Damage to Westmoreland County cited in lack of diversity
Not one hand rose when diversity advocate Carlotta Paige asked a group of more than 100 students at Seton Hill University how many of those who did not grow up in Westmoreland County plan to stay after graduation.
With the county’s population aging and shrinking, the need to be more welcoming to ethnic minorities is not just moral, but practical, said Paige and other community-group representatives on campus Tuesday to discuss a 2015 study looking at diversity in the county.
“As good as the quality of life here is, we still have some issues,” said Paige, who organized the study. “We have a rich cultural heritage here, which is wonderful. But it’s the same rich cultural heritage that keeps people out.”
Seton Hill junior Malik Scott said he’s never felt at home in the county. The Maryland native feels an unspoken pressure to conform to the way of life here and would rather live in a place with a stronger sense of black community.
“When you go places you feel uncomfortable, like there are eyes watching you,” he said.
That so few students plan to make Westmoreland home is worrying, county Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
“That is immensely telling and should frighten us all,” he said.
The county’s population is less than 358,000, down from more than 400,000 in the 1980s, Kopas said.
The population is more than 95 percent white — a figure that will look increasingly incongruous as the nation’s minority population continues to rise, said Debra Mason, Seton Hill’s diversity officer.
“Folks can sit and say they want to keep things the same, but to keep things the same is a formula for dying, so you have to come in and make changes,” she said.
Figuring out how to enact change is the biggest challenge, Paige said. For more than a year she’s shared results of the diversity study and has started the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition to address the issue.
County leaders are drafting a new strategic plan, and diversity is a top priority, Paige said.
“If the comprehensive plan does not address this issue, then it’s not comprehensive enough,” she said.
Students at Tuesday’s event saw diversity as part of a broader problem. From job openings to entertainment options, there’s not a lot in Westmoreland to appeal to a younger generation, they said.
Living here should be made more appealing for everyone, said Tay Waltenbaugh, executive director of Westmoreland Community Action.
“I think employment, No. 1. We have to take a look at the type of jobs we have for young people,” he said.
Young people typically are more accepting of racial diversity, according to the study. It’s harder to convince older residents of its importance, Seton Hill junior Autumn Chu said.
“I think the target group that needs to be educated is the older generation, which is going to be tough because you can’t get them out of the house,” she said.
Many don’t realize the number of challenges, big and small, that ethnic minorities face in trying to make a life in Westmoreland, Paige said. Even seemingly simple tasks, like finding the right kind of hair products in local stores, can be difficult.
That’s why Paige wants to create a welcome center, similar to one in Pittsburgh, to help new residents find resources, she said.
The key to increasing diversity is “intentionality,” said Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. “City officials and county officials, are we being intentional when we think about inclusion?” he asked.
It will take a focused effort to make the county more inclusive because the problem can’t be fixed by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist, he said.
“It means that we’re unconsciously excluding individuals and excluding populations,” he said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or email@example.com.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .