Project by Katz Alumnus Highlights Young Black Leaders, Creates Community Ties

Brian Burley standing on a bridge over a river, elbows on railing, in checked shirt and blue jacketIn the fall of 2016, just after a Saturday morning mentoring session with teenagers, an idea sparked for health care consultant Brian Burley. A high school junior, dismayed about what she thought were too-frequent negative portrayals of African-Americans in news media, had asked what could be done.

Burley’s response was to launch YNGBLKPGH (Young Black Pittsburgh), a project that the 2013 alumnus of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business calls a book of inspiration turned social enterprise and community movement to provide hope for the next generation. In June, the project helped Burley get to the Harvard Business School, where he spent a week with 140 civic-minded trailblazers in the Young American Leaders Program.

That experience, said Burley, “showed me that my thoughts about leadership, millennials and young Black leadership, in particular, aren’t just Pittsburgh issues, but national ones that this country needs to and is taking more time to address.” 

The seeds of Burley’s work began in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he still lives. He said his first aim was to counter the prevailing negative stereotypes associated with African-Americans, foster collective empowerment among Black millennials and close the city’s achievement gap. A 2015 study from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems found that just 69 percent of Black females and 58 percent of Black males graduated from Pittsburgh Public Schools within four years, which, in comparison to their white peers, exhibits a respective 11 and 18 percent disparity.

“Hope and representation are what I truly believe can change things,” said Burley. “Everyone, not just children, needs to see these new leaders as assets and not just what they may believe from the news.”

With those goals, Burley compiled a book filled with positive stories meant to help guide the next generation. It took a year, but the resulting coffee-table book “YNGBLKPGH,” published in 2017, showcases more than 140 African-American professionals under the age of 40.

“This project is not your traditional ‘Best and Brightest List,’” said Burley. “We wanted to depict a variety of careers and vocations that are available to Black professionals in Pittsburgh because you never know whose story is going to inspire a young person.”

At Katz, Burley received the BNY Mellon Corporate Social Responsibility Fellowship, which places students within local organizations to explore the impact of socially responsible actions by a business on its organizational effectiveness. He then went on to learn key lessons as a branch manager with PNC Bank, as a consultant with medical supply management firm Aesynt/Omnicell, and as a member of local boards.

“The ability and thought that go into managing a multi-pronged project was something that I felt the fellowship and my time at Katz really helped me with,” Burley said.

They were all skills that would help him navigate the success of the YNGBLKPGH project. Burley has been recognized for his “40 under 40” accomplishments by Pittsburgh Magazine and the New Pittsburgh Courier.

The YNGBLKPGH community has grown to more than 3,000 followers and advocates. They engage and share ideas in forums and build synergy on how to move forward in Pittsburgh. YNGBLKPGH has formed several partnerships with community organizations — including the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, Leadership Pittsburgh and 1Nation Mentoring. And, so far, the movement and book have led to more than 80 business relationships, opening doors of opportunity for young lawyers, teachers and other African-Americans to start and grow their careers in Pittsburgh.

The members of YNGBLKPGH have helped to launch Philanthropy LLC, which has started more than 15 scholarship funds and awarded more than $10,000 to students from local communities.  

Since it was published in April 2017, the book has been incorporated into several local school libraries and classrooms. In June 2017, every student at Urban Academy, the city’s oldest charter school, received a copy of “YNGBLKPGH.” It has also been adopted as required reading for some classes at Community College of Allegheny County and has been used at the Center for Urban Education at Pitt’s School of Education.

“It was always my belief that the book was the right thing at the right time,” said Burley, “and that we must continue forward with this work. It’s entirely too important.”