It started with a letter to local CEOs last week, putting Pittsburgh corporations, academia and nonprofits on notice. The opening line was, “There is an emergency in Pittsburgh.”

The mission of the newly formed Executive Action & Response Network (EARN) is to improve the lives of Black professionals, their families and communities in Pittsburgh. Their first project is a letter to local CEOs containing recommendations of concrete steps that they can take to make this happen.

“What also became clear to us is, while we have courageous protesters on the ground, we lack a collective strategic voice at the Black executive level,” says Jessica Brooks, who organized EARN with a group of local Black executives. “Companies, indeed, are a part of the solution to end systemic racism, starting with the top.”

The University of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Report (which also analyzed racial disparities) was a big wake-up call — finding that Pittsburgh’s Black residents could move to any other city of similar size and have a better quality of life when it comes to employment, pay equity and health.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and its disproportionate effect on the Black community, and the activism spurred by the murder of George Floyd, also helped to motivate Pittsburgh’s Black executives to create a plan for a just and inclusive regional economy.

“This is time to get past good programs in sporadic organizations, and come into agreement as leaders to create a sustainable shift,” says Brooks, who works for the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health. “We know that we have leaders in this region who have already begun to work towards several of the goals we have outlined; the challenge is one or two or even three corporations can’t make sustainable change.”

“This has to be a Pittsburgh commitment, starting with addressing our own organizations. First and foremost, we want to drive accountability, commitment and action.”

The recommendations in the letter include:

• Public commitment to investing in employment, health and pay equity for African Americans in Pittsburgh.

• Interviewing, hiring and supporting African American executives in C-Suite and top executive roles.

• Engaging an objective, culturally aware third-party panel to evaluate candidates for those roles.

• Creating a truly inclusive culture where it is safe for African American employees to be authentic and honest.

• Increasing diverse supplier spending with African American-owned business entities.

• Training all employees on implicit bias and how it affects African Americans — establishing open dialogue within organizations about the dismantling of racism.

• Establishing a working group of CEOs to create the plan to end systemic racism in Pittsburgh corporations, including receiving implicit bias training, cultural sensitivity training and history on race and the economic impact on African Americans.

• Getting 100% of applicable CEOs to complete the Vibrant Index facilitated by Vibrant Pittsburgh.

The response has been strong so far, says Brooks.

“People know it was necessary,” she says. “Many have thanked us for ‘taking the risk.’ We don’t see it as a risk. We know the truth is uncomfortable and presents some challenging problems for us to solve. We’re here to collaborate on those solutions. The majority of people who read the letter that we’ve spoken to, not only agree but add to the conversation.”

The next steps are already in the works.

“We’re working on joint ventures and strategic partnerships that will directly address the urgings listed in our letter as well as continuing to build the EARN following, which has grown overnight,” says Brooks. “It’s clear the demand is there, and from the executives we’ve spoken to, the commitment is there. Now it’s time to get to work. We are committed to being a resource for those who are ready.”

Though there’s a long way to go, it’s crucial to start somewhere.

“Dr. King called poverty one of the three evils facing America,” says Brooks. “Economic empowerment for African Americans is tied, inextricably, to our ability to access and control capital, the vast majority of which is held within the corporate apparatus. Success for EARN is creating the environment to nurture a pipeline of African American leaders — people of goodwill — who use their platform of leadership to eradicate racial hierarchy and create opportunities for all Americans in line with eliminating poverty and creating jobs for the future.”