What do you get when you put five dynamic innovators shaping community on a warm stage on a freezing night in Pittsburgh? A great discussion, for one, and a chance to engage a packed room on a very important topic.

Such was the scene Feb. 28th at the Hill House at The NEXTpittsburgh event co-sponsored by Imagine Pittsburgh.com when five forward-thinking innovators shared ideas on ways the region can become a more welcoming place.

All those featured acknowledged that creating a culture of diversity in a region known to be among the least diverse in the country has it challenges. But the needle is moving, albeit slowly, assisted by an influx of people. The population is rising for the first time in decades. The median age of the average resident is now 33, two years below the national average. And with that has come more diversity.

For many years, Pittsburgh was a place where decisions by leaders filtered from the top down, said Bill Flanagan, moderator, of Imagine Pittsburgh.com. “Today the top hasn’t gone away, but there’s a lot more listening at the grassroots level.”

The five innovators exemplify this very grassroots spirit:

Nathan Mallory opened a coffee shop in Brookline that buzzes with arts, cultural and workforce events all week long.

Diwas Timsina, a Bhutanese refugee, founded a youth-run nonprofit, The Children of Shangri Lost, in Pittsburgh to raise awareness of the plight of refugees.

Debra Lam works with Mayor Peduto’s executive team to develop new policies and practices to improve city operations for better quality of life.

Jesabel Rivera wants to bring the Latino community more fully into the Pittsburgh fold.

Bill Generett Jr. provides workforce training opportunities to minority entrepreneurs and businesses through Urban Innovation21.

“Creating a culture of diversity is hard to do,” noted Mallory. “People want to get involved, they just don’t know how.”

Mallory tackled the problem head-on by turning Cannon Coffeehouse, named for the iconic veterans’ memorial on Brookline Boulevard, into a place where people have a voice. The idea came to him after he noticed many customers quietly came and went, never saying much.

Nathan Mallory of Cannon Coffee. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Nathan Mallory of Cannon Coffee. Photo by Tracy Certo.

“Selling a $4 cup of espresso isn’t enough,” he said.

Mallory reached out to local churches, civic groups and local organizations and turned the coffee shop into a “billboard for Brookline,” a place where people could connect with one another and grow. “It’s advocacy,” he said. “Crisis mitigation. Rehabilitation. All these things come through my door.”

Rivera shared her story of moving to Pittsburgh from Puerto Rico in 2010 to earn a master’s degree at Pitt. She found Pittsburgh an inviting and friendly place and moved with her husband to Greenfield.

Jesabel Rivera with Matt Marks. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Jesabel Rivera with Matt Marks. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Initially, the culture was a struggle, she said. Fitting in was hard. Once she landed a job, however, she had the time to branch out and serve the Latino community. She is currently president of the Latin American Cultural Union (LACU), an organization that supports the small but growing Latino population in Pittsburgh and works to integrate with the wider region through events and educational opportunities.

“Pittsburgh has done so much for me,” she said. “I want to give back. We (Latinos) have to meet Pittsburgh in the middle.”

“Pittsburgh needs to meet newcomers in the middle, too,” added Flanagan.

Everyone on stage nodded.

Debra Lam grew up in the North Hills, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She left to attend school and moved on to work as an advisor to companies and governments all over the world, from New York City to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The excitement being generated by newly elected Mayor Bill Peduto brought her back as the city’s first chief of innovation and performance.

Lam believes the city is coming together on several levels to embrace diversity and support the cultural experiences of others. The Mayor’s decision to trade power for talent through Talent City—hiring a more diversely qualified staff—sent a signal from the top that Pittsburgh is embracing change.

“The mayor is very supportive of innovation and technology, but it’s not about the technology. It’s about people,” she said. “The greatest achievements are the cultural changes. We have become more welcoming but we could be better. That’s the mindset we need to change. You don’t need to be born here, you just need to be a part of Pittsburgh.”

Those words resonated with Diwas Timsina, 20. Timsina spent his early life growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal after his parents fled their native Bhutan during a time of ethnic cleansing. For the last four years, his family has lived in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Whitehall which has grown into the second largest Bhutanese community in the U.S.

A graduate of Baldwin High School, Timsina attends Penn State. In his spare time, he founded the Children of Shangri-Lost, a youthful and active nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of the Bhutanese people. (A group of about a dozen showed up for the event, sitting in the front row.)

Shortly after moving here, Timsina realized that to connect to the greater community of Pittsburgh he needed to find his voice, talk with people beyond his community and share his experiences. The Children of Shangri-Lost does just that, imparting stories of the challenges faced by refugees.

The group from Children of Shangri Lost at the event.
The group from Children of Shangri Lost at the event. Photo by Tracy Certo.

“Pittsburgh has changed my life,” said Timsina (who noted that one of the reasons the community chose Pittsburgh was for the weather, similar to Bhutan’s). “We want to bridge the gap between our communities and other communities. Our goal is to reach out to all 50 states and the world to share our stories.”

Born and raised in Point Breeze, Bill Generett Jr. left Pittsburgh for law school in Atlanta and vowed to never come back. He worked in law in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and returned to Pittsburgh 10 years ago with a mandate to make a difference in the African American neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Generett founded Urban Innovation21, an organization that supports minority businesses and entrepreneurs through job training, internships and funding.

Bill Generett, Jr with his son and others after the discussion. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Bill Generett, Jr with his son and others after the discussion. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Black communities like the Hill District, once at the pinnacle of the arts and culture, are fighting their way back, he says. Too many people still struggle with significant poverty. “At the end of the day it’s jobs that keep people here and jobs that bring people back,” he said. “If we don’t address the gains we’ve made, they may erode.”

Look for a webinar with this group on the same topic in April hosted by NEXTpittsburgh and CEOs for Cities, which will be bringing 200 city leaders across to country to a spring workshop in Pittsburgh in June.

To see more photos of the event, click here.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.