As the nation celebrates Black History Month, the O’Neill School is working to amplify Black voices within our own community. From students to faculty and alumni, the O’Neill IUPUI blog will feature guest posts throughout February discussing the individual’s research, fields of expertise, and/or experiences.
Written by Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell, Ed.D, MPA’99–Nonprofit Management
“Hello everyone and welcome to “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know!”
As I introduce my colleagues and our guest, I see my face reflecting back at me from my computer screen. Producing and moderating a weekly live public affairs podcast was the last thing on my mind this time a year ago.
I had launched a diversity, equity, and inclusion practice in 2017 and had been very fortunate to build the business quickly. I had just returned from Los Angeles working with a client on their DEI challenges and within two weeks the country had shut down.
As I sat on my couch anxiously watching the crisis deepen, I saw the response to it fall prey to the racial and economic fault lines so deeply entrenched in American society. My colleagues and I witnessed anxious social media posts as job losses ramped up and myths about COVID-19 spread like wildfire. While my work focused on race and equity, how to help a community respond to a pandemic was not in my toolbox.
On one of our weekly group calls to discuss a response to the pandemic, I connected with leaders from a local media nonprofit, a foundation, and a Black think tank to hatch our idea. We used our social media savvy to launch a program that would reach Black communities and those doing work in them. Initially only focused on COVID-19, we decided to broaden the scope after the murder of George Floyd and the months of unrest that followed in the nation and at our location in Pittsburgh.
At the time when our local newspapers had made national headlines for suppressing news on the unrest and not allowing Black reporters to cover protests, we were averaging 40,000 views. We knew our show was quickly becoming the source of news for our community.
Planned or not, the program became an equity tool for a city deemed the worst place for Black women to live in 2019, following a study by Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission. The lead researcher on the report, Dr. Junia Howell, stated, “What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S., automatically by just moving their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment.”
Under that shadow, we highlighted our communities’ plight with COVID-19, we began to see Black epidemiologists and public health experts we had featured on our show be added to county and state advisory boards and committees. Noting the imbalance of responses, we insisted that cases be counted by race and testing centers placed in Black neighborhoods.
Eleven months into our short media experiment, we are bringing the community together on issues around education, health, politics, and even relationships! This work has also helped our individual organizations. My diversity, equity, and inclusion company, Black Women Wise Women LLC, launched in 2017 as response to the persistent problems in Pittsburgh that have stunted its growth. My partners and I don’t simply offer workshops on bias or anti-racism—we dig into the culture of organizations and the practices that have kept them from being diverse and equitable.
My work on issues of race and justice can be frustrating and exhausting—but it also has helped open the eyes of some to historic injustices and anti-Black behaviors. As we strategize how to dismantle oppressive practices, we are still working alongside systems that have long been closed. Yet I am blessed to be a part of a movement that shows no signs of stopping.
The idea of returning to “normal” is a hard no for us. We cannot unsee what has happened to our country in recent years or the history that has sustained inequity. We must all engage in socially meaningful conversations with a purpose. As a third-generation nonprofit leader and advocate, I am hopeful that the heavy lifting we do today will impact the path that my teenage daughter will walk