Monica Ruiz of Casa de San Jose. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Poverty. Gun violence. Police brutality.

If local groups who battle these national crises ever wonder whether they’re making a big enough impact, here’s one statistic that offers powerful encouragement.

After more than 70 years spent supporting projects aimed at improving the lives of Pittsburgh city dwellers through traditional grantmaking, The Pittsburgh Foundation credits the success and increased visibility of local groups working on these issues with inspiring a new approach to giving.

In 2017, as the Foundation explored the work being done by these local groups, “we became more interested in social justice issues,” says Michelle McMurray, a senior program officer with The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“Locally there have been really critical moments for them in the past year,” McMurray says, and it got her wondering how The Pittsburgh Foundation could support local social justice causes.

“People who are closest to the center of the issue,” she says, “should be at the center of creating solutions.”

With this as a guiding principle, McMurray and her team held a listening session with 10 local activists groups from Pittsburgh’s most underserved neighborhoods as well as leaders from local non-profit groups to solicit feedback on what their support should look like.

While every idea had to fall under the broad theme of social justice, they made sure to let communities “decide what issues are most important to address,” McMurray says. “Our role is to listen and provide resources for them to do that.”

Nine activist groups, including Black Femme Excellence Collective and 1Hood Media, helped design the eligibility and selection process for the final grant program, known as the Social Justice Fund. The winners were announced on August 28. Overall, $158,000 was awarded across eight different groups.

Winners include Casa San José, a Latino advocacy group, which was awarded $20,000 to help expand its Jovenes Con Proposito program to provide advocacy skills to high school-aged immigrant youth in Beechview. The group will also use the funding to conduct additional leadership training and a door-to-door campaign for Latino immigrants on immigration rights and policy, and how to support neighbors subjected to racial profiling, hate crimes or ICE raids.

Another grantee also receiving $20,000 is The Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. Members of the Coalition include community organizers, incarcerated individuals and their family and friends. Their goal is to secure parole eligibility for those sentenced to life in prison. The organization plans to hire a part-time community organizer who will handle organizing around the 2019 Allegheny County District Attorney election and to fund two outreach events in Pittsburgh.

These projects and others (including a grant to the Council for Cultural Equity and Emancipated Education, which pushes for quality education for Pittsburgh’s African-American students) put the Foundation in the middle of some of the nation’s most charged partisan issues.

McMurray doesn’t seem concerned: “With any new project, there’s always unpredictability,” she says. “We’re not necessarily sure what things will upset whom.”

Meanwhile, grantees see the Social Justice Fund as “a hopeful sign for the future,” says Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San José. “Pittsburgh has some great organizers working directly with communities, but they often have a hard time securing funding.”

Bill O'Toole

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