A Front Door to Pitt Opens in Homewood

  • Homewood community member Jaden McDougald (left) chatted with Marcus Poindexter (SOCWK ’18G), teaching assistant in the School of Social Work, outside the CEC before the ribbon cutting. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • A large tent was set up on Homewood Avenue outside the CEC. More than 400 people attended the grand opening celebration on Oct. 18. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Chancellor Patrick Gallagher hands it off to John Wallace — David E. Epperson Endowed Chair and professor in the School of Social Work, the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and the Department of Sociology in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • State Rep. Ed Gainey kept his remarks short: "I can think of no better way than this," describing the partnership between the University and the Homewood community. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left, Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for community and governmental relations; Lina Dostilio, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement; and Daren Ellerbee, director of the CEC in Homewood. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • And the ribbon is cut! Pitt's first Community Engagement Center is officially open. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • CEC in Homewood Director Daren Ellerbee embraces Andrea Stanford, assistant county manager for Allegheny County. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Quentin "C.B." Perry has three paintings up in the gallery at the CEC in Homewood. Gallery pieces will rotate as they're sold. Perry is a pre-K teacher by day and an artist by night and is hoping to make the jump to full-time artist soon. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • The Rhythm Experience and Africana Culture Trial (REACT!) will host classes at the CEC in the spring for older African-Americans ages 60-80, three times per week for six months. Chrisala Brown, a REACT! staff member and choreographer, leads a dance demonstration while a crowd gathers to watch. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Homewood community members Bonita Frankin and daughter Byazhia sift through boxes of feathers to make masks during the Oct. 18 grand opening of the Homewood Community Engagement Center. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Marcus Poindexter stood outside under a tent in crisp air before the ribbon cutting, taking it all in.

As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, Poindexter could see Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning from his bedroom window, but the opportunity to learn there seemed out of reach for a long time, he said. It’s an experience he knows a lot of kids from Homewood share.

Now a PhD (SOCWK ’18G) passionate about health equity and community involvement, Poindexter gets to point to Pitt’s new Community Engagement Center in Homewood, a building where people from his neighborhood can now come for free and benefit from programs, classes, services and events designed specifically for them.

By the numbers: before the doors opened

  • More than 300 planning meetings
  • Minimum 15-year commitment of partnership with the neighborhood
  • Building renovations done by only local contractors, and 40 percent of contracts are with minority and women-owned businesses
  • Contractors are 37 percent minority labor employed
  • A 33-member neighborhood advisory council
  • An internal advisory committee representing all 16 Pitt schools

“It’s surreal,” he said.

More than 400 faces, young and old, packed inside and outside 622 N. Homewood Ave. Thursday evening, Oct. 18, for the grand opening of the first CEC. But the evening was about much more than celebrating the newly renovated address.

The project was developed in “direct response to community members saying that they’d value a more in-depth relationship with Pitt,” said Daren Ellerbee (A&S ’04), director of the Homewood CEC.

It’s guided by a 33-member neighborhood advisory council, and an internal advisory committee representing all 16 Pitt Schools and other University entities like PittServes.

Planning for a second CEC in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with its own neighborhood advisory council, has begun.

The goal is to combine the community’s agenda and wisdom with the University’s resources to open new doors for growth and opportunity to area residents.

At the grand opening, Rachelle Haynik, a research and evaluation coordinator for Pitt-Assisted Communities and Schools (PACS), said a woman came up to her, overwhelmed, with tears in her eyes. “She was saying it’s been so long that the CEC has been in progress and there’s been a lot of promises made. She was really excited that they’re finally coming to fruition.”

Why this, why now?

Pitt is engaged in hundreds of community collaborations and research projects across the city it calls home.

Grounded by the CEC’s, Pitt’s neighborhood commitments “are an opportunity for a consistent presence and a consistent face in the community, which will allow folks on the ground here to build relationships with Pitt that will hopefully last a long time,” Ellerbee said.

“The 15-year lease means that there are 3rd graders right now who should have a pipeline to Pitt, if we get this right,” she said.

And while they might not make that choice in the end, noted Esohe Osai, director of the PACS in the School of Social Work, a certain gap is bridged through this partnership. The Homewood community has access to “Pittsburgh’s University,” as Ellerbee calls it, right in their own backyard.

Ellerbee, who grew up in the East Hills and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, takes her position seriously. “As someone who’s from this place and very familiar with the Black experience in Pittsburgh, having the opportunity to make my family proud, to make my alma mater proud, means everything. I see the potential, more importantly.”

“It’s all about being at a space in time where the community is revitalizing,” said Ellerbee. “I’d like to think that the people who I interact with on the ground in Homewood could see themselves in me.”

“The folks in Homewood deserve something like this. We’ve done our best to leave no stone unturned.”

The CEC in Homewood is not just for Homewood residents, though. Anyone interested in the programs and services is welcome.

Expertise and services

The CEC in Homewood will offer programs for area children, adults, seniors and families — everything from summer science camps and after-school support to career development opportunities and job fairs.

It will also be home to a study of the beneficial effects of African dance, culture and music classes for older African Americans.

The PACS program has dedicated space in the building, and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, part of Pitt’s Innovation Institute, will provide business development consultation onsite.  

The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences will provide links to job opportunities, hiring initiatives, networking events and interview prep — something Ellerbee is particularly excited about as an alum-turned-Pitt employee herself.

The second phase of the CEC in Homewood is scheduled to open in fall 2019, and will offer wellness services ranging from physical therapy to medication consultations and mental health care.

A full schedule of programs and events will be maintained on the CEC website. To learn more about Pitt’s Neighborhood Commitments, visit the website and check out the FAQ. To keep current, follow the CEC in Homewood on Twitter and Facebook