This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.
By Matt Petras
Aster Teclay joined the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board in October and is one of eight millennials on the 21-member board. She believes that generational perspective really matters.
“I’m not a homeowner … and I don’t necessarily fit in with the programs that we serve, but I also represent a population that is huge in Pittsburgh, where it’s like, we want to be homeowners [but] we can’t afford homeownership,” said Teclay, 34.
And conversations about affordable housing extend to renting as well as homeownership.
“When we think about affordable rent, sometimes we think about what that person looks like, and there’s a misconception,” Teclay said. “I’m like, no, I have friends that are teachers, friends that are working the service industry, that can’t afford most of the places that they’re living in and then have a whole bunch of student debt. And having that voice echoed multiple times makes a big difference.”
After 2022 appointments, millennials represent a growing percentage of seats on boards of City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County government agencies. These board members bring a perspective more attuned to modern economic hardship, advancing social views and new methods of community outreach.
PublicSource in its Board Explorer transparency portal tracks more than 520 seats on city and county panels — from the county’s Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment — that take actions and make decisions that impact many aspects of life in the region.
The portal allows PublicSource to track the diversity in that layer of the power structure. In 2020, the Board Explorer project revealed that women had reached virtual parity with men in terms of board seats held.
The number of board seats held by people born in the 1980s to the mid-1990s — essentially, millennials — increased from about 21% at the end of 2021 to 23% today.
Overall, board members are still more likely to have been born in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s than in the ’80s or ’90s. Fifty-six board members were born in the ’40s, and 22 were born in the ’90s.
With this comes a slight increase in people of color, holding about 37% of seats in 2022 compared to about 36% in 2021, among members for whom race and ethnicity were known. That is driven largely by a 4% increase in Black representation.
Women and men hold virtually identical numbers of seats on the 60 panels tracked by Board Explorer.
About two-thirds of the current crop of millennials are women. All millennial board members are Democrats, as are the vast majority of all members of the city and county panels. Most of the board members are appointed by the administrations of the county executive and city mayor, both offices held by Democrats for decades.
‘Starting to perturb them’
While many of the millennial board members said they hope to disrupt the status quo in some way, most of those interviewed said the boards have been largely welcoming and accepting of their involvement.
Kenya Matthews joined the city’s Civil Service Commission in May, serving with two other members, who have both been on the board for at least a few years. The commission seeks to ensure merit-based hiring by the city.
She is 42, which she sees as being “on the cusp” of millennial and Gen X.
“I’m someone that is going to question,” Matthews said. “I ask, ‘Why? Why are things being done this way? Can we do this differently? Has this ever been done before? If so, what was the outcome of that?’… So I think, for me, it’s just asking a lot of questions, and making sure those are the right questions that will invoke change in the right direction.”
Still, she said she doesn’t feel out of place or unwelcomed by the board.
“If you’ve ever been the person who’s always asking questions… sometimes you can see where it’s like, ‘I think I’m starting to perturb them a little bit.’ But [the other board members] have never been not open,” Matthews said.
In May Felicity Williams, 33, joined the Comprehensive Municipal Pension Trust Fund, which oversees the city’s employee pension funds. Employed as Mayor Ed Gainey’s deputy chief of staff, she said she’s been welcomed by the board, which includes long-time and well-known members like Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb, who joined in 2008.
She brings a critical perspective.
“Pittsburgh has often been labeled as this bastion of progressivism. And in some ways, I think that has been more rhetoric than policy or action,” Williams said. “So we still see a lot of areas where we can back up our rhetoric with policy.”
Williams said she believes that any kind of diversity — including age — can improve a board. Other millennial board members agree.
“I think any time you get a diverse representation on a board, whether that be age, whether that be income, whether that be racial, there’s an opportunity to have more robust policy-making that comes out of it, because you’re not just in an echo chamber,” said Kimberly Lucas, the 38-year-old director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, who joined the Pittsburgh Parking Authority board in June.
Maria Montaño, the city’s press secretary, is transgender and serves on the LGBTQIA+ Commission. She’s the only member appointed last year and the only millennial on that 17-member board. One of her main concerns, she said, is the enforcement of policies barring discrimination against LGBTQ people. Having some influence on that feels good, she said.
“I’ve been a longtime activist, for lack of a better term, in the community before joining the administration,” said Montaño, 41. She said she’s “done a lot of work to hold leaders accountable, and now I’m at the table and able to advocate and push for the things I’ve been speaking about for a very long time.”
‘Gotta flip the switch’
Several board members identified being attuned to the importance of social media and other digital communication as an important benefit of a millennial perspective.
When Courtney Mahronich Vita, now 35, started in 2016 on the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail Alliance, a non-governmental board, she was about 20 years younger than the next-youngest member. The organization had a website from the 1990s and no social media presence, which she helped to remedy.
Now she serves on the county’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee in addition to other non-governmental boards, and brings that same perspective of meeting younger people where they’re at — which is often online.
“How do you engage with people like me? People our age. And I’m like, ‘Sending me a 20-page letter isn’t gonna do it,’” Mahronich Vita said. “You gotta flip the switch on it and do it in more creative and unique ways.”
Emily Kinkead, a state House of Representatives member, has sat on the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] for about a year, and she also emphasized the importance of using social media. This can be especially important for agencies like ALCOSAN, which Kinkead described as “well known but not understood.”
“The millennial generation brings a perspective of integrating more outreach [and] more accessible communication,” said Kinkead, 35, D-Brighton Heights.
Tori Shriver, 28, is the youngest of the new millennial board members. She sits on the MBE Advisory Committee, which is concerned with ensuring diverse opportunities for minorities in business. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald appointed her to the role, she said, because of her work with the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. She’s a young woman in labor, which brings a unique perspective.
She’s become used to being the youngest person in the room, she said. She started with the carpenters’ council at age 22.
“We just hired a new person here who is 22, and I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s so young,’” she said, laughing. “It can be intimidating, for sure, but it can also be really exciting. And I think … a lot of the time, when you’re the youngest person in the room, it’s up to the other, older people, the people who have been there, to empower you to feel confident and have a seat at the table.”
Justin Leavitt Pearl recently attended the first meeting of the county’s new Independent Police Review Board. At 35, Pearl is by far the youngest on the board, the others members’ ages ranging from 50 to 83.
County Council appointed four members of the board, including Pearl, and Fitzgerald appointed another four. A final member, picked by both council and the executive, is awaiting confirmation.
Pearl, who has a background as an activist with groups such as the Pittsburgh branch of the Democratic Socialists of America and as the director of The Atkins Center for Ethics at Carlow University, expressed a nuanced view of what it will mean to be a millennial on the new board.
“I have confidence that there are members of this board that I am going to see very much eye-to-eye with despite coming from different generations and that I’m really excited to work with who will bring a kind of depth of history that someone from my generation doesn’t quite have,” Pearl said. “People who lived through the civil rights movement, for example.”
Still, there’s a certain mindset and perspective that he said is generally inherent in millennials, the generation that came of age with the Sept. 11 attack and the 2008 financial crisis.
“Millennials in general have a sense of urgency around issues of justice and things along those lines,” Pearl said. “And I feel like millennials as a generation are a group that has come up during a particularly tumultuous time.”
Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area.