In honoring MLK Day, leaders hopeful for more ‘inclusive’ Pittsburgh | TribLIVE.com
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Natasha Lindstrom
Mayor William Peduto gives remarks during an event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at The August Wilson Center of African American Culture on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017.

Western Pennsylvania must work harder at attracting immigrants and improving the quality of life for all residents — particularly low-income people of all colors and ethnic minorities — to fuel the region’s economic growth, public officials said Monday during a celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have the opportunity to build the type of city that we want to live in,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told an audience of community members and dignitaries inside the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Peduto joined Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, foundation executives, business representatives, minority advocates and faith-based leaders for a nearly two-hour event. Their message: It will benefit everyone to make greater Pittsburgh “more welcoming” and “inclusive.”

Officials spoke about what Peduto has dubbed the “two-Pittsburgh problem” — a moniker referring to the concern that struggling neighborhoods aren’t sharing in the upswings happening in neighborhoods such as East Liberty and Oakland or the suburbs of Cranberry and Upper St. Clair.

“It’s important right now given the tenor of the conversation in our country that we communicate that we are a welcoming and cohesive community,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. “We still have racial injustices. We still have economic injustices. We still have people who languish in poverty.”

Almost one-third of blacks in the Pittsburgh metro region live below the federal poverty level compared to 15 percent of whites, U.S. census data show.

Blacks here get denied for home purchase loans at twice the rate of whites, and about 74 percent of white men own homes compared to less than 37 percent of blacks, according to a 2015 study by The Heinz Endowments’ African American Men and Boys Task Force and the Washington-based Urban Institute.

“Pittsburgh is known as the ‘most livable’ city, but for who?” said Teonna Ross, 27, of Morningside, who was in the audience and is a member of the inmate advocacy group Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project. “It’s not livable for black and brown people. It isn’t.”

Ross briefly interrupted the event by shouting about what she perceives to be inequitable treatment happening to low-income and black inmates at the Allegheny County Jail.

“All of the foundations that serve Allegheny County and Pittsburgh are absolutely committed to equality of opportunity, to a community that is open, that is sharing, that is inclusive and that is just,” The Pittsburgh Foundation president and CEO Maxwell King told the audience.

King referenced two parallel but similar efforts aimed at studying and narrowing disparities: “100 Percent Pittsburgh,” an initiative of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and “Just Pittsburgh” at The Heinz Endowments.

Strengthening the middle class, improving the education system, expanding affordable housing and improving relations with police are among issues that still need to be addressed, foundation leaders have said.

To appeal to immigrants, city and county leaders have been working on collecting more sophisticated data on the needs of foreign-born residents, developing a larger repository of bilingual aides and partnering with local nonprofits to develop recruiting programs.

A key to making progress on these fronts, Oliphant said, is to stop viewing the issues through “the toxic filter of politics.”

“Let’s talk about what’s good for the region,” he said. “We need people who are here legally as immigrants or from immigrant backgrounds to grow our economy. There is no other way to do it.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected]

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