Pitt Engages Community and Improves Understanding

Visitors during the Homewood Community Engagement Center’s grand opening peruse historic pictures of the neighborhood.

The University of Pittsburgh’s “footprint” is growing but it’s not trampling on communities and cultures, as has too often been the case with academic institutions across the country. Instead, Pitt is finding new ways to combine the host community’s agenda and wisdom with the University’s assets and mission.

As part of The Plan for Pitt, the University is developing a series of Community Engagement Centers (CEC). The first Center is in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh and the second will soon open in the Hill District.

To make sure the University is thinking like an insider, Pitt partnered with respected Homewood-based institutions including the Homewood Children’s Village, Homewood Community Sports, the Oasis Project, and local schools, ensuring that the focus of the CEC is on augmenting, not duplicating, services already provided.

In the early 1960s, Homewood was a thriving hub of African American culture, but more recently it has suffered from urban decay. Nearly half of the residents have incomes below the poverty level, 43 percent of the homes and lots are vacant, only about 40 percent of students in the local elementary school are proficient or better in reading, and less than 15 percent are proficient in math.

Pitt held a series of community input sessions while developing the Homewood Community Engagement Center. Ideas posted by participants were considered throughout the process.

Pitt held a series of community input sessions while developing the Homewood Community Engagement Center. Ideas posted by participants were considered throughout the process.

In recent years, the community has made deliberate efforts to rebound and Pitt has been active in the neighborhood through research and other programs. Programs such as Pitt-Assisted Communities & Schools run by the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and the Manufacturing Assistance Center operated by the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering have been extremely stable and impactful. However, grant-funded projects run by individual professors have often been transient—operating for a few semesters.

“For some of our neighbors, their only contact with Pitt has been participating in research, but they never hear the results of that research nor learn how it could positively benefit their community,” said Lina Dostilio, Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement Centers at the University of Pittsburgh. “That leaves many in the community feeling a little suspicious of the University. Through the CECs, we’re creating mutually-beneficial relationships between Pitt and our surrounding communities.”

Putting Down Roots

The CEC concept is basic yet revolutionary. Physically locate in a struggling community, make a long-term (15-year minimum) commitment to remain in place, and build programs that simultaneously benefit the people and institutions in the neighborhood along with the University and its faculty and students.

“We are learning from and with the community,” said Daren Ellerbee, Homewood Community Engagement Center Director. “We are ethical, respectful, and sustainable in everything we do.”

The CEC physically opened in Homewood in October 2018, with administrative offices, classroom and lab space, community meeting rooms, and a common work space for Pitt employees and community members.

“It’s hard to be considered part of the neighborhood until you’re actually part of the neighborhood,” Ellerbee said. “So we’ve opened the front door of our building in the heart of the business district and welcome everyone to join us.”

Pitt students engage with local youth through various programs.

Pitt students engage with local youth through various programs.

The Center includes a program in which Pitt students live and work within Homewood. As they learn about community development best practices, the students are also helping to build capacity within the neighborhood and are solidifying the roots the University is putting down in Homewood.

“We see the CEC as a bridge to the future for the neighborhood and its residents,” Dostilio said. “We’re empowering local leaders as they work to improve Homewood today and are building a bridge to future college enrollment for Homewood’s youth.”

Every University of Pittsburgh school and college has some association with the Center, such as a biological sciences lab program run by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and a multipurpose room dedicated to after-school programming managed by the School of Education.

Growing to Fill Additional Needs

Economic and educational opportunities are not the only disparities seen in Homewood. As is the case in many lower-income communities, measurable health disparities exist. To help, the Homewood CEC is already expanding to offer health and wellness services.

“From physical therapy to nutrition counseling, phase 2 will fill health and wellness gaps within the community while working collaboratively with our partners,” Ellerbee said.

The Center is still in need of financial support, especially seed funding for special initiatives and programs. If you are interested in donating, please click here.

The true measure of the success of the Center will be through lives touched, not just in Homewood but also beyond. By providing a living lab for Pitt researchers and nearly endless field study opportunities for students, lessons learned through the Homewood CEC will reverberate throughout the nation as researchers publish best practices and students fan out around the globe upon graduation, taking with them knowledge that can only be gained through close partnerships revitalizing an urban community.


Follow this link to read more stories from this issue of the Chancellor's Circle Update.