Pittsburgh community organizer Thelma Lovette is a legend in the Hill District. A civil rights monument stands at the corner where she and her neighbors hopped on a bus to the nation’s capital to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. Back then, it was already known as “Freedom Corner.”
Lovette, who died in 2014, was the first woman to serve on the YMCA board of management. The Hill District YMCA, which opened in 2012, was named in her honor. According to one account, as president of the board of directors of the Hill District CDC, Lovette would sometimes use her family’s money to pay the organization’s bills.
Rhonda Lockett was just 4 when her family moved to the Hill District, to the 2900 block of Webster Avenue. Her parents joined a block club that Lovette helped start. “They met once a week,” she says.
After a stint living and working in Washington, D.C., Lockett returned to the block 35 years ago, and now works as a teaching aide at St. Benedict the Moor school, two blocks away. For whatever reason, people moving away or dying, or worse, getting evicted or locked up, that block club became inactive.
So after organizers with FOCUS Pittsburgh, an Orthodox Christian service group in the neighborhood, helped Lockett resolve a house mold situation earlier this year, they asked for a favor.
“They asked if I could pull the neighbors together for a meeting,” Lockett says. “So I pulled about 10 neighbors together.”
One of them was Cheryl Larry, a retired educator who raised two sons on the 2900 block of Webster Avenue.
“She says, ‘I want you to come to a meeting at my house. I want you to listen to information about this program, what it would do, how it would impact our block.’ Having known her for most of my life, since elementary school, I had no choice but to say of course,” Larry says.
The program in this case is FOCUS Pittsburgh’s Trauma Informed Community Development. It’s a community-led planning process that aims to work with a neighborhood one block at a time, resulting in the whole neighborhood becoming an active player in larger economic development discussions. It has a unique starting point: recognizing and validating the emotional and psychological trauma that years, even generations of living in poverty inflicts upon each individual and a community as a whole. Starting with that is the key to long-term community development.
FOCUS Pittsburgh began a conversation about community trauma about five years ago, according to Director Rev. Paul Abernathy.
“We really began to ask are we healthy enough to sustain opportunity. People get jobs, they lose jobs; they get housing and lose housing,” Abernathy remembers. “It was really an incredible moment because what had happened, people had shared such incredibly raw stories, it essentially de-stigmatized the issue,” he says.
Says Lockett, “Many of us have faced trauma, but we have faced trauma in many ways other than through tragedy.”
To turn those conversations into a plan for action, FOCUS Pittsburgh reached out to partners at Duquesne University, who suggested using the same facilitation technique that the World Health Organization uses with high-level experts and policymakers to determine a plan of action. It’s called a consultative workshop.
“What this complicated workshop does is, it problematizes issues,” Abernathy explains. “People want to deal with education, they want to deal with drug violence, they want to deal with hunger, with poverty. But within those there are several problems, and understanding what the problems are gives us the ability to address them one at a time. That’s what the consultative workshops did.”
The main problem that first consultative workshop identified: The existing model of community organizing was antiquated and deficient.
“It was such a focus on agitation and also trying to get people to buy into already established political agendas,” says Abernathy. “The old community organizing model in a traumatized community is more destructive because of the emphasis on agitation in a population that is already hypersensitive.”
FOCUS Pittsburgh decided to craft a new model, informed by the notion that years of community and individual trauma needed to be recognized and validated. Trauma could come from chronic underemployment, unstable housing, involvement in the criminal justice system, periodic homelessness, drug addiction or even a mold issue in one’s home. Whether it affected someone directly or indirectly through a parent, sibling or neighbor, healing trauma has to be part of the process, and it has to be recognized at the start.
“There are certain things that you’ve got to address before you can begin to talk about development, but understanding that it’s all the pathway to development, having a broader understanding of what development means,” Abernathy says.
It makes perfect sense to Larry.
“As a retired teacher, I say you never know what baggage a child may come to you with. Until you unload some of that, it’s pretty hard to teach them two plus two,” Larry says. “Same with adults. Until you can unload some of that baggage that they have, [only] then they can start to deal with other things.”
The organizers who helped Lockett resolve her mold issue were part of this new breed of community organizer that FOCUS Pittsburgh trained. There were nine in the first cohort, six from the Hill District and three from elsewhere. They had different educational backgrounds, from people with GEDs up to people with master’s degrees. After 15 weeks of training, they went out in pairs. (In this approach, the ideal team is thought to be one man and one woman, for sensitive conversations that might be more comfortable with a certain gender.) The goal is to find a block where at least three-quarters of the residents can commit to being part of the initiative.
“Once they select a block, those two stay with that block through the duration of the intervention, which we expect to be about a year long,” Abernathy explains.
The 2900 block of Webster Avenue was the first to reach the threshold, thanks to the outreach efforts by Lockett, Larry and the other neighbors in that first meeting in Lockett’s home. The block held its consultative workshop on June 11 this year.
“To kick it all off, we set up a tent in the street so that it’s highly visible, it’s right there in that block for people to come to, and it becomes a real moment in the history of that block,” says Abernathy.
It was a diverse group, according to Lockett and Larry. Age-wise, race-wise, retirees and working-age adults, kids, renters and homeowners, landlords who don’t live in the neighborhood but own property there, even the police department. About 40 residents live on the block, Lockett and Larry estimate.
The goal of the June 11 conversation: to create a HOPE plan for the block (HOPE stands for health and well-being, opportunity making, placemaking and engaging influencers), outlining problems as well as goals, and both positive and negative influences on the block from within and from outside. The plan starts with each resident coming up with an individual HOPE plan to inform the block’s HOPE plan.
The block meets about once a month to report on progress to each other. Team captains for each of the HOPE segments of the plan coordinate other meetings in between to connect with resources from FOCUS Pittsburgh and its partners on the project. The whole group takes turns serving as block co-chair, leading meetings and following up on tasks as needed. Lockett and Larry are the inaugural co-chairs for the 2900 block of Webster Avenue.
“It’s important that we are able to understand how great we are, that sense of self and accomplishment, so that we’re creating a place for today but also for tomorrow,” Larry says. It’s especially important, Lockett and Larry say, as development begins to encroach on the historically black Hill District. They want to welcome development without having to leave the block they’ve cherished for decades.
“Even though development is great, we want to make sure our interests are protected, not just those of the developers,” says Larry.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.