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Western Pennsylvania communities are facing many of the same challenges today as they did decades ago — and if leaders don’t focus on the root causes of those problems, the challenges will persist for generations into the future.
That was the message of speakers participating in a forum Thursday organized by Penn State Greater Allegheny.
“We tend to place the blame on the people, instead of on the problem, or the institutions or policies that created those policies,” said Dannai Wilson, program manager of maternal and child health with the Allegheny County Health Department. “It’s not a people’s issue. It’s a systemic issue.”
Wilson was one of four participants in the forum that discussed the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of racial inequities for women of color as part of the McKeesport campus’s annual “Crossing Bridges Summit.”
This year’s theme examined questions about Black women’s health that were raised in the 2019 Pittsburgh Inequality Report from the University of Pittsburgh.
“If we do not get serious and intentional about changing policies and systems, somebody else is going to be talking about (these issues) 10 years and 20 years from now,” said Tammy Thompson, poverty expert and executive producer of Circles of Greater Pittsburgh.
The discussion was moderated by Johnathan White, Ph.D, a lecturer of history at PSGA. Other panelists included Germaine Gooden-Patterson, a community health worker for Women for a Healthy Environment; Jim Kelly, deputy director of the bureau of environmental health with the Allegheny County Health Department.
The discussion dealt with issues of systemic race inequities as they appear in the greater Pittsburgh area. The opening question, directed toward Wilson, asked her to share her perspective on the implications of the University of Pittsburgh’s report on women in the Mon Valley as it relates to social, economic and environmental impacts.
Wilson said that while the report did a good job of letting the public know about poor outcomes for Black women in the city of Pittsburgh — for instance, Black women in Pittsburgh are more likely to live in poverty, and to die in childbirth, than in most other cities — there were shortfalls.
One of them, Wilson said, was the report’s focus on the City of Pittsburgh and not on the surrounding area.
“It only included one city,” said Wilson. “We have to do a similar report in the Mon Valley to understand what is really happening to black women in the Mon Valley.”
Other panelists echoed Wilson’s viewpoint that systems and policies that lead to unequal treatment, generational poverty and discrimination need to be disrupted.
“We dwell on the financial aspect of poverty because it’s easy,” said Thompson. “But the reality is, poverty is much, much deeper than how much money somebody has.”
Thompson said practices such as red-lining — preventing Black families from purchasing homes in predominantly white neighborhoods — kept generations of families from attaining stable, middle-class incomes.
“The longer people are exposed to the type of trauma that you must endure to survive in poverty — the longer people are in that space of not having their most basic needs met — the deeper the trauma, and the pain, and the long-term agony that will impact their ability to see themselves in opportunity,” Thompson said.
An absence of commercial development in poor communities, including lack of supermarkets and limited access to fresh food, can lead to pervasive health issues, Gooden-Patterson said.
Environmental racism also plays a role, she said. She used nearby Clairton as an example.
The city, which has a high concentration of air pollution due to U.S. Steel’s coke works, is 39 percent Black.
“If you're exposed to these pollutants on a daily basis, it’s going to affect your health,” said Gooden-Patterson. “If you're here for a lifetime, it’s going to be a slow mortality.”
Communities such as Clairton need investments that feed both body and mind, she said.
“If you don't have anything in your community that will feed your mind, body and your spirit, then you are not going to thrive,” said Gooden-Patterson.
And, Gooden-Patterson said, the investment needs to happen in ways that don’t push out current residents through “gentrification” — making the community too expensive to live in.
“When you invest in (poor communities), don't push (residents) out,” said Gooden-Patterson. “Let us reap the benefits that we deserve.”
As a representative of the Allegheny County Health Department, Kelly said it is important for leaders to give residents of marginalized communities the opportunity to have a voice.
“One of the issues with racism is — you just get hammered,” Kelly said. “You’re the bottom of the barrel, and your voice is being drowned out by people who don’t even live there.”
The forum opened with a message from Jacqueline Edmondson, PSGA chancellor and chief academic officer.
She said the 2020 Crossing Bridges Summit is a series of four seminars — Thursday’s was the second.
“The purpose of the Crossing Bridges Summit is for our campus to serve as a catalyst for change as we work to bridge the racial divides in our region,” said Edmondson.
White gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions. Panelists answered questions regarding who to talk to about environmental challenges, how to find resources, and what the health department plans to do to ensure compliance with environmental regulations by large industrial polluters.
For more information on the Crossing Bridges Summit, visit the Penn State website.
Siana Emery is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s South Hilltop. She has also written for The Mennonite World Review, Goshen College Communications and Marketing and The Goshen College Record. This is her first story for Tube City Almanac.
Originally published December 13, 2020.