there, Benzaquen immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. He climbed from toiling in the sinks and kitchens at restaurants in Florida, to working in international purchasing, to auditing spending for Pennsylvania’s Department of the Auditor General.

Not long after his 2012 move to Pittsburgh, he attended a job fair and met someone who worked for Kennywood. “I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about [having a] Kennywood Latino Day?’” he recounted to PublicSource. He then volunteered to organize one.

It came to fruition in 2013. “I put all of the pieces together,” Benzaquen said. “All of the politicians. All of the food trucks.“

Alberto Benzaquen, a native of Venezuela, has found his place on Mount Washington and on Pittsburgh's Commission on Human Relations. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Alberto Benzaquen, a native of Venezuela, has found his place on Mount Washington and on Pittsburgh's Commission on Human Relations. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Annual Latino Kennywood Days put Benzaquen in regular contact with Peduto, Fitzgerald and other officials. Early this year, Gilman asked him to serve on the city’s Human Relations Commission, which investigates allegations of discrimination. City council confirmed him in July.

The number of seats held by Latinos (eight) is inflated somewhat by businessman Victor H. Diaz, who sits on three county boards.

“I think it’s a good effort, but the job’s not done,” said Rosamaria Cristello, executive director and founder of the Latino Community Center, and a September appointee to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Census data suggests that 6% of Allegheny County's population is foreign born, and around 8% of the citizenry speaks a language other than English at home.

Board members who are Latinos, or members of other demographic groups made up largely of recent immigrants or their children, have to shoulder a heavy load, Cristello said. “For any one of us who is in the city right now, serving, it can be pretty exhausting being the person in the room constantly reminding people that not just Latinos, but immigrants are here, and the ways of thinking in the past need to be adjusted,” she said.

If emerging populations are represented, that benefits everyone, Cristello contended.

Policy rooted in diversity is “going to be more rich. It’s going to be more inclusive,” she said. “Then in turn, that’s going to attract more people to the region because they’re going to see themselves in the infrastructure, they’re going to see themselves in the design of the city, how the city functions.”

Benzaquen, 53, of Mount Washington, prefers a kitchen metaphor to describe the qualities immigrants bring to the table. “Like a salad,” he said, “you have everything to make it taste good, so, all of the backgrounds, ways of thinking, experiences.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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