When The Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant took the stage in front of nearly 600 people at the p4 conference and said he wanted to talk to the white people in the room, things got very quiet fast.

Let’s just say he had our attention.

He started with a story about Janera Solomon and how the young black executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater—a leader in our community—was shopping in a store in East Liberty only to be followed around suspiciously. Imagine how she felt, he said.

He followed with another story, of a well-dressed black pastor visiting The Heinz Endowments one day. He looked like a million bucks, said Oliphant. He always did. And yet when he left and went out on the street, he neared an intersection right there in downtown Pittsburgh only to see a car pull up with a woman inside who looked at him— and promptly locked the car door.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Oliphant said, “countless small stories tell us a story of suffering that is difficult to fathom. But I would like to ask the white people in the room—if you would be OK to be treated this way and if you would be OK for your children to be treated this way then I want you to stand.”

Of course no one stood. “Interesting,” he said, continuing. “How many men in the room would want to be treated like the way women are?” He invited them, too, to stand. No takers.

Straight people? Who wants to be treated like those in the LGBT community? Anyone want to be treated like the disabled?


It was an unsettling, in-another-person’s-shoes scenario that made the point and set the tone for a conference that was unlike any other in Pittsburgh. Straight talk about race. Uncomfortable questions in small group settings. Hard-to-bear statistics about those left behind and story after story—from those attending mostly—of what it’s like to encounter racism on a daily basis in a city that’s not diverse and not known for tolerance.

In a small group discussion during the p4 conference, coming up with ways the city could be more inclusive.
In a small group discussion during the p4 conference, coming up with ways the city could be more inclusive.

But there was ample reason for hope. The many talks, panels and workshops that followed at the P4 conference—that’s people, planet, place and performance—on October 18th and 19th were all about enacting change. Big, comprehensive change that requires all-in participation. The intent? To focus on what can be done to make Pittsburgh a sustainable city of the future, a collaborative effort between the City, The Heinz Endowments and multiple partners to forge a model of urban growth and development that is innovative, inclusive and sustainable.

It’s all about creating a world-class city that benefits all residents.

The plan, said chair of the Heinz Endowments Andre Heinz  in his opening remarks, was to figure out what will be required every step of the way. “We are going to be part of this planning and building out and reinvestment,” he said, “and making sure we come up with the blueprint of the future.”

Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink, who appeared at the first p4 conference last year where she issued daunting challenges to Pittsburgh, was happy to report on some action.

“The amazing news is that challenges I put out,” she said, “have been completely picked up. PolicyLink has become a complete partner with Neighborhood Allies and Urban Innovation21 to make sure development of Pittsburgh is all-inclusive. “

Together, the three organizations convened dozens of community leaders to craft a definition of equitable development along with an agenda to make it happen.

“It will,” Glover Blackwell said in her mesmerizing voice and poetic delivery, “help make this one of the most exciting cities in the nation.”

The five step agenda ranged from raising the bar for new development to expanding employment and ownership opportunities. Each area included action steps such as developing a community land trust strategy, to making all neighborhoods healthy communities of opportunity.

“Where you live is a proxy for opportunity,” Glover Blackwell said, citing factors such as the schools to the transit system to how long and how well you live. “We have to focus to make sure that every neighborhood is a neighborhood of opportunity.

“We might need a fifth p,” she added, referring to the p4 moniker. “And that fifth p is policy.”

Ideas and tweets gathered throughout the p4 conference were on display.
Ideas and tweets gathered throughout the p4 conference were on display.

Want to be happy? Do this.

Shaking up the day’s agenda of local and national speakers was a spirited performance by the local rapper, Jasiri X, and a heartfelt talk by Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville about creating more compassionate cities.

“We are imperfect people on an imperfect journey,” said Fischer. “It’s more important than ever that we need to build the social muscle in our city to counter the type of social unrest we’ve seen.”

He challenged the crowd “to expand your comfort zone and then do something about it,” suggesting that everyone has pulpits they can leverage. “How do you use those pulpits?” he asked. “At your dinner table? In your church? How do you use your social media pulpits?” He proposed that they be used “around kindness and compassion and love.”

One striking example of what Louisville is doing in this area is the Compassionate Schools Project, a focus on social and emotional development and coping skills for kids. “Lack of these skills leads to violence in our most distressed communities,” said Fischer. While developing these skills “opens the heart and opens the mind so our kids can begin to learn.”  See the quote in the image below.

Making Louisville a more compassionate city.
Making Louisville a more compassionate city.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion,” Fischer urged. “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, who spoke at the first p4 conference, was back to emphasize the importance of inclusion in advancing cities.

“A certain group of cities will vault to the front,” predicted Katz. “Think Detroit with autos or Silicon Valley with semi-conductors. This time around, it’s a group of cities that won’t invent the technology; but they will figure out how to make their cities inclusive.

“We don’t know which cities those are going to be but if Pittsburgh is going to have a conversation, it has to aspire to be one of those cities.”

He noted that “in some respects, Pittsburgh is the ‘It City’ right now. Pittsburgh is constantly seeming emblematic of a certain kind of resurgence. There’s a reason Google is here and Uber is here and Disney came here. They need to be near the secret sauce.

“We have the right geography,” he said, using the familiar we. “We have the network and we collaborate a lot better than most places I go, “ he added but he warned of headwinds. “The economy is not working for a lot of people here. We’re not growing companies with a large amount of jobs… And while most cities are trying to attract millennials, we’ve been able to do that. We need to attract older ages.”

His advice for conference-goers: “Don’t produce another report. You’re exhausted. Produce some tangible, concrete ideas and initiatives that you can design and deliver.”

(Note: this is an article. It is not a report.)

Most tweetable

Perhaps the quote of the day, in a day full of tweetable sound bites, came from Angela Blanchard (@Cajun Angela) who said, “The measure of a great city is not who is there. It’s who is welcome there.”

The President and CEO of Neighborhood Centers in Houston, Blanchard noted that “the most successful cities of the future are those who can turn desperation into participation.” But you need to figure out “the strengths and assets because you can’t build on broken.

“What has the community been able to figure out for itself?” she asked. “Who are the leaders already there?

“There are three hungers across the universe: earn, learn and belong,” she said, ending on this note: “Do what you can with what you have where you are. Right now. “

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people to do the same.