Panelists at the COWS report forum. Image courtesy of 32BJ.

Yesterday, the August Wilson Center hosted a community panel focused on finding solutions to the city’s affordable housing, civil rights, economic development, job and transportation woes. The forum revolved around findings presented in A Pittsburgh That Works for Working People, a new report by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) examining how these issues impact Pittsburgh and its future. The panel featured economists, local community leaders and elected officials, as well as representatives from the service workers union 32BJ SEIU.

We spoke with study author Satya Rhodes-Conway and 32BJ district leader Sam Williamson about the event and what role the COWS report can play in Pittsburgh’s continued improvement.

What major points about the report’s findings did the panel find the most interesting?

Williamson: All the panelists spoke to the underlying reality that we’re still struggling with deep economic inequity in Pittsburgh and nationally. And that the report reveals what we also know to be true, that were continuing to deal with the effects of long-term structural racism across the board. The panelists spoke to the ways in which the areas are interrelated and the need to develop strategies that address all of these areas all at one time.

Attendees at the COWS report forum. Photo courtesy of 32BJ.
Attendees at the COWS report forum. Photo courtesy of 32BJ.

Why do you think non-white workers are having difficulty finding jobs now as opposed to back when manufacturing and steel jobs were more prominent?

Rhodes-Conway: From a national perspective there’s a couple patterns that we see there. One pattern is about training and education. It’s not necessarily about the most advanced degree, but the availability of the appropriate training. If that’s not available it’s very hard to see a diverse group of folks moving into the tech workforce. There are things companies can obviously do on both fronts to diversify their workforces, and that’s something that Pittsburgh will have to look at. And it is something the panel brought up, the importance of the right workforce development and training opportunities.

W: They didn’t have to have a whole lot of extra training in order to make the steel industry the foundation of the middle-class in Pittsburgh. And those jobs were driving poverty in Pittsburgh in the 1920s the same way that service jobs in hospitals, food service and home healthcare are today. What changed is workers changed those jobs. The same can be done for the service-based economy. And that would balance out the tale of two Pittsburghs that we see right now, where we have some people doing really well because of the mini-tech boom and a lot of people being left behind.

In terms of affordable housing, the Penn Plaza demolition is a topic that has come up quite a bit. How can the city avoid similar situations like Penn Plaza?

RC: When you look around the country at the best practices, they include making sure that you are constructing replacement units first so that when you tear down a building, you’re not just scattering people to the winds and saying good luck. That’s definitely something that other cities have done, and some of them do it through legislation or use other leverage.

W: One of the things recommended in the report is strengthening tenant protection and making sure we are codifying some notice and displacement assistance so that if hundreds of people are being displaced, they shouldn’t be given just a few weeks notice. That should be the norm. We also have a deficit of affordable housing stock in Pittsburgh and we need to fill that void with units.

Which areas cited in the report have you seen the most improvement, and which ones do you think need the most work?

W: I would say the most amount of discussion in terms of organizing is in jobs and housing. Pittsburghers for Pubic Transit has done an incredible amount of work. The Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) has been actively engaged with the police chief and the police department looking at ways to improve relations between police and African American communities, and also Pittsburgh’s growing immigrant population.

We’ve got a progressive city council, we’ve got a progressive mayor who actually wants to work with residents and community activists and organizations to tackle all these huge problems. So there is community momentum and there’s the political will to get it done.

RC: One of the things that I noticed doing the background research for this report is that there’s a real moment of opportunity in Pittsburgh, both because of the organizing that is happening and because of some of the progress that has been made at the city level. There is an opportunity to shift the direction of the city government and the community as a whole in a more positive way. What I hope this report does is bring up this urgency that this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.