Donta Green (right) and Trade Institute of Pittsburgh Life Coach Chett Williams. Photo by Michael Savisky, Make Roots Consulting.

Cue ominous music overlaying shots of a Rust Belt community. The camera settles on the Westinghouse Academy Bulldogs, a high school team with a 14-0 record to defend and a state championship to win. 

The locker room was appropriately solemn. They were only the third City League team to ever make it to the PIAA Class 2A state championships and the first since 1997. History had its eyes on the Bulldogs, a scrappy team from Homewood that was named the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Team of the Year for 2022-23.

During halftime, the coach, an intense man who bears a vague resemblance to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin despite his lengthy dreadlocks, reminds his young wards what they’re made of.

“From the time we got here, they’ve been trying to intimidate us,” Donta Green said, referring to Southern Columbia, the last team they would have to vanquish to claim a perfect season and the championship. 

“Their fans tried to intimidate us as we got off the bus. During the coin toss, they tried to intimidate us … because they don’t know who we are, brothas.”

This was followed by a team-building yell that lifted everyone’s spirits. The coach continued, “They don’t know that we know what it feels like to get shot at. We come from the darkest places, fellas. We come from the trenches.”

The Donta Green who appears in a Dick’s Sporting Goods ad getting the Bulldogs psyched for the state championship game in Mechanicsburg in 2022 exudes a different energy than the smiling man who entered a conference room for an interview about his other role as executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP).

The Bulldogs lost 37-22 to Southern Columbia on that day that was immortalized in the commercial, but Dick’s Sporting Goods presented Westinghouse with a $75,000 stipend to build a state-of-the-art weight room. Westinghouse was getting much-deserved recognition and support for yet another winning season under coach Green.

With a first name that is pronounced “Dante” like the Renaissance poet, Green’s bearing befits someone who knows how to inspire young men on the gridiron as well as those who would likely become statistics without TIP’s vocational training and in-house counseling. 

Despite two jobs, Green does not consider himself a man straddling two worlds. He sees himself as a facilitator of excellence in others wherever he goes. Given his stewardship of a winning football program at the high school he graduated from in 2005 — despite its lack of even basic resources — it is hard to argue with the results. 

Located in an industrial park at 7800 Susquehanna St. in Homewood, the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh is a nonprofit vocational licensing program whose mission statement in its 2022 annual report spells it out succinctly: “To empower men and women with significant barriers to employment through skill building and career opportunities.”

Donta Green and TIP masonry student Jawaun Noaks. Photo by Michael Savisky, Make Roots Consulting.

In 2022, TIP exceeded expectations by graduating 77 students from its Core Masonry Program and 29 students from its Carpentry Program. 

Last year, TIP introduced a License to Drive Program after discovering that 92% of its students didn’t have a driver’s license. Many who did drive to work and school did so without proper driver ID, a risky proposition in a community crawling with cops looking for erratic drivers. A TIP case manager works with the students for the 11 weeks they are enrolled to ensure they are credentialed to drive legally by the time they graduate. TIP covers the cost of getting the license and even accompanies students to the driving test. 

Along with union apprenticeship jobs, there is a workforce housing program in which homeless students are matched with an alum until their lives and incomes are stabilized for independent living.

This is yet another of the many examples of TIP discovering a need among its students and helping to fill it.

“One of the biggest misconceptions of our organization is that we’re pumping out masonry people and carpenters,” Green said. “It’s all about skill aptitude. They’re learning what will help them with other disciplines and careers.”

TIP provides one-stop training in the art of living in the real world with masonry and carpentry skills being stepping stones along the way. Green is proud of how the lessons have “crept into other areas of their lives.”

“Show up on time, work hard and be teachable.” Coach Donta Green

“Every student graduates with a bank account,” he added. “We pour a lot of resources into our students. We demand a lot from them because we know what they’re going to face when they graduate. We challenge their thought process and how they’ve done things their entire lives. Some students just can’t do it.”

Green estimates that 50% of those accepted make it all the way through the program. Sometimes they stop and return at a future date. According to the 2023 annual report, 77 out of 93 students graduated last year, 75 found employment with an average starting wage of $19.35 an hour. There wasn’t a single case of recidivism.

But for all of its success, there are examples of participants who don’t make it through for whatever reason.

“Some are not in a space where they can’t do without 11 weeks of paychecks,” Green said. “There are some we will refer out for more intensive drug and alcohol [counseling]. It’s not easy.”

To get the students, who range in age from 18 to middle age, into a proper headspace, each day begins with a group ritual at 8 a.m. sharp. The students are in the building until 3:30 p.m. Many go to other jobs afterward.

“Some of our students have dealt with a lot of trauma and it has created a pessimistic mindset,” Green said. “So to challenge that every morning, we start our day with a gratitude circle.”

The gratitude circle is headed by a life coach who gets to know all of the students throughout their working residency.

Trade Institute of Pittsburgh Executive Director Donta Green (right) speaks with Dinah Hainesworth, the mother of a former student, Jason Hainesworth who died in a fatal motorcycle accident in 2019. Hainesworth has been close to the organization ever since. Photo by Michael Savisky, Make Roots Consulting.

“What we do is go around and give our names and things we’re thankful for. So getting somebody who has pretty much been living with a dark cloud all their life to come into this space where we’re saying, ‘Yeah, those things happen, but you’re not your circumstance. You’re much better.’ Getting them to list those things and be thankful for them is a challenge in itself for a lot of our students,” Green said.

“Each student is eligible for an hour of counseling a week and those counseling sessions get heavy because our life coach does a really good job of digging deep and putting his finger where the key issues are. He encourages our students to have conversations about things they’ve been trying to bury for years.”

Word has gotten out about TIP, so there can be as many as 280 applicants for 140 slots. The programs consist of mostly men, but Green says 17% of the students are women. The day I visited, there were several women working in the masonry section.

“We’ve been around for a little over 10 years now,” Green said. “I came to work for TIP in 2017. Before that, I worked in the public defender’s office as a disposition advocate.”

Green isn’t a lawyer and hastens to add that his former job consisted of doing research for attorneys and conducting interviews in the field. It was during this gig that he found out about TIP and how it offered programming that would be an alternative to sending people to prison. He was impressed with what he saw and sought to put his talents to use in the organization. 

Now a decade into coaching at Westinghouse, and a little over half a decade into his career at TIP, Green is the face of two very progressive organizations with impressive track records in Homewood. 

Asked if he has any political ambitions, Green is genuinely surprised by the question before insisting that being in politics can’t be as remotely fulfilling as his current responsibilities as a football coach and an executive director. Nothing beats watching lives change for the better every day.

The core lesson for both is the same: “Show up on time, work hard and be teachable,” he said.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.