In the cultural and spiritual traditions of African-Americans and of Africans wherever they may live, river banks metaphorically convey contrasting realities — the near shore represents today’s troubles and the distant shore tomorrow’s solutions. In the city of Pittsburgh, there have been famously unexpected crossings from near to distant shores.
Fifty years ago, who would have predicted that Pittsburgh would be named the most livable city in the United States, the fifth best city in which to retire and the third most secure place to live? Who would have thought that Pittsburgh would now be ranked as America’s smartest city and fifth most literate? Fifty to 75 years ago, who would have thought Pittsburgh today would rank among the top five cities in percentage of happy workers or that the average happiness of Pittsburgh residents would exceed the national average?
Yet there remain rivers in Pittsburgh where we stand shamefully on the near shore of despair, desperation, brokenness and ruin: Our high school dropout rate is about twice as high for blacks than whites; our unemployment rate is at least one and one-half times higher for blacks as for whites; our incarceration rate is nearly six times higher for blacks than whites, and our homicide rate is more than four times higher for blacks than whites.
Pittsburgh stands mournfully along this near bank, ashamed, because it otherwise has a storied history of deep and innovative caring for its young.
Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk brought an end to the scourge of childhood polio. Pittsburgh’s Rex Spears, Margaret McFarland and Elizabeth Elmer introduced new ideas and methods for healing the emotional wounds of our children. Pittsburgh’s Benjamin Spock broke the yoke of oppressive practices in child rearing. Our beloved Fred Rogers was a friend of every child in the world, of whatever color, gender or ethnicity.
Reflecting this historical spirit of Pittsburgh exceptionality, beams of hope stream toward us from the distant shore.
Dr. Doris Brevard, former principal of the predominately black and primarily poor Vann School of the Hill District, showed how to close and reverse racial-, socioeconomic- and gender-achievement gaps. The late Dr. Barbara Sizemore-Milliones studied how to accelerate the achievement of African-American students in several Pittsburgh communities under the leadership of legendary principals such as Louis Venson, Robert Mungin, Carolyn Davis and Regina Holley. At this moment, principal Kevin Bivins of Pittsburgh Fulton Elementary School and principal Gail Edwards of the Greater Pittsburgh Urban League Charter School have nearly closed or actually reversed these achievement gaps.
Is it not now time to figure out how to make these exceptionalities commonplace? To lead the nation toward that distant shore — liberty with justice for all, where dropout, incarceration, unemployment and homicide disparities are as exceptional as they now are commonplace?
For the nation’s sake, isn’t it time for another river crossing in Pittsburgh?
As we approach our destination, lessons learned undoubtedly will accrue to the benefit of all children, whose parents will come to view Pittsburgh as an exceptional place, a place where they choose to raise their families. Is this Pittsburgh’s time to make history — again?
Jerome Taylor is chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Africana Studies, chair of the Brain Trust of the Hill District Educational Council and president and founder of the Center for Family Excellence Inc. (firstname.lastname@example.org).