First Stop: Pittsburgh!

We left DC the morning of Monday, September 18th, (almost) on time, after saying a tearful goodbye to the house we’ve lived for the past 2/4 years and that city that’s been our home for 6/25 years.

Pittsburgh was our first stop on our three week whirlwind tour of the Midwest and Rust Belt cities. And our first stop in Pittsburgh was The Big Idea, an independent, anti-profit bookstore. We resisted and didn’t buy any books!

Next we met with Barney Oursler, the Executive Director of Pittsburgh United. Barney is a veteran organizer who’s been in Pittsburgh since the ’70s. Pittsburgh United is a coalition of community, labor, faith, and environmental organizations that works through several convened tables of partner organizations on a variety of issues including affordable housing, environmental protection, and workers rights.

After the election Pittsburgh United added a new focus to their work and has hired a new team of organizers to start working in the exurban and rural counties outside of the city. They are interested (as are we) in areas that have been swing districts for the past several election cycles and communities that have been ignored or pushed out of traditional organizing.

We asked Barney was has kept him going for decades in organizing and he said, “continuing to find new ways to get things done.” His work has transformed from worker and union organizing to organizing with unemployed people and building committees and organizations with people out of work, to campaigns for a living wage for public employees, to now a focus on community benefits agreements that ensure communities get a fair deal in development projects.

Next was a listening session with PICC, the Pennsylvania Immigration Citizenship Coalition. PICC is starting a new program to train and support community navigators in immigrant and refugee communities in Pittsburgh and were seeking input from grassroots organizations about what kinds of skills it would be helpful to provide trainings for. We got to sit in and see a glimpse of the diverse immigrant and refugee communities in the city. PICC is starting a community navigator program inspired by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) navigator model, wherein it’s looking for leaders in immigrant communities that it can train in five skills/programs: ability to lead Know Your Rights workshops, deportation defense work, eligibility screenings for deportation relief, accessing and expediting naturalization, and facilitating meetings.

One inspiring group we learned about at the PICC session was a group of 10-15 Somali immigrants, mostly women, teaching each other the skills and processes necessary to get driver’s licenses and be able to drive. Another was an all-volunteer Somali community association engaging in advocacy, translation, education support, naturalization, legal access, cultural/language events, sports and helping with transportation. A frequent problem in Pittsburgh’s Somali community and other low-income immigrant communities is access to convenient transportation, as many lack legal status and/or language/literacy skills, so can’t get driver’s licenses.

After that we had drinks with our friend Ben, who we know from the growing Jewish anti-occupation movement IfNotNow. Ben is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh and is studying the impacts of violence and non-violence in social resistance. We had a fascinating and far reaching conversation about his work, which is critiquing the widely cited work of Erica Chenoweth by examining the nuanced and important historical place of movements that were in between violence and non-violence. Chenoweth argues that non-violent resistance is more effective than violence, using data that defines violent resistance solely as armed struggle, leaving no room for struggle that falls below the level of war. In an era where the main debates are over lower levels of political violence like riots and Nazi punching, it’s important that we take a rigorous look at if and when those tactics have been strategic in history. You can read more on Ben’s research here in Roar Magazine.

Last, we made our way to the home of Hilary, our awesome host who is also a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh; she studies the Occupy movement and its impact on people who were involved. In addition to being a badass activist and academic, Hilary and her partner Brandon have an adorable baby and dog who we got to spend some quality time with.

Next morning, on our way out of Pittsburgh we gave into temptation and visited the second independent bookstore of the trip, City of Asylum and bought two books to add to our already significant road trip library. The City of Asylum supports writers and artists who are political refugees and provides housing and some employment opportunities. We wandered about some of these beautiful houses in the Mexican War streets neighborhood. Photo up top: To the left is Pittsburgh-Burma house, with its mural inspired and painted by its Burmese political refugee residents. Visible is their interpretation of finding home in Pittsburgh; not visible on the other side of the building is the fear and violence they fled from in Burma. At right is Jazz House, its mural inspired by memories its resident jazz musician and composer has of a local neighborhood character.

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