Pitt's Browne Fellowships match students to struggling neighborhoods

Dominique Benzio was living in South Oakland last summer when two University of Pittsburgh students produced a neighborhood documentary, their project as Browne Leadership Fellows. With dozens of other residents in the film, she appears repeating the claim, “I am South Oakland.”

At the time, she was a Browne fellow assigned to Millvale.

In the usual way of summer fellowships, students get a great community experience in a place they might not have considered, refute its bad reputation to friends and family, do a good turn or two then move on.

Ms. Benzio’s fellowship was a match made in Millvale. The Doylestown native has just moved into an apartment near Millvale’s new library, pays rent that benefits its operations and is on its board.

She spent last summer helping to establish the library, assessing the Girty’s Run watershed and, with Evolve EA architects, planning an eco-district for food, water and energy sustainability in the borough. She recently graduated with a degree in psychology and urban studies/​community organizing.

“What the fellowship told me was that you don’t have to be a community organizer to do community work,” she said. “You just work with people who are as passionate as you and who bring an energy to making a place better.

“I am totally all in, just in love with Millvale,” she said. “I was inspired by the general sense of optimism with so many cool things going on. It’s nice to go to a small community where you can effect change.”

James and Noel Browne founded the fellowship in 2013 as a vehicle for non-social work students to learn the values and skills social workers employ. The Brownes graduated from the Pitt School of Social Work in the 1970s. Mr. Browne went on to be a founding partner and principal at Allegheny Financial Group and Allegheny Investments.

“We thought our experience in the school had so contributed to everything we did in life that we wanted to expand that experience to kids who were not going into social work,” Noel Browne said. “Whatever field they would go into, being exposed to community work would enhance their appreciation of the problems of the world.”

The fellowship, in its second year, assigns students to South Oakland, where they work with Community Human Services, with the Manchester Citizens Corp. in Manchester and with Millvale borough.

Mr. Browne, a member of the board of the Manchester Area Charter School, said the neighborhood “has a special place in my heart,” but Keith Caldwell, Pitt’s director of undergraduate social work and the Browne Fellowship coordinator, chose the sites.

“He has attracted an amazing group of kids, extremely impressive young people who want to run into the streets to find out what life is like,” Mr. Browne said.

To prepare, the students learn the tenets of social work and how to do demographic research. Each gets a $3,000 stipend for a summer of 24-hour workweeks, but Mr. Caldwell said “they all exceed that. They get hooked on the neighborhoods, amazed by how welcome they are and how exciting the work can be.”

In Manchester, Elizabeth Mortenson, Michelle Wright, Sharon Bomberger and Jessie Cohen planned and carried off a recent daylong community festival of music with a cookout, a dunk tank and games. They raised money for expenses, but much of the food was donated, bands donated their time, and Flyspace Productions donated and set up the stage.

More than 150 people turned out, despite the dreary weather.

“It was a blast,” said resident Lisa Freeman. “I’ve never seen anything on that level in Manchester. The Fellows brought that youthful vibe. It was wholesome fun with different types of music and things that appealed to all people.”

“When I told my family I was working in Manchester, they said, ‘Be careful,’ ” said Ms. Cohen, of Mt. Lebanon, a sophomore studying social work and communications. “It was nice to show people at our event just what a great place it is.”

“I fiercely defend Manchester when people say, ‘Is it OK to walk around there?’ ” said Ms. Bomberger, of Lancaster, who is preparing for graduate school in physical therapy. “I tell them, ‘Yeah! It’s great.’ ”

“I think Manchester’s reputation dates to the Reagan administration,” said Ms. Mortenson, a senior in psychology from Seattle. “An event like that helps update it.”

She said she knew nothing about the North Side before. Ms. Wright, a natural sciences major graduating in December, said, “I didn’t know where Manchester was or what it was. Now, I would rent a house in Manchester.”

“I would buy a house in Manchester,” Ms. Mortenson said.

Ms. Benzio moved to Millvale over the weekend and soon will start working for a marketing firm Downtown. She plans “to get more plugged in” to community work once she settles, she said. “I’m going to be here for a long time.”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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