Category Archives: Other Communities

Round 4 grants: Migrant rights, police violence, anti-racism campaigns…

So the last post was on the Edge Fund and what that might look like in the Hill District. This post gives some specifics on the process, dollars awarded and the kinds of programs that received support. Things to note here that we might appreciate and model in the Hill are the speed of reporting, diversity and transparency. Characteristics not easy to find in general philanthropy, my own practice not excluded, but God’s not done with me yet.

Edge Fund

chickpea facebook cover On Saturday 6 December Edge Fund members and applicants got together to decide on the allocation of funds between the final 14 applicants of Round 4. Around 60 people took part in the process, which includes short presentations, opportunities to have discussions with the applicants and then members and applicants voting (with chickpeas) to determine how much each applicant receives.

As usual, migrant groups did well in this round, and also there were a number of groups working on issues of racism in the criminal justice system, such as deaths at the hands of the police. Grants agreed at the meeting were:

  1. African Rainbow Family (£5,000)
  2. London Black Revolutionaries (£3,000)
  3. Manchester Migrant Solidarity (£3,000)
  4. Sex Worker Open University (£3,000)
  5. United Families and Friends Campaign (£3,000)
  6. Unity Centre Glasgow (3,000)
  7. Abortion Rights Campaign (£1,500)
  8. Coal Action Network (£1,500)
  9. Foil Vedanta (£1,500)
  10. Framework Inclusion UK (disability rights) (£1,500)
  11. Generation Revolution (film about…

View original post 225 more words

Decision Making, Democracy, Funding & Power. Feeling The Edge Fund.

Poster used to announce the launch of The Edge Fund

Poster used to announce the launch of The Edge Fund

Today, I am thankful for the model and extensive documentation of the England based Edge Fund. At the end of this post is a link to a post from this funding body titled, “How We Make Decisions” which is what motivated me to write this morning.


The Edge Fund is an organization whose work I am very interested in for work I do at The Heinz Endowments, where I am a Senior Program Officer for the Arts & Culture Program. Part of my work is focused on increasing arts experiences for youth in African American/distressed neighborhoods in a program called the Transformative Arts Process. I’ve passed along The Edge Fund to the program’s Advisory Board as an example of the way it could make decisions on recommendations to the Endowments about how it should spend $ on a field building process we are now focused on. A process I have not documented on our website, another learning from The Edge Fund which has done a meticulous job documenting its process. Another fundamental difference is that the Edge Fund’s member decision-making process is the final decision-making process on the dollars where our process is an advisory one. For the purposes of Hillombo,  I am wondering how this example might apply to the Hill District. Specifically,  the Hill District Growth Fund and the Fund that will support development in the Hill District that was part of the deal  between the Penguins, the City, County and The Hill District Development Corporation. For of my comments on my work as a Program Officer, check out my blog “Philanthropic Windows” .

The link at the end of this post was written  by folks at The Edge Fund and describes how it makes its funding decisions. It gets me jazzed to think about how communities like the Hill could even model for Philanthropy how it could better involve those most impacted by the problems that it says it wants to solve and in doing so be more effective. In the case of The Edge Fund, this goes beyond “involvement in decision making” to actually “authority in decision making”,  a fundamental difference between the work I do at Heinz and how The Edge Fund functions. To date, my sense is that the Growth Fund has operated with very little understanding in this neighborhood as to how it works or how it can help people who live here, falling into a trap of so much of philanthropy. This is trap is why you see efforts like Glass Pockets, the Center for Effective Philanthropy and The Fund for Shared Insight. Efforts not above scrutiny either, but interested in helping/encouraging Foundations to be more open in their processes.

My experience in the Hill is while we have some ideas on power our understanding of how to build power is constrained by our belief in power in particular individuals and positions rather than broader efforts that help us build power as a neighborhood. This diminished power then shows up in what we are able to secure in battles like the one we most recently had for the Lower Hill District where we did not make our goals on the amount of affordable housing we wanted or in the earlier battle with the Penguins over the Community Benefits Agreement where the Penguins were able to get off with relatively small investments. For my ongoing commentary about how leadership in our neighborhood often actively resists engaging its residents to its own detriment,  see previous posts on transparency,  The Preliminary Land Development Plan Process and my first post on the The Hill District Growth Fund. I wasn’t blogging at the time of the One Hill battle, but while it had a larger community base/democratic process than the previously mentioned efforts,  the involvement of community members was lessened towards the end of  that process and it served to weaken us there as well.

An image from the website of the Edge Fund, I believe they are reviewing proposals

An image from the website of the Edge Fund, I believe they are reviewing proposals

The challenge of course with engaging more folks in the decision-making process is that it is extremely time-consuming and if it is not properly staffed, the process can get weighed down by the lack of capacity and speed can grind to a halt. This is the challenge I am facing now with my work as a steering committee member of the the Hill District Consensus Group’s  (HDCG) Arts Plan process (HDCG receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing is a co-director there), so….there’s that as well. I really want to learn more about the Edge Fund’s work as their structure seems to take these capacity issues into account and strike a good balance. To see for yourself, check out the link below “How We Make Decisions”.

How we make decisions.

Hey, Affordable Housing in the Hill District is About You Too

The brownstone across from my sister’s house.

I was just at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY and so was in one of the most talked about places in the country when it comes to gentrification, so I will try to avoid the clichés and focus on a piece that I think connects well to the Hill District and a larger issue re: owner choice when it comes to prices. She has lived in Brooklyn for 11 years and Bed Stuy for the past 8. Nina is a renter and has been blessed to live in an apartment that has not had its rent increased since she moved in. After seeing the housing prices of this neighborhood, I attribute this lack of an increase to the personal values of the owner. The issue of owner values is important because it contradicts the always repeated mantra of “the market” as this is  a giant from the hills that we have no control over (Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man”  uses this analogy to talk about people asking about the direction of Hip Hop) . The market as price raising giant. A giant wholly separate of the values of the people who actually own the thing. C’mon. Stop that.

So, at some point we went outside to walk with my nephew and Nina points to a house across the street and notes that what looks like a pretty basic brownstone says “I hear that place is going for $1.6 million.” As luck would have it,  the house happens to have an open house going on at that time and so we go in to check it out. The realtor makes a point to say the this three- plex over a two bedroom apartments will be sold “as is”. When we go inside to see the place, we see what he means. Stained carpet, old stove, rickety stairs, just generally kind of funky. Nina is looking around and is noting that there is no way this place costs $1.6 million.

My sister asks the gentleman how much the house is going for and he says not $1.6 million.. but $1.69 million! Wow. So, if you are not familiar with what a three-plex over a two bedroom apartment means, it means three floors of a house above a 2 br apt. I am no real estate expert, and we don’t have any traditional AA neighborhoods that are at this stage of gentrification, so comparisons are difficult, but I am thinking this house is more expensive than what we’d find in Pgh, by a factor of 5. However, what’s more telling is that the #’s were staggering to my sister who, as I said earlier, has been in this neighborhood for almost a decade.

As we were leaving we noted to the realtor that it was a hefty price tag. He commented off handedly that the reason he could have an asking price this high was because there was no space left in Manhattan. This immediately struck me and made me think of the Hill. Around 2:30 pm a ride to my sister’s from Midtown Manhattan was about a 25 minute cab ride. Take into account NYC non-rush hour traffic and we’ll call it a 15 min ride in Pittsburgh. Now keep in mind that Mayor Peduto is said to want 10,000 to 20,000 new residents in Pittsburgh over the next decade (Thanks to Majestic Lane, formerly of Senator Ferlo’s office and now of A+ schools for this info). So, if housing in the Lower Hill District will average about $300,000, what will happen to housing in the Hill District once that housing fills up? Obviously, its likely that housing prices will go up dramatically, though not automatically, since there really is not a price raising giant (there really isn’t). It’s obvious because you can drive across the Hill and back 2x in that same 15 min drive that is needed to get toinside the house top floor “The Stuy” from Midtown, so of course we will be impacted by housing in the Lower Hill. What I haven’t really thought much about is what the Lower Hill housing prices might  mean to neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville.  If Manhattan, NY’s center city,  is driving Brooklyn housing prices, isn’t that akin to the Lower Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods?  And it’s not just housing prices. My sister has noted food and daycare prices escalating as well, because owners i.e. are sensing there is money left on the table and making choices to raise prices. The issue of affordable housing is usually framed as an issue where we in the professional and “caretaking” classes talk about the impacts on poor people, but Nina and her husband are professional class folks with multiple degrees between them and the giant is impacting them as 2-2

Thus, affordable housing in the Lower Hill District is about all of us in Pittsburgh and this remaining a more affordable city than many.  Of course we know that the Penguins development is built on land given them by the city for free when they threatened to go to Kansas City and that that land was acquired by the city when it used eminent domain to take the property from its largely African American population. So, the issue of the Lower Hill is also about the increasing ways the public sector is used to enrich those who are very wealthy already,  in this case, Mr. Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Seriously, how do they talk so stridently about the market and how it can’t tolerate 30% affordable housing on this piece of land they did not buy. If a housing owner can decide to maintain an affordable rent for a young family in Bed Stuy as personal policy, why can’t major corporate owners have a value for affordable housing as a citywide policy that impacts thousands of people? Everyday we hear allusions and direct references to the values and of poor people, whether in the need for certain kinds of mentoring programs so kids can learn values “not in Mario_Lemieux the businessmantheir homes” or in the “ratchet” videos on Facebook.  However, I don’t think we spend 1/2 that amount of time thinking about the values of the very wealthy and the choices they make that impact us far greater than the young men who are sagging.  I’ve heard Pgh Black folks get on Pgh Black athletes for their lack of commitment to the Pittsburgh Black community, but what of Mario Lemieux? Honestly, what Pittsburgh athlete has received  more benefits from  Pittsburgh’s Black community? Who is the proverbial “giant” in this story? Don’t get mad. It’s a fair question.

The Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center: History as Future and Development

Recently came back from vacation in Ocean, Pines, MD (been vacationing from

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hillombo as well and will do better on that front) and at my wife’s suggestion the family took a day to go and see the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Dorchester, MD. I knew a few facts about this incredible woTubman Museum Image Centerman, namely that she escaped enslavement and then made many trips to free 300 other enslaved Africans, but, even though I am from MD, I did not know she was born and escaped from Dorchester County, MD. The Center’s staff is ready to share lots of information about this revered ancestor and the space has books and videos pertaining to her and has located important sites in this community so that one can go see feel the import of her work and impact of the enslavement of African people. After traveling an hour plus to see the space we bought a book, some artifacts and made a small donation all totalling about $100, ate a local restaurant (no indicator that it was African American owned in the menu or décor) dropping another $60 and then went in a  local jewelry store and probably spent 10 more bucks, but this also did not appear to be African American owned. The Museum is an example of the Hill District Master Plan principle “Building Upon The African American Legacy” and our visit shows how this kind of institution can both be a place to tell the story of African American people and attract dollars to a community. Unfortunately, it can also show how those dollars may not necessarily benefit African American for-profit business owners, so that is a sobering fact, but all work is work in progress… The leaders of this space and their supporters (state of MD being one) get it in that a new  and expanded Center is set to open in 2015. In this the centennial of the death of Freedom Fighter Harriet Tubman, ashe (Yoruba word that can roughly translated into English to mean energy) to her spirit and to the folks who have had the vision to connect the history of their community to its future. The Hill clearly has the legacy to have its own strategies to attract cultural tourists, and, thoughtfully “cultivated”, culture could even more for the identity we develop as residents of the neighborhood and the region’s identity as an interesting place to live, particularly for African American folks.

I am Trayvon Martin… and his Father

Having the goal of running in Rep. Wheatley’s Fall 5K, I was jogging recently with my brother and daughter in a wealthy, what I imagine is an almost entirely white enclave in Rehoboth Beach, MD (generously given this space by friends of the family) and as vans and pick up trucks with white men passed and white teenage bTrayvon and Dadoys walked their dogs, I had thoughts of Trayvon Martin. I imagined what Trayvon Martin experienced directly and violently: self-defined insiders noting “rare to see a Black person around here. I wonder how they got here and what they are doing here?” However, having gone to St. Andrew’s high school in Bethesda, MD, church in upper Northwest Washington D.C., working downtown… this experience of feeling and then imagining the racism of white people & communities is not new to me. In fact, the alienating nature of being in predominantly white settings was one of the reasons I came to the Hill District almost twenty years ago. A popular phase I hear these days is “this is really more about class than race”, and while class deserves much more attention than it gets, particularly from middle class African Americans, the pervasive problem of white supremacy as an overarching American ideology is almost never named as the public health problem that it is for African Americans.

It is this issue of ubiquitous American and Pittsburgh racism that needs even greater attention as we discuss the Lower Hill District and it’s future. One of the main reasons we need see the Greater Hill District Master Plan and its principles against displacement and “Building on the African American Cultural Legacy” brought to life in the Lower Hill District in the form of multi-class housing, African American businesses, street names, Walter Hood’s “Curtain Call”, and “Way Finding” plaques is to remind us all of the role of African Americans in the history, present and future of the Lower Hill. To imagine a future where we can expect physical, psychological and social safety, security and progress for African American people and all people. Today, I envision a place where my children, or their children, or other Black boys and girls are assumed insiders, residents, people who belong in the Lower Hill District, people who are never be questioned as to their place. I am Trayvon Martin and his father. Justice for Trayvon Martin and his family and all of us. Light, Peace and Progress to his spirit.

Belmar Gardens-A Story That Deserves More Telling

Last week I was talking with one of my original mentors in the world of non-profits, Sabira Bushra, and she started telling me about how she is moving to another place within her housing cooperative, Belmar Gardens. I wasn’t at all familiar with the idea of a housing cooperative and so Sabira started explaining it to me. This history deserves more attention in Pittsburgh as a story of African American self determination and in the Hill District as an example of how we might fullfill two goals of the Greater Hill District Master Plan. The first goal would be “Build Upon The African American Legacy” and the second goal would be “Family Friendly Housing Without Displacement”. Please click here for a link to “Strategies to Prevent Displacement of Residents and Businesses in the Hil District-working paper” written by attorney Bob Damewood and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing.

In talking to Sabira, I learned Belmar Gardens was started in the 1950’s as one of the only ways that working class African Americans could own their own home. As I understand the history, a group of African Americans  formed a for-profit corporation to purchase a 118 homes in Belmar. This was the first African American Housing Cooperative in Pittsburgh and, according to, this was the first housing cooperative anywhere to receive a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage. We should pause here to note that even into the 1950’s, FHA underwriting manuals expressly forbade the granting of mortages unless they were to white people purchasing homes in racially homogenous neighborhoods because the FHA believed that Black homeowners brought down White owners’ home values and in doing so endangered the loan. What has come to be known as “redlining” obviously meant loans were not going to African Americans, so I would think the story behind the initial securing of this mortgage is quite powerful. Fast forward to today and 50 years later the cooperative continues. The structure works in such a way that people own a share in the company and the share represents their ownership of a home. Once a person has purchased a share they pay a monthly fee that is lower then a typical mortgage payment and this fee is then used to pay current expenses like the water bill as well as major capital expenses. For example, this year Belmar Gardens will be installing new kitchens in the homes that are in need of them.

Not sure what would prevent this approach from being implemented in the Hill District, but it sounds compelling and a strategy worthy of being on the table. Maybe this approach could be tried in Addison Terrace? Belmar Gardens is particularly intriguing as an approach to the Master Plan goals noted above when I reflect on the questions I have raised earlier on the Residencies at New Granada Square, particularly the way the family average median income standard will be applied to residences that are largely for single dwellers. Thanks very much to Sabira Bushra for taking the time to answer my questions and explain this history and an extra big shout out to all who have maintained the institution of Belmar Gardens over more than half a century.

Cupcakes & Community Development

Continuing to think back to my stay in Anacostia, S.E. Washington D.C. and connections to the Hill District (see Mr. Laing Goes to Washington), allow me to introduce an impressive operation, Olivia’s Cupcakes. The store is a brilliant combination of tasty treats, economic and community development as well as an educational facility. Here you have all the principles of the Nguzo Saba wrapped up in one experience. My family came across Olivia’s as we were driving out of Anacostia to go to MD a couple of Saturdays ago. When I saw it, I had to bust a U-Turn to see what was up with this gourmet cupcake store, smack dab in the middle of the ‘hood. Once inside, we learned that Ms. Cindy Bullock began the store, along with Royelle’s  Princess Party Palace upstairs, as an opportunity to express her love for baking while showing her two daughters, Olivia and Royelle, how to run a business. Thus, Olivia’s Cupcakes and Royelle’s are providing real live spaces to teach all the elements of becoming an entrepreneur while providing the community with upscale deserts. The idea of creative deserts in this predominantly African American neighborhood, combined with a family taking education into their own hands and preparing children to run their own shops was powerful to see. But none it works without the cupcakes being delicious and they are with just the right amount of icing and moist cake… you go, Bullocks! Next time you are in D.C. go check them out at 2318 Minnesota Ave, S.E. Washington D.C.

Olivia and Royelle at Olivia's cupcakes

Olivia and Royelle at Olivia’s cupcakes

Thinking about the larger environment and its relationship to things that do and don’t happen in predominantly African American neighborhoods, it was interesting to me that around the corner from Olivia’s is another relative new operation, a grocery store that was once called Yes! Organic and is now called Fairlawn Market. The grocery store apparently got a $900,000 grant from the city and has struggled to be profitable, but I wonder what the support network in Anacostia is for long-time Anacostians like Ms. Cindy Bullock and small businesses like Olivia’s? The store helped give the neighborhood personality and in talking to Ms. Bullock and her daughters, I was learning about the history and culture of Anacostia. I will go back to Anacostia for that experience and as a person who is part of the Black professional class for the forseeable future, Olivia’s helps to make this a neighborhood I would want to go and live in. What are the opportunities for Hill District entrepreneurs, such as the folks at Grandma B’s, to open businesses in the redevelopment of this community? Hopefully as the Hill District changes it will include a heathy proportion of indigenous business ownership. In this way, the neighborhood maintains and develops its character as a predominantly African American community with a proud legacy, while offering the secondary benefit of making Pittsburgh a more fair, interesting and important city.

Mr. Laing Goes to Washington

Norman's HouseLast week on the sad occasion of the passing of my father, Clarence Laing (love you, Dad), I went back home to the metropolitan DC area. Because of my father’s illness, I have traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh and D.C. over the last month and a half and have felt a sense of foreboding in looking at DC and thinking about the Hill District. Washington is changing. Quickly. Buildings, posh restaurants and Dunkin Donuts are sprouting up everywhere and I see “White” people in places I never saw them before. Even places like where I stayed last weekend, Anacostia/Fairlawn, S.E. Washington D.C. (there is some debate as to whether Fairlawn is in Anacostia or is a separate neighborhood) Together, these characteristics serve as the sign of the feared and/or desired “G- word” (gentrification)

Growing up in Silver Spring, MD, if DC was “Chocolate City” then Southeast D.C. was “Dark Chocolate City” and, like the Hill District, the stories that were often told about it, usually by outsiders to outsiders, were of one form of deprivation or another. When Black boys met and played the “where you from?” card game, saying “Southeast.” was an Ace and saying “Silver Spring” was like a 4, or something. But, also like the Hill, Southeast D.C., one-time home of Frederick Douglass, has brought forth some powerful history and gotten stigmatized by the nightly news, more so than its daily life. So, last weekend, I was kind of bugging off the fact that my wife had booked a weekend stay in Southeast, D.C. (apparently I had been told in advance, but hadn’t listened).  A weekend stay across the Anacostia River? To my mind, just imagining that this part of D.C. could be a place for tourists to want to stay was a bit of a shocker, but I wasn’t hip to a trend that apparently is pretty strong and that is The online comments show folks from all over the world. I had an interesting texting conversation with the owner of this house, Norman, and he expressed 1) Anacostia has gotten a bad rap for too long; 2) There are some interesting demographic changes; 3) Racial diversity is not necessarily a bad thing for the hood. We really enjoyed our stay and if my mother’s house get’s tight again, we will definitely go back. I just talked with a fraternity brother of mine and he has a friend stay with him for short periods of time while she rents out her upper East Side New York house for periods up to as long as a month. I checked to see if there are Hill District houses on this website and even found one in the Sugar Top section. Apparently this is going on in cities all over the country and with the economy and hotel costs what they are, this will only grow. I was saying to my wife we may want to put the house we now rent out on annual basis on airbnb at some point in the future. What impact might this have on a street? On notions of neighborhood and community?

What does all this mean for the Hill District and my sense of foreboding? Pittsburgh is no D.C. and thus the Hill District is no Anacostia. So, we are not talking an apples to apples comparison. However, I will say that soon after we crossed the bridge into Anacostia there were signs for ONE BEDROOM HOUSING-COMING SOON that put me in the mind of the Hill (see my earlier post on The Residencies at New Granada  Square). But, what is my role in gentrification as a Black person in the professional class who has bought two homes that were built by non-profit community development corps as part of a redevelopment strategy?  Not long after we purchased our home on Dinwiddie St. there was an article in the New York Times, arranged at least in part by the Hill District Community Development Corporation, titled “Revival for a Black Enclave in Pittsburgh” that discussed our family and quoted me in the context of what was then a new phenomenon of “Black gentrifiers”. Interestingly, my wife, born and raised in Hill District public housing, didn’t fit this frame and was not included in the story. Towards the end of the article this trend of Black gentrification was juxtaposed with a quote from a young, unnamed Black man saying “Ain’t none of this got nothing to do with me”. I wonder if this young man had his own sense of foreboding.