Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh shows its international side

The Heinz awards do credit to our city’s global involvement

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An event last week at the Sen. John Heinz History Center recalled for me three phenomena that I think we all need to be reminded of repeatedly in the face of some of the nonsense that characterizes public life in America these days.

The event was the awarding of five annual Heinz awards for arts and humanities, environment, the human condition, public policy and technology, the economy and employment. In the spirit of the late Sen. John Heinz, the awards celebrate “the power and responsibility of the individual to change the world for the better.”

The first lesson which I drew was that there was a time in the not too distant past when American public life — and particularly the Republican Party — included towering figures such as Sen. Heinz who thought big, who understood the necessity of America’s international role and who was willing to put his money behind his beliefs.

The second lesson came from the fact that the work of all five honorees, from very different walks of life, all had critical international components to what they do. The word “globalization” does not even need to be pronounced anymore: Really important work by its nature is international in character.

The third lesson was that Pittsburghers do not need to be especially prompted to participate in such celebrations of American and international achievement. The afternoon was rainy, Downtown traffic was unspeakable, but the city’s and county’s business and political leadership were all there, meeting the honorees and applauding them vigorously, truly admiring and appreciative of what they had done to receive the awards.

The Heinz family themselves are very international. Sen. Heinz’s son, Andre, who presented the awards, is an environmentalist who spends a fair amount of time in Europe. Sen. Heinz’s widow, Teresa Heinz Kerry, for whom Andre Heinz stood in, is Portuguese and born in what is now Mozambique in East Africa. Her present husband is Secretary of State John Kerry, who is turning himself inside out trying to produce agreements in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians, the Iranians and the rest of the world and even, a real stretch, an accord that could end the Syrian civil war.

The five honorees were the gold standard of international achievers.

Abraham Verghese, now at Stanford University, is a doctor, author and teacher who has worked and trained other medical personnel in Africa and India as well as in North America. He was honored for his achievements in the arts and humanities.

Jonathan Foley is an environmentalist at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. His work focuses on the sensitive juncture between agriculture and climate change. The basic question is, how do we continue to use modern methods to feed a growing world population while not doing unacceptable damage to the environment? Mr. Foley has developed a five-point global plan to tackle this problem, with application everywhere from Bangladesh to West Virginia.

Salman Khan is the founder of the Khan Academy in Mountain View, Calif. He has built a free, online teaching platform based on an original conception of how students learn — particularly mathematics — employing videos. His award was for achievement in improving the human condition. He said his method had helped an estimated 300,000 teachers “all over the world.”

Sanjeev Arora heads Project ECHO at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He created a health care model that targets underserved rural and poor populations through training community technicians. He said his work had benefited medical centers “all over the world.” The field of his honor was public policy.

Leila Janah leads an organization called “Samasource.” (“Sama” in Sanskrit means “equal.”) Its objective is to use digital technology to create jobs, particularly for women, in poor parts of the world. In the United States, Samasource works through community colleges. She cited as one example women workers in Kenya who, without the skills Samasource is teaching them, would have no alternative but prostitution. Ms. Janah called what she is doing “international development,” in the finest sense of the words. Ms. Janah has worked in India, Rwanda and Senegal as well as the United States.

Pittsburgh involvement in the awards, apart from the longtime association of the Heinz company with the city, is not wanting. The Heinz Family Foundation’s offices are found on Liberty Avenue. Staff and members of the board, who devote many hours to the choice of honorees, are led by Director Kim O’Dell, harried Thursday as the rain poured down. They are here as well.

In my mind, these awards are Pittsburgh at its international best, one of the most desirable aspects of this city.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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