There has been in this area since the late 1960s, prompted in part by the troubling aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, an organization named PACE, which stands for Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise.
Since its founding, PACE has provided more than $10 million in grants and technical assistance to more than 300 non-profit organizations in isolated and neglected parts of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
For the past four years PACE has held a large annual luncheon titled "Inclusive Voices" to bring people together to increase their understanding of each other and to increase awareness of PACE and its work. The luncheon is made up of tables of people from different walks of life. Each table includes a "conversationalist" who tries to keep discussion at the table on track and lively.
"Conversationalists" have included noteworthy members of the Pittsburgh community, including Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, New Pittsburgh Courier Editor Rod Doss, jazz vocalist Etta Cox, Fifth-Third Bank's Western Pennsylvania President Julie Fallon Hughes, Andy Warhol Museum Director Eric Shiner and -- brace yourself -- me.
PACE Commissioner Claudette Lewis, a friend of mine -- "friend" defined as someone I can't say no to -- asked me back in January if I would serve as a conversationalist at this year's March 30 luncheon. I wondered why she asked me, suspecting my wife of having told Claudette I talked a lot.
The assignment to lead in conversation for two hours a roundtable of seven people whom I had never laid eyes on shouldn't have bothered me, given the career I have had, but it did nonetheless. I was told by PACE organizers that I could blow part of the time by asking everyone to introduce themselves and then talk about myself for a while. They said I could leave out parts, such as felony convictions and the like, if I wanted to.
Instead, after soliciting brief introductions, I threw them a fastball. "You are no doubt aware of the business in Sanford, Fla., the killing of Trayvon Martin? Could that happen in Pittsburgh?"
There was a little shifting in chairs and eyes looking to the left and right. The group was multiracial. "Come on now," I said. Lots of responses poured forth. The general consensus was, "Yes, for sure." One comment was, "It probably has happened here already, although we haven't heard about it."
I took that as an opportunity to insist that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, my employer, certainly tried hard to cover such stories thoroughly, although I admitted that sometimes our coverage amounted to a brief piece in the "Local News" section about a body being found up on the Hill, with name and age being the sole biographic information included. Nor did we necessarily follow up to see if justice were pursued.
The subject of the Florida killing was brought close to home by the fact that another of the conversationalists was Rev. Glenn G. Grayson Sr., a neighbor of mine in Chatham Tower and pastor of the Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church on the Hill. Rev. Grayson had lost his son Jeron to gun violence in October 2010. Jeron, home from college for a visit, had been shot and killed at a party.
Everyone more or less had his say about the Trayvon Martin killing and what would come next, so it was time to move on. My own last thought on the subject was to wonder what impact the murderous Florida "Stand Your Ground" law and ensuing court action would have on tourists and tax-shelter seekers thinking of Florida as a destination.
The discussion of the appropriate role of neighborhood watches -- or armed vigilantes -- led easily into discussion of one of my favorite subjects: "Should the United States play the role of '911' for the world? Should we be asked to right wrongs anywhere they occur?"
I cited Libya, Syria and North Korea as examples. I also noted the guns-vs.-butter trade-off for Americans, as our schools, bridges, locks and dams deteriorate, neglected because the nation's resources are being spent instead in response to international 911 calls.
I think the table appreciated the segue from the local/national issue of the shooting of young African-American men to the international issue of the appropriate role of the United States in the world. Some commented, but by this time we were into dessert -- at the Omni William Penn, pretty decent -- and we were being signalled that the conversationalists should stop provoking the guests and permit them to pay attention to talk from the podium.
I would say, in conclusion, first, that PACE, by building and supporting neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations, particularly at a time when federal, state and local money is becoming scarcer and scarcer, is doing very important work that is very worthy of corporate and individual support.
Second, the "Inclusive Voices" luncheon was a pleasure, giving me and the other participants the opportunity to identify, think about and discuss important, current topics with people whom we otherwise would not have met.opinion_commentary
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (email@example.com, 412 263-1976). First Published April 21, 2012 12:00 AM