What Does a Just and Equitable Pittsburgh Look Like?
From the Carnegie Museums to grassroots groups like 1Hood Media Academy, the Pittsburgh community is uniting to collect art that inspires Pittsburgh's next chapter.
Community members of southwestern Pennsylvania are being called to create and submit art that answers a critical question for our future community: What does a just and equitable Pittsburgh look like?
The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, 1Hood Media Academy and other organizations are leveraging their resources and connections to organize the call for diverse art, work as partners for progress and contribute to Pittsburgh’s equitable growth, according to a statement released on Juneteenth.
The initiative, called “Envisioning A Just Pittsburgh,” will begin accepting submissions this month and will culminate in a series of showcases and performances in early 2024.
Ron Idoko, founding director of the Racial Equity Consciousness Institute at Pitt, says the growing attention on racial injustices in Pittsburgh inspired the initiative.
“We’ve seen reports that indicate we have some of the worst racial disparities in the country,” Idoko said in a Zoom interview. “So what we wanted to think about is how do we begin to turn the tide? And how do we create an inclusive space for people to envision what an equitable Pittsburgh looks like?”
A 2019 Gender Equity Commission report revealed that Black people in other U.S. cities, similar to Pittsburgh in population size and demographics, have better health, income, employment and educational outcomes than Pittsburgh’s Black residents. In May 2020, Allegheny County Council members acted on the findings and passed a motion to designate racism as a public health crisis. But Idoko says Pittsburgh needs to make more intentional, dynamic efforts to correct its systemic inequities, and that requires hearing ideas from everyone who calls the city home.
“People have things to say, and as a region we have to start paying attention to the voices that are not always uplifted or elevated,” he says. “We will find so much wisdom, insight, clarity and creativity when we create that space.”
Idoko says it was a “no-brainer” to make the initiative focused on artistic expression, as creativity is key to discovering unique solutions to complicated problems.
Jasiri X, co-founder and CEO of 1Hood Media Academy, an organization that uses artistic expression as a means to liberate and educate communities and promote social justice, agrees with Idoko that creativity is crucial to activism. He says the innovative thinking that is inherent in art can break cycles of stagnancy — cycles created when the same ideas are repeatedly proposed and implemented, but no lasting change emerges.
“Art gets to the heart of things. You can reach the soul and spirit of somebody or something in that medium,” Jasiri X said in a phone interview.
Gina Winstead, the first vice president for inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility at The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, says artists offer a unique point of view because they often act as first responders, observing and reacting to issues in real time.
“A lot of what I’m trying to do at the Carnegie Museums is to make sure that we are not creating solutions to what we’re perceiving as the problems, but that we’re listening to the community and providing them with what they tell us they need,” Winstead said in a Zoom interview.
Idoko has organized similar calls for diverse art at Pitt in the past, but nothing to the scale and scope of “Envisioning A Just Pittsburgh.” He says he knew he needed to expand the initiative outside the campus and orchestrate engagement with local leaders such as Jasiri X and Winstead to achieve “long-term sustainable impact” on the city.
With those community partnerships, the initiative has become accessible to all types of creatives and is now accepting work in three categories — writing, including short stories, poetry, personal essays and more; visual art; and performance. A youth division for those under 18 is also offered in the three categories. All artists can sign up here.
Jasiri X says that anyone, from experienced artists and performers to those picking up a paint brush or microphone for the first time, is welcome to submit work. While he thinks many people see the fine art sphere as an exclusionary “wealthy, white space,” he assured that this initiative, and others that 1Hood Media participates in, create pathways for everyone’s work to be represented.
Near the end of the year, submissions will be evaluated with a rubric that considers creativity, precision, artistic skill and connection to the theme of “Envisioning A Just Pittsburgh.” The winners and honorable mentions, along with additional outstanding selections from each category, will be displayed around the city, including in the Carnegie Museums, in 2024.
“We’re looking to shift what the inside of our museum looks like — not just what’s on our walls, but who’s walking through our buildings,” Winstead says about the museums’ goal to create intentionally inclusive spaces through the initiative.
Idoko says “the showcase is just the start,” and that he hopes the call for art will not only inspire effective economic and governmental policies and ongoing conversations about the future of the city, but also become a new tradition in Pittsburgh.
One of his biggest goals, however, is to be an example of how leaders of large institutions can use their positions of power to collaborate with others and inspire progress.
“It’s really heartwarming to see our largest institutions in the region take on this effort,” Idoko says. “I hope that there are other leaders and other organizations that become much more mindful of how they can leverage their platforms and their organizations toward collective change.”