What began 24 years ago in response to the killing of Jonny Gammage, a Black motorist pulled over and asphyxiated by Brentwood police, has grown into the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit. The annual event is a chance to dive deeply into a subject that’s as relevant as ever, locally and nationally.
However intractable the twin problems of racism and police violence seem, it doesn’t mean that change is impossible.
“It feels like sometimes there hasn’t been progress,” says summit organizer Daeja Baker. “But then we look at the fact that we banned solitary confinement in the past year and no-knock warrants in Allegheny County and in Pittsburgh. And so that seems like progress.
“It changes the conversation, from ‘This is wrong’ to ‘This is illegal.’ And I think that that’s a really important step in the conversation, where we’re holding people accountable for these things we know are wrong.”
— Author, poet and screenwriter Brian Broome, whose memoir “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is about growing up as a dark-skinned kid in Ohio with crushes on other boys.
— Deesha Philyaw, whose debut short story collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is being adapted for television by HBO Max.
— Author/satirist/humorist Damon Young, whose debut, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays,” explores growing up Black in Pittsburgh, and won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Young also co-founded the blog Very Smart Brothas and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times and GQ.
“We’ll just have a fireside chat with them in which they’ll just be having a conversation,” says Baker. “This year our focus is equity and action in the community. And I think all three of them do a really great job of talking about Pittsburgh from their different perspectives and their experiences and issues that they’ve experienced in Pittsburgh.”
Tickets are $35, but there are free options for students and others as well. Organizers don’t want to turn away anyone who can’t afford it, while trying to recoup the cost of putting on such a major project. Proceeds also support the Jonny Gammage Memorial Scholarship Fund, awarded to law students studying civil rights or social justice issues at the University of Pittsburgh or Duquesne University law schools.
The summit spans two days, Jan. 21-22, and features everyone from academics and youth organizers to people who are recently incarcerated. There are wellness sessions and workshops with subjects such as “How Can We Bring Pittsburgh’s Black Exiles Back Home?” and “PA State Prison Advocacy 101.”
“We also have people like Emmai (Alaquiva), who is an award-winning filmmaker, and his session is ‘The Uncanny Healing Abilities of Documentary Filmmaking,'” says Baker.
“I think we do a pretty good job of leveraging community to bring in as many people as we can.”