Ashley De Silva's color-drenched work of art on the side of the Hollander building. Photo courtesy of Ashley De Silva.

Next Wednesday, more than 200 civic and community leaders from across the country will gather in Downtown Pittsburgh for the 2019 Forward Cities conference.

Founded in 2014, Forward Cities is a national nonprofit dedicated to inclusive urban development. In 2018, the organization merged with a think tank called CEOs for Cities, co-founded by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

“We work with cities across the country who have removed barriers to entrepreneurship and small business growth for under-connected communities,” explains Christopher Gergen, CEO and co-founder of Forward Cities.

From June 12 through 14, participants will network with national experts in the field and learn about local success stories.

Highlights of the event, happening at the Westin Hotel, include:

– A keynote speech by Opportunity Hub CEO and Co-founder Rodney Sampson, as well as presentations on promising research and case studies from other regions.

– Prior to the welcome reception on Wednesday, there will be a free racial equity training workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. It’s open to all members of the public (did we mention it’s free?).

– A party on Thursday evening at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

– Community tours showcasing local, civic-minded development projects like Bridgeway Capital‘s coworking space at 7800 Susquehanna Street and the women-centric business accelerator at The Hollander Project.

While the forum itself will end on Friday, Gergen tells NEXTpittsburgh that the three-day event is only the beginning for his organization.

“Once the conference is gone, we’re staying,” he says.

What does that mean? In addition to organizing conferences and maintaining a knowledge sharing network of 33 American cities, Forward Cities also carries out intensive, multi-year consultations with a small handful of partner governments through their Community Entrepreneurship Accelerator program.

For a period of two years, staff from Forward Cities will work with local stakeholders and data partners here in Pittsburgh to identify and support positive ongoing initiatives and invest in what they describe as “high-potential, high-impact ventures and initiatives.” The nonprofit is currently six months into that two-year Pittsburgh contract.

Local representatives for the work include Wasi Mohamed, and Majestic Lane, head of the city’s newly announced Office of Equity.

While they plan to engage with residents from every corner of our city, Gergen says they will focus on development projects in Homewood and the Hilltop neighborhoods. Though the focus is hyper-local, Gergen says their goal is to find strategies and approaches that can be broadly applied.

“Pittsburgh reflects what’s happening in many cities,” says Gergen. “Significant economic growth in certain neighborhoods and communities, but not everybody is benefitting as the tide is rising.”

Other cities in the program include Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio and Kansas City.

While he is clear-eyed about the daunting challenges facing many communities, Gergen says the way our city’s political and cultural leaders honestly engage with issues of inclusiveness and economic justice made Pittsburgh a natural fit for the work of Forward Cities.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he says. But “there’s broad recognition that this is something Pittsburgh needs to be paying attention to.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.