Photo courtesy of the Black Women's Policy Center.

Last Tuesday’s Day of Giving produced the usual frenetic activity on one of the most important days of the fiscal year for organizations like the Black Women’s Policy Center (BWPC). Emails poured in from all directions with pitches for every nonprofit and worthy social service organization imaginable.

On that day, Rochelle Jackson, CEO of BWPC, was making the case for her organization everywhere she could. It is a compelling case, especially in light of the University of Pittsburgh’s blistering 2019 Gender and Equity Report about the quality of Black life in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania region.

Reached via Zoom call while driving between appointments, Jackson once again sought to “center, empower and acknowledge the full experience of Black women” as she has done every day since January 2020, when BWPC came into existence with a $25,000 grant from the Women and Girls Foundation and matching grants from other like-minded agencies and groups.

Jackson shuttles easily between the jargon of social services and the “real talk” that takes place at kitchen tables throughout the region where single mothers with limited resources confront a mountain of bills that have to be dealt with monthly. 

“Black women are underpaid and their work is undervalued,” Jackson says in an aside that explains exactly what perpetuates the cycle of poverty for many single Black women in the region as far as she’s concerned.

Black Women's Policy Center Director Rochelle Jackson surrounded by pink and red balloons.
Black Women’s Policy Center CEO Rochelle Jackson at the Center’s Rest & Reset brunch fundraiser in June at the Triveni Center in Monroeville. Photo courtesy of Jordan Jenkins.

“You can be a Black woman with a PhD in this region and still be on food stamps. That’s because there’s inequity,” she says. “Black women work with white colleagues who have the same education and experience, but aren’t paid the same.” 

This has an effect on economic outcomes when 72% of Black households in the region are headed by Black women. Jackson can cite every miserable statistic, but she’s more interested in figuring out solutions and strategies for turning these familiar and dispiriting benchmarks around. 

To that end, the BWPC has three major goals: amplifying Black women’s voices through policies that impact their lives; shaping the narratives about Black women and their lived experiences; and advocating for Black women in the Greater Pittsburgh region and beyond.

This year, Jackson’s organization has joined several local nonprofits in lobbying local businesses to eliminate the gender wage gap because of its disproportionate impact on Black households headed by women.

As a two-time survivor of domestic violence and mother of four fully grown children, Jackson understands the difficulties of “learning how to navigate systems” and “figuring out how to create a new pathway out of poverty.” 

Her own struggles within the context of a violent marriage when she was a hospital administration major at Penn State University led her to drop out and “get her life together” because of student debt and responsibility for her baby daughter at the time.

Jackson’s personal triumph over an often indifferent system is a compelling story, but she insists that the most important lesson she’s learned over the years is that institutional and legislative policies can trump everything. 

Attendees sign in at the Rest & Reset brunch fundraiser. Photo courtesy of the Black Women’s Policy Center.

“I got interested in public policy in the aftermath of the welfare reform fight in 1996,” she says. “When they were ‘reforming welfare,’ they were removing the things that helped people like me find a pathway out of poverty.”

Thanks to another 17 years at Just Harvest and three years at the Women and Girls Foundation as the director of a program aimed at single moms struggling with poverty, she learned the most valuable lesson of all: If the most economically marginalized people in society — Black women — don’t have a seat at the policy-making table, nothing meaningful will happen.

“We [Black women] have been the backbone of democracy for decades,” she says, referring to elections in which Black women voters have saved the Democrats. “What we haven’t done as good a job in is requiring a return in investment through our elected officials. You will see us, you will hear us, you will address us. We’re centering us in policy for the first time. That is where change will come.”

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch in early 2023. Stay tuned!

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.