Westmoreland County wants to talk about race

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Community leaders want to start a conversation about diversity in Westmoreland County.

Would you marry a person of a different race? Do you have any close friends of another race? Why are unemployment rates higher for blacks than for whites? What do you think would improve understanding among people of different races?

Those are some of the questions contained in an anonymous online survey designed to move the conversation forward, and officials at the county and at Seton Hill University in Greensburg are asking residents to participate.

“We still have a lot of racism in this region,” said Tay Waltenbaugh, who, as CEO of Westmoreland Community Action, works daily with with minority populations in housing and Head Start programs. “It may be underlying, but it’s there. So I wanted to look at people’s feelings. We need to talk about it. We want people to look at themselves and their attitudes and to think about how we can improve relations at agencies and in our businesses.”

He said he knows that discrimination also still exists in the county.

“We don’t talk about it, but it’s here,” he said.

Mr. Waltenbaugh said he knows clubs where African-Americans are not really welcome.

’’I play basketball and I’ll ask some guys if they want to get a beer afterwards, and someone will tell me, ‘You can’t go in there [with blacks].’ “

He did not identify those places.

Westmoreland County’s non-white population is not large — only about 4 percent. But the county is changing, and a growing Hispanic population is predicted for all states in the next 25 years.

Mr. Waltenbaugh believes it is important for the county’s future for people of different cultures to better understand each other

“In my agency, we have between 12 and 15 percent of our employees who are minorities,” he said, “but we’d like to do better. When we have Head Start programs in Monessen, Jeannette or New Kensington, where we work with more diverse populations, it helps to understand their music, food and culture.”

“We do a great deal of work with minority populations,” he said. “We sell houses to single moms, and some are black. And we have Spanish-speaking populations that are growing in the county.”

He believes people’s perceptions of communities with minority populations are often wrong. Jeannette has a population that is 6.9 percent African-American and 0.1 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“People think the city of  Jeannette is this terrible place to live,” he said. “But [other towns] have more violent crime, so we need to change the perception people have of Jeannette.”

The idea to study diversity in the county came from Carlotta Paige of Greensburg, president of Paige Community Coordinators, who is the project coordinator. The project was launched last year with the help of a small grant from Vibrant Pittsburgh.

She went to Mr. Waltenbaugh, who agreed to help, and then to David Droppa, a Seton Hill social work professor, to head the volunteer research team, and he recruited four other professors and a student to help, all on a volunteer basis.

To develop the survey, the project team conducted a dozen focus groups last year in various parts of the county, with people recruited from church and community groups. Members of the individual groups were of the same race so people would feel free to comment on racial questions. Six groups were composed of blacks, and six of whites.

“Our goal is to find out what people think about diversity,” Mr. Droppa said, “and our recommendations will come from that.

"If they say more people in politics from minorities would help, perhaps our recommendation would be to help support more minority candidates,” he said. “But if minority respondents say they feel they already can run for political office, but they are not interested in doing so, then our recommendations would be different."

Mr. Droppa said attitudes about race in the United States are changing fairly rapidly.

“I know people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who say their grandparents were racist, but now they are 100 percent different,” he said.

“But because Westmoreland County has many rural areas still, some people have no frame of reference or experience with minorities,” he said. "Their experience is very different than if you were in New York City, where you can’t take a cab or eat at a restaurant without experiencing people of other cultures.”

“Because of sports in school, and work, especially in the health care field, we are having many more contacts with diverse groups,” he said.

Mr. Droppa said the firm Qualtrics will compile the answers from the survey, and the Seton Hill research team will analyze the results and present them to the community.

“We will present the findings to the community and initiate a conversation,” he said. “We want to get away from researchers being in lofty towers, we want to have a conversation with various groups about the results, and we want to engage people in a conversation.”

Officials hope to get 2,500 county residents and people who work in the county to fill out the survey by June 30.

Officials said the survey takes about 20 minutes to complete. To take the survey online: setonhill.edu/survey. No names are attached to the survey, but participants can give their name to be eligible for three $100 gift cards.

Those who would rather fill out a paper survey can call Mr. Waltenbaugh’s office at 724-834-1260, ext. 153.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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