Making the Pittsburgh-Kenya connection

A worthy project aims to fight youth violence and open opportunities in both places

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Last week provided me a delightful mix of past and present, Africa and Pittsburgh, in the face of some otherwise depressing developments.

To get those out of the way, the sour pieces of the week included watching the UPMC conglomerate continue to masquerade as a nonprofit while acting like a Pittsburgh Enron or Halliburton. There was also America's alleged financial leadership cooperating with our media to make a huge fuss about European economic problems to keep Americans' attention off the extent to which we continue to be rolled by our own government and financial institutions. Then there was aspiring mayor-for-life Luke Ravenstahl's two-years-early announcement that he will run for re-election in 2013, starting with a $500-a-person fundraiser, in a move to preclude Democratic Party bosses from dumping him.

Here was the good part of the week.

About five years ago, I was introduced to Elizabeth "Niecy" Dennis, a former senior Mellon Financial Corp. executive who had retired and launched a nongovernmental organization, Workforce Development Global Alliance. WDGA had a foot in two camps, both of long-term interest to my wife and me.

The two ends of the project, in both Pittsburgh and Kenya, had as a primary objective the suppression of the destructive, corrosive effects of violence among young people. Education, leading to jobs, was the answer WDGA sought.

I didn't take much convincing. I had been a U.S. foreign service officer in arenas as far apart as Lebanon in the Middle East, Somalia in East Africa and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans, and I had seen the clear link between joblessness and violence. A pick-up truck with a machine gun mounted in the back filled with young men was the same in all three places. The young men were killers, with no jobs and no stake in society.

At the U.S. end, a look at the 11 p.m. TV news any night would show that the same phenomenon is a constant feature of the lives of many young Americans, of many young Pittsburghers, who have the disquieting characteristic of getting shot dead for nothing worthwhile.

Our understanding of the problem was enhanced considerably by watching five years of the HBO series, "The Wire." It was based on life in Baltimore which, apart from the quality of the two football teams, is not awfully different from Pittsburgh. When I was an American diplomat, we called such occasions of violence, with conscious irony, "acts of meaningless violence -- AMV's."

The meaningless deaths of young people took on a particularly up-close character for my wife and me when an exemplary young man, Jeron Grayson, living with his family in our building, was shot dead while home from college in October 2010.

In Kenya, the violence takes on a somewhat different character, in the sense that it sometimes accompanies elections. It is also frequently tribally based, with people killing each other and burning down each other's houses and villages because they are of different ethnic origins.

Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize 2004 winner Wangari Maathai, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who died Sunday in Nairobi, is being remembered for her work in conservation, women's rights and political reform. Her life also calls to mind what remains to be done in Kenya.

Ms. Dennis's programs, in Kenya and in Pittsburgh, are designed to provide young people useful skills and education, thus to make them employable and help them find jobs, and to offer them an alternative to a life that can easily end in violence.

In support of WDGA's programs, I put Ms. Dennis in touch with an old friend, then-U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael E. Ranneberger. I was thoroughly familiar with Mr. Ranneberger's views on such matters from our shared experience as American diplomats trying to bring peace to Southern Africa in the 1980s and to Somalia in the 1990s. He picked right up on the objectives of her program and provided active, visible support in Kenya.

As a result, Ms. Dennis invited Mr. Ranneberger to Pittsburgh to speak last week at a roundtable luncheon hosted by the Savoy Restaurant on the subject of "Leveraging Business Success through Local-to-Global Initiatives." The goal was to put business leaders and organizers from southwestern Pennsylvania and elsewhere in touch with opportunities for profitable partnerships in Kenya and East Africa.

The second purpose of his visit was to receive WDGA's sixth annual Humanitarian Award. This honor recognized not only the help he had provided WDGA's educational programs in Kenya but also reflected the constructive role Mr. Ranneberger had played in ending the division and violence that occurred in Kenya after its 2007 elections. It's estimated that the post-election troubles cost at least a thousand lives. Mr. Ranneberger waded into efforts to end the violence, which was welcomed by most Kenyans and even by normally gun-shy U.S. officials in Washington.

The Humanitarian Award event was hosted by LeMont restaurant on Mount Washington, giving us the pleasure of providing our out-of-town guests, including Mr. Ranneberger and his fiancee, Ms. Ruth Konchellah, who heads a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, "Cherish Others," what has to be Pittsburgh's most glorious view at night.

WDGA's work in Pittsburgh will continue. It is particularly active in Homestead, working closely with Mayor Betty Epser. Its work will also continue in Kenya. Some 700 Kenyans already have participated in its projects there, gaining skills and finding jobs. We should all be proud.

Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( , 412 263-1976).


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