Cultivating new leaders / Getting to know you, Pleased to meet you

Hoping to boost our diversity, locals and transplants create ways to make new arrivals feel welcome

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Pittsburgh can be a hard town to break into.

Granted, it's not Vermont where one has to be third generation not to be considered a "flatlander."

Still, Pittsburgh can be one of those places where even the most gregarious of people who move here feel like newcomers after 15 years. For members of minority groups, it can be even harder to find a footing in the region if they don't have friends and family as social supports.

William Generett Jr., CEO of Urban Innovation 21 in the Hill District, has seen newcomers struggle. He said African American executives and professionals have taken jobs and moved their families to Pittsburgh, but then moved on or gone "back home" when they found it hard to break into the community.

Mr. Generett, a Pittsburgh native, left home to attend college, but came back after law school and starting a business in Atlanta. When he arrived, he still had family and a network of people he had known growing up.

Cheryl Hall-Russell, CEO of the Hill House Association, moved to Squirrel Hill in 2011.

Ten months into her tenure, she published an op-ed in the Post-Gazette about coming to town: "If you've not tried to integrate into Pittsburgh as a newcomer, I have to tell you that it isn't for the faint of heart. As friendly as Pittsburgh can be, it is also a city of relationships that outweigh almost everything," she wrote.

In a recent interview she said there are a lot of social groups and organizations that do good works, but membership in some of those groups goes back two and three generations. They are all friendly, nice and polite, but they do not think to bring new people in.

"Of the people I have been friends with in the last 18 months, 90 percent of them are not native Pittsburghers," she said. "The transplants are the people who say 'want to take a walk' or want to go out to lunch or dinner."

That's a small group of people.

Of the 1.2 million residents of Allegheny County, 80 percent were born in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Census. The numbers in the city of Pittsburgh are roughly the same, with 81 percent born in the state.

On top of that, just 13 percent of the population of Allegheny County is African American -- in Pittsburgh it is 26 percent. Asians make up 3 percent of the population of the county, 1.1 percent of the entire county population is Indian by race and just 0.7 percent of the population is Chinese.

That lack of diversity in the population, and the small black middle class, makes it hard to build a diverse community.

Or as Mr. Generett said, "Diversity begets diversity," meaning that, for instance, black professionals are more likely to move to an area where they can hang out with other black professionals.

When he lived in Washington, D.C., Mr. Generett, an attorney, said it was not uncommon to meet someone new in a coffee shop and wind up having drinks with them later in the week. What D.C. has, he said, is a very diverse population that is also very transient with people moving in and out in every election cycle.

"Pittsburgh is a very family-oriented place," he noted.

While college students tend to have instant groups of friends, people who move here in their 30s, 40s and 50s for work may find it harder to make friends or develop a support network. Everyone needs at least one person who can pick them up from the emergency room.

Pittsburgh corporations also are not known to be big on diversity. Diversity Inc., a website that tracks corporate diversity measures nationwide, does not list a single Pittsburgh-based company on its list of top 50 companies.

The good news is nonprofits, such as the Western Pennsylvania Diversity Initiative, realized the lack of diversity made it harder to attract and keep talent to the area, so Vibrant Pittsburgh was created to make people feel more welcome.

Vibrant Pittsburgh and the Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals host events at which newcomers can meet people and learn those little ins and outs, such as what restaurants are good or where various neighborhoods are located.

Susy Van Dun, who moved to Mt. Lebanon with her husband and three children in August, went on the bus tour of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods days after they arrived.

Now she says she was still too new to the city to even have an idea, as the bus went from neighborhood to neighborhood, what the significance was. But she is starting to put those puzzle pieces together. The group has been very helpful, she said, for meeting people and making friends.

Christopher Amar, an attorney for Buchanan Ingersoll, and his wife, Cheryl David, an attorney at Fox-Rothschild, moved here in January 2010, just before the great "Snowmaggedon."

Mr. Amar found Pittsburghers, unlike the city's weather, to be very warm.

After Vibrant Pittsburgh really got going when Melanie Harrington, its CEO, joined in December 2010, Mr. Amar said he and his wife began going to all of the events.

Mr. Amar is ethnically half Indian and half Chinese while his wife is Indian. He grew up in Boston and lived in New York City.

"We knew it could be really difficult," he said about coming to a new city where they did not already have friends. So they made sure to find organizations where they could meet people.

"We joke that being here in Pittsburgh in a few months we had more friends than in all the years on the East Coast," he said.

Between his neighbors on a cul-de-sac in Point Breeze and the people they have met through working and Vibrant Pittsburgh, they have grown a network of friends.

"My wife and I agree that this is the place where, barring anything unforeseen, we'll spend our lives," he said.


-- Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699 First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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