Nekeisha Carter returned to Pittsburgh from Atlanta four years ago to live in the small home on Homewood’s Hamilton Avenue where she grew up as a child. Shortly afterward, she got wind of a new program designed to give Homewood residents a stronger voice in their community’s future.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work was partnering with the Homewood Children’s Village (HCV) to make sure that local residents were going to be collaborators in the development and potential revitalization of their neighborhood.
The project was called Research for Equity and Power (REP).
Funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service and directed by Mary Ohmer, associate professor of social work, and Shannah Tharp-Gilliam, director of HCV’s Office of Research and Evaluation, the REP team was hard at work. Homewood resident Donnell Pearl was brought on as a community researcher. The team, along with a Community Advisory Board conducted neighborhood outreach and engaged more than 30 residents, young and old, in community conversations about neighborhood change and equitable development in Homewood. Carter, who took part in those conversations, was liking what she saw and heard.
Especially when Pitt Associate Vice Chancellor of Community Engagement Lina Dostilio handed out her card at a meeting and encouraged residents to call her personal number with any questions.
“A lot of people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” said Carter. “For her to give us her personal information that way—that was a big deal.”
Last fall, nine students from Ohmer’s Community-Based Participatory Research class conducted a neighborhood analysis on Homewood’s current issues, led focus groups at Pitt’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) on N. Homewood Ave., and came away with three major themes — relationship building, transparency, and community benefits — the very themes Ohmer hopes to foster through the REP project. Ohmer engaged residents from REP, including Carter, to form an advisory board for the class to provide feedback to her students.
All of this work is important because some fear Homewood, with its easy access to Downtown, universities and the Google complex, is ripe for gentrification. In 2013-2014, 42% of its land parcels were tax delinquent. Across Pittsburgh, average monthly rents have been creeping upward, along with housing values.
So how does the REP team work to make Homewood a healthy safe opportunity-rich neighborhood for its lower-wealth residents without seeing them displaced? The theme driving REP is equitable development — a strategy that ensures everyone participates in and benefits from a region’s transformation, especially people of color, immigrants, and those at risk of being left behind. The goal is a slow and steady revitalization of Homewood, done from the bottom up, with possible support from the public and private sector.
Pearl has been working with the residents but admits some people are wary when they hear about yet another well-intentioned partner stepping in to help.
“Anything new, after a long time, feels a bit suspicious to them,” he said. “It just comes from not having things. But when a long-term commitment comes in, then people feel more at ease.”
Ohmer is building on the long-term commitment Pitt made when it established the CEC in October of 2018. The Center has hosted close to 700 events, attracted thousands of visitors, and has a slate of robust programming. She says the tools for success moving forward are in the REP Equitable Development Playbook — a thick colorful book of worksheets, charts, and checklists that lays out a roadmap for residents to help influence change in their community.
This month the REP team is introducing the playbook to teens at the virtual training for the Summer Learn and Earn Program. It’s being introduced to others in various Zoom meetings and a Citizen Training Academy is also being formed. Residents have been attending Pittsburgh City Council meetings, getting involved in programs that support homeowners and sitting down with leaders of non-profits who are experienced in gentrification issues.
“Equity is even more important during these difficult times,” said Ohmer. “If our REP team can equip residents to advocate for equitable development in their community, then we have contributed to the fight for equity. Eventually, we hope to share our strategies and lessons learned with other Pittsburgh neighborhoods facing similar issues.”
Said Carter: “Revitalization matters because when you don’t have pride and a sense of peace where you live, it overlaps into other areas of your life.”
Overall, the REP efforts seem to be breathing new life into the mindset of Homewood residents.
“I knew there were issues here, “added Carter at a recent Zoom meeting. “But I didn’t realize how much of an impact we could actually have.”
Strategies for success
Homewood residents are embracing these playbook tools to effect positive change:
- Engage other people in your community who care about the issue.
- Find a common interests between what you want and what others want.
- Read existing plans on neighborhood issues; use that data as evidence to influence others.
- Work together to develop and implement strategies to influence potential partners and/or opponents
- Consider approaches to engage your ally or influence your opponent—flyers, petitions, radio ads, door-knocking, social media, e-blasts, etc.