Maxwell King: Community Matters

Time for Reckoning

The way in which the most dramatic news is reported to us now, thanks to cellphone technology and the immediacy of social media, is through digital video. In the jerky camera movements and bad lighting, we see authenticity and feel the heat of the moment.
That was the way much of the horrific news of the past week was conveyed. Two shocking, heart-breaking pieces of video stand out from the rest in jarring juxtaposition: In one, we are in a parked car in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb with a young black man, his fiancé and her 4-year-old daughter. We watch him bleed to death after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop.
In the other video, we are on a street in downtown Dallas as police officers realize that fellow officers have been murdered or wounded, and yet they race toward the gunman. In moving protestors out of harm’s way – protestors who have just finished a march against police shootings of black men – they expose themselves to the gunman.     
Digital video and other social media portrayals of last week’s mind-boggling events abound but clarity and enlightenment are in short supply.  
This is – A week? A month? A year? I have lost count – in which disastrous events highlight the inability of communities across the country, including ours, to come to an honest reckoning on racism and other forms of discrimination. There also is a reckoning due on the impossibly high expectations we have for those we charge with policing our imperfect society. 
At our Foundation, all of us who work each day to try to build a stronger, more unified community – that’s what our mission is supposed to be – are desperate for even a sliver of enlightenment that will help us come to that reckoning in our own community. If we don’t, I fear that we will never achieve the full participation we must have, not just to thrive, but to survive as a livable city in the long run.
We see the spilled blood, the anguished cries of survivors in other cities, and yes, I admit it, we breathe a sigh of relief that it is not happening in Pittsburgh – at least, not now. But we have had our ugly moments in the national spotlight from lethal confrontations between police and young black men to the loss of many officers at once to a sniper’s gun. We could be there again.
This time, the places featured in amateur-video-gone-viral are the suburb where 32-year-old Philando Castile died in his car; Baton Rouge, where 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot multiple times by police while pinned on a sidewalk; and Dallas, where an act of crazed violence and hatred cost the lives of five police and wounded seven others along with two protesters. 
Well distant from these places where families are burying their dead and protests continue and various camps circle the wagons, other communities will be tempted to avoid hard conversations and lay low. 
That would be a terrible waste, since I believe the most effective solutions come when the pain of what has been lost is still fresh. And those solutions have to be devised locally, not nationally. That process begins with getting past the circled wagons and listening through the hurt for the good, worthy ideas that will help us make some progress. 
And the path from collecting ideas to implementing must be short. If we are to make real progress, there must be action soon. A real opportunity to do that begins this week, thanks to a regional peace summit convened Tuesday by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and U.S. Attorney David Hickton.
Public officials mixed with leaders of the region’s African American community, law enforcement professionals, foundation executives and others in The Hill House Association’s center in the city’s Hill District to begin the work.   
There will be other meetings on the path to action, and all I can offer is that philanthropy has some history of progress on these issues, and should be moved to make more progress. 
It was Pittsburgh philanthropy, for example, that enabled Fred Rogers to offer a generation of children a more inclusive view of the world around them. And in many cases, his message in appreciation of diversity and inclusivity countered the bigotry being taught in many homes.
His lesson to children who have been exposed to horrific violence, “Look for the helpers,” comforts them, and erases those lines of division and fear of the “Other.” 
In the mainstream media stories now replacing the cellphone video pieces, the helpers are everywhere – especially in Dallas. 
President Obama referred to the helpers as the unifiers in his remarks at the Memorial Service for the five officers. He related the story of protester Shetamia Taylor who was at the rally with four of her sons when the gunshots erupted. As she lunged for her youngest and covered him with her body, she was shot in the calf. A group of officers wearing only their shirt-sleeved uniforms shielded her and her son with their bodies as they moved them to safety.  
Rogers knew that in the midst of the worst acts of racial hatred and depraved violence, what is most precious to us is not so much being secure in our tribe as it is protecting our common humanity. 

Tough Love

If you want a prime example of how blind obedience to party ideology spoils opportunities to improve Pennsylvanians’ lives, look no further than the late, could-have-been-great “Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Even the title of the bill follows the tired practice of both Republicans and Democrats naming legislation not to describe what it will accomplish, but more to promote a partisan political argument.

The Teachers Act would have removed the requirement that school districts abide by seniority in situations requiring teacher layoffs. Instead, officials would base decisions on teacher-performance ratings. The bill would also allow districts to lay off teachers for economic reasons. Currently, school districts can furlough employees only because of a decrease in enrollment, a change in educational programs or consolidation of schools.

The legislation was birthed by the Republican leadership based on a template followed by Republican-majority state legislatures across the country. It passed both houses along party line votes, then on May 18, it went to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

He promptly vetoed it

If the governor felt the need to kill the bill, he also had an obligation to make clear what approach to tougher teacher accountability he would support. Simply backing the union, and turning his back on this critically important issue, isn’t good enough.

Each side faithfully played its longstanding role: Republican legislative leaders wrote the legislation knowing it would be a poison to teachers’ unions, which have long been base-level supporters of Wolf and other Democratic Party candidates. Wolf paid homage to that base in his veto message when he repeated two common teachers’ union complaints: teacher evaluations rely too heavily on standardized test score results; and provisions that give struggling teachers an opportunity to improve would have been eliminated.

Republican legislators and their outside supporters put on a public relations show to pressure Wolf to sign the bill. After the veto, they warned that upcoming budget negotiations on education funding would now be much tougher. On the other side, teacher’s union officials who helped Wolf ride education funding into the governor’s office expected no less from him than complete protection. The impression from that is that the governor is ignoring expert analysis and overwhelming public support for a rigorous teacher evaluation process. 

It is a completely predictable outcome that doesn’t do much for the nearly 1.8 million public school students in Pennsylvania. Those of us in Pittsburgh who have worked on teacher evaluation as part of local school reform for years would have benefited from stronger leadership.

Wouldn’t it have been great to see a “tough love” approach that reflected more courage on the part of school board members, teacher’s union officers, state legislators and the governor? There actually is precedent for it in our own Pittsburgh Public School system. For a brief, shining period from 2007 to 2010, the district was a national leader in devising a strong and teacher-influenced accountability process.  

The profiles in courage back then went to the reform-mandated Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka, who pulled themselves out of entrenched positions and began working together to overhaul the district's method of evaluating teacher performance. The result was the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation, or RISE. Each had tough meetings with constituents and took abuse and criticism in response to the tough love approach.

But it worked: the RISE evaluation plan was adopted. The superintendent and the teacher’s union president proved it is possible to collaborate and develop an effective process for accountability that is fair to teachers and that boosts overall education quality.  In school year 2013-14, the District received a waiver to begin using the RISE system. Many believe it has worked well for Pittsburgh.  

Should state officials decide to get serious about teacher evaluation again, the Pittsburgh Public Schools experience offers the example of progress being directly proportional to the degree to which officials are willing to tick off those who are dearest to them on the issue.

That correlative may be even more important in guiding Dr. Anthony Hamlet, the former director of accountability transformation in the School District of Palm Beach, as he takes over as the new superintendent of the Pittsburgh system. Hamlet brings significant experience working with teachers in troubled urban schools, and I, as one working in local philanthropy, hope he and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis will make it a priority to develop their own tough love partnership so that Pittsburgh makes even greater leaps forward in effective teacher evaluation. 

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

Henry S. Beukema: executive director of Making Life Better for Pittsburghers

Some might consider Henry S. Beukema, who has announced that he will step down this fall after 24 years of leading the McCune Foundation, a curmudgeon. Well… he is: the very best kind of curmudgeon – brilliantly insightful, and very contrarian in the way he assesses potential. When everyone else zigs, Hank usually zags.

With a critical mind and a great appreciation for irony, Hank is known for his incisive and respectful approach to arm twisting, and for using his legendary sense of humor to push the funding community toward innovation. He foresaw the ascendency of university research leading to tech start-ups and improvements in medicine – a convergence known as “Eds and Meds” – and he recognized its potential to remake our regional economy.

Between 1992 and 2015, Hank shepherded the distribution of $434 million in grants across the continents of education, human services, the humanities and civic life.

Always, these grants have served the McCune family’s philanthropic goals of enhancing the region’s competitive advantage, fostering its economic growth and enabling community vitality. These distributions were also made with the knowledge that, per Charles McCune’s will, the foundation would donate all of its assets to charity by 2029. In 2012, Hank began orchestrating a demanding grantmaking strategy consisting of what he calls “big bets” on major catalytic initiatives.

Hank’s biggest bets usually paid off. Among them were $7 million to Carnegie Mellon University to launch the Innovation Ecosystem Strategic Initiative, which provided seed money for student and faculty-led spinoff companies; $2.5 million to Bridgeway Capital to support small businesses, nonprofits and African American-owned companies; and perhaps one of the most far-reaching: $3.5 million to Innovation Works, which provides early capital to high-tech Pittsburgh-area companies.

That investment has leveraged an amazing $1.7 billion in follow-up funding.           

Ever the strategist, he required these grantees to find matching funds. Not only was he increasing the chances of the projects’ success by getting additional funding, he was attracting others to McCune’s vision.

And that’s the way it has always been with Hank: he brings people along with him.

Long before place-based philanthropy became a buzzword, Hank was a tireless advocate for philanthropy taking the lead in creating vibrant neighborhoods. He was a champion of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, now known as Neighborhood Allies, recognizing that safe and healthy communities would play a critical role in the city’s rejuvenation.

It was a prescient move. In the 30 years since its founding, Neighborhood Allies has brought direct investments totaling $100 million to Pittsburgh communities. Add the $300 million leveraged through its partners has been a game-changing force for neighborhood development and increased family incomes.

Then there was Washington’s Landing. Hank was among the early champions for transforming this former rendering plant into a verdant, new urbanist oasis. In 1989, Three Rivers Rowing became the island’s first tenant. Then came the Department of Environmental Protection and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Today the island boasts housing, technology companies and a restaurant. What was once literally a pig sty is now a hub for outdoor recreation that includes a marina, tennis courts and access to riverfront trails used by thousands of bicyclists, runners and kayakers. 

With vision and style, Hank has made a career of making life better for people in Pittsburgh. In doing so, he paved the way for companies like Google and Uber – organizations that look for quality-of-life amenities and a deep, local talent pool when deciding where to locate.

The vision and style he gives to philanthropic projects are also evident in his interactions with people. I may have been a burdensome project to him, but he has been a mentor and a great friend to me. When he leaves in October, another Hank disciple, Laurel Randi, will succeed him as executive director.

Laurel knows the community well, and in working with Hank since 2006, she has been steeped in the three overarching principles that will guide the foundation’s grantmaking to a close in 2029:

1. Leave it better than we found it.
2. Finish well the things we start.
3. Do not start things we cannot finish well.

Beyond their elegant simplicity, what’s fascinating about these golden rules is the way they match Hank’s personality. I hope he will continue to remain involved in the life of this city after he retires. In his no-nonsense stewardship of McCune, he has made the city so much better than it was when he began his work 25 years ago.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

“At home” in the new Pittsburgh

For years, Pittsburgh had a significant problem with its economy, and as a result, it also had a significant problem with its image. 

Like many cities in the Northeast, it was heavily dependent on heavy manufacturing, including steel. When the factories closed, residents in communities next to the mills moved away in droves. Well-off city neighborhoods managed to hold their own, of course, and the suburbs swelled. But on the whole, Pittsburgh had stalled out. Among the many physical manifestations of that were neighborhoods pockmarked with vacant lots and dilapidated houses.  

Fast forward 30 years and Pittsburgh’s fortunes have changed dramatically. The city has a diversified economy on the upswing. There is a new cultural vibe that has attracted national media attention. Suddenly, many communities seen as tired and tattered are being re-formed into hip and happening. Construction cranes, now active in long-ignored neighborhoods, are the markers of a residential-business development boom and all the amenities that come with it.

It’s all very exciting. Well… it’s very exciting to the 70 percent of Pittsburghers who see themselves as ready and able to participate.

For the 30 percent on the outside, affordable housing options in the New Pittsburgh are narrowing, not expanding. For those of us on the ground in community philanthropy, we see the terrible side effects when long-time residents are priced out of their apartments, homes and neighborhoods. 

In some of our communities, efforts to develop affordable housing alongside market-rate units are coming much too late and without much thought to locating them near essential services that make them worthwhile. A national study that examined affordable housing costs, including potential transportation costs, ranked the Pittsburgh region as poor.

Families uprooted from neighborhoods that have been home for generations are reeling from the loss of things that define what it means to be “at home” – the health center a 15-minute bus ride away; the playground down the street; the church congregation at the corner.

In a city that even today is synonymous with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that quality-of-life essential – having a sense of belonging – will be lost unless we build up our affordable housing stock.

Those among the 30 percent who are outside the benefit streams of the New Pittsburgh are the focus of the Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh initiative. The goal is to ensure every resident has opportunities to benefit from the new prosperity, but the barriers to achieving that are huge. Many in that group are living at or below the 2016 federal poverty income line – a pathetically low $24,250 for a family of four.

On the income disparity alone, ease of access to public transportation and a grocery store is a critical necessity, not an amenity. But increasingly, these city dwellers in the 30 percent are moving to inner-ring suburbs where access to vital services is more difficult. As affordable housing stock diminishes, so too, does their ability to tap into benefits flowing from the new Pittsburgh.

That’s why we at the Foundation are heartened to see that Mayor Bill Peduto has established a 24-member Affordable Housing Task Force and assigned City Planning Director Ray Gastil to lead it. Gastil built his reputation in several thriving urban centers, including Seattle during the Great Recession, and Manhattan in the period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In all his positions, he’s worked closely with residents to provide affordable housing in proximity to transit centers and jobs. The Task Force is hosting a month-long series of community forums in which residents will work side-by-side with city government officials to develop affordable housing recommendations.

Other ideas worthy of consideration are offered in Abby Mendelson’s illuminating story for NEXTpittsburgh on five Pittsburgh leaders who are deep into the issue. In a discussion at the Foundation’s spring board meeting, the mayor singled out affordable housing as essential to bringing more of the 30 percent into the opportunity streams offered in the new Pittsburgh economy.

Through 100 Percent Pittsburgh, we at the Foundation are placing a top priority on helping the city create more affordable housing in neighborhoods most affected by new development. The way we see it, unless affordable housing is available across the city, Pittsburgh is at risk of becoming a community where only the prosperous feel at home. 

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

Trump and his believers threaten American community values

Usually at this time of year, it’s a particular Christmas tune that I can’t get out of my head. You know how it goes: Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” plays from car radio to home stereo to holiday party, and soon it’s in constant playback mode.

What’s playing back this season, though, in the midst of a presidential election, isn’t a tune. It’s a quote from, of all things, World War II-era fascist Europe. It’s that famous admonition from the German Protestant leader, Pastor Martin Niemoller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Pastor Niemoller — who was mortified for the rest of his life that he had not opposed fascism at its beginning — bequeathed to civilization his stark warning about failing to speak out against hate and oppression.

I know it is wise for the president of a community foundation to eschew commentary on partisan politics, and I do not usually intrude myself or my foundation into that arena. But I think the almost daily demagoguery served up by leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump goes far beyond partisan politics. It is part of the current political dialogue, to be sure. But it is much more than that in its tendency toward the fascistic: It is a threat to civility, to civil discourse and to public trust.

Mr. Trump is an accomplished performer, and he has taken his acting skills from television to the hustings to great effect, attracting a large following and stirring this presidential-election cycle into a ferment of accusation and vituperation. He has been condemned by most of the other candidates for president, Republican and Democrat, and by much of the media. But his following is not diminished; it is growing. In the latest national poll, his lead over the other Republican candidates has grown wider.

What Donald Trump represents is a threat to the very idea of community. The normal discourse of politics can produce a sharing of ideas and perspectives that leads to common ground and facilitates communal action. Historically in this country, this common ground has been the basis for solving our most persistent problems. But that journey requires trust and respect, and those are the very characteristics Mr. Trump scorns.

Mr. Trump has gone beyond criticizing or contradicting his opponents; he has vilified them, calling the other candidates and most of the media fools and miscreants and, most recently, “scum.” He has disrespected and mocked Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women and people with disabilities. He has shown clearly — and reveled in the fact — that he has virtually no respect for others, nor for their perspectives.

At his rallies, which sometimes are marked by violence against those who speak against him, he stirs his supporters in ways reminiscent of fascists from the past. And most of us understand the danger: Mr. Trump’s brand of demagoguery is a threat to a democratic society. It is a threat to our Bill of Rights and the freedoms affirmed in our Constitution.

Most recently, Mr. Trump has taken after the First Amendment, suggesting that our guarantees of religious freedom and tolerance can be suspended. He is advocating a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Mr. Trump suggests that the threat to the United States from jihadist terrorism can best be met by excluding from our country a significant part of the world’s population based solely on religion. This cuts against the First Amendment and the Constitution — in fact, against the very reason that the founding fathers birthed our nation.

The First Amendment, of course, guarantees that Donald Trump has the right to say what he wants. But the rest of us must be careful about offering support to someone who so disrespects the rights of others. It is the First Amendment he is coming after now. But what other amendments might he later find annoying and inconvenient? What about the Constitution itself?

“First he came for the First Amendment, and I did not speak out ...”

When political dialogue gets to the point of threatening the democratic process, that’s when Pastor Niemoller’s admonition matters most.

I want a society that offers the most open, vibrant and varied political dialogue imaginable. But I want a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities ... and everyone else.

I want America.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

This blog post also was published in the opinions/editorial section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Dec. 16.

A Thank You For Good Government

We’re fresh from an off-year election in which only 25 percent of Allegheny County’s registered voters went to the polls, and we’re also weary from four months-plus of a bitterly partisan state budget stand-off.

But just when we’re convinced that citizens don’t care enough to get involved and that government will never be able to get its act together, along comes a shining example of the opposite.

On November 6, the United Way of Allegheny County and The Pittsburgh Foundation will lead a celebration event marking the accomplishments of a remarkable group of Pennsylvanians who have joined together under the banner of “I Want to Work.”  For the past year, the group has been leading a social media and advocacy campaign representing tens of thousands of the state’s teenagers and young adults who are disabled. These are our friends and neighbors who want to work and who are qualified to work, but who can’t get onto the employment pathway for a range of reasons.

The government-affirming part of the celebration is that state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican representing Central Pennsylvania counties, also will be recognized as a key supporter of legislation that places young people on the track to gainful employment. We at The Pittsburgh Foundation commend Sen. Corman, along with other supportive Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate and the House, among them, Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana; and Sen. Lisa Baker, the Republican chair of the Labor & Industry Committee; for responding so strongly to this impassioned group. They recognized early on that these young people – themselves dealing with disabilities – are trying to build a better Pennsylvania, not just for the young who are disabled, but for all of us.

When it comes to funding new government programs, Sen. Corman is usually the one with his eye on the price tag and a hand firmly on the budget brake. But there are powerful economic and cultural arguments behind the abling-the-disabled legislation that passed the House in a unanimous 198-0 vote in April. The strong benefits have convinced conservatives such as Corman and liberal Democrats in the Senate to work together in pushing the legislation into law.

The bill could lead to $5 million coming from the state to trigger $19 million in federal support for programs and services. But regardless, it ensures that the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation is fully operational and capable of implementing integrated summer and out-of-school employment.

While the state’s unemployment rate is near the 5 percent mark, 65 out of 100 Pennsylvanians with disabilities can’t find work that would reduce or eliminate their need for government assistance programs. The state invests an average of $200,000 in education and support services for each young resident who is disabled under the false premise that he or she is being prepared for employment. But for the state and the majority of those receiving services, the investment ends up being a loser. 

The result is an entire group of people disenfranchised from the dignity of work. People who are disabled want to work and have more control of their futures rather than have the federal government limit them to near-impoverishment on monthly Social Security disability benefits.

The bill, now having sped past several way-stops in the Senate, is expected to match the House approval margin when it comes up for a vote soon.

Now how often do we see that degree of agreement in Harrisburg?

While the partnership of elected officials is key to success in this initiative, none of the opportunities soon to be available for the state’s young people who are disabled would be possible without the passionate commitment of activists on the campaign. Its leader, Dr. Josie Badger, has been known throughout Pennsylvania for years as a tireless advocate for policy changes to improve daily life for those living with disabilities – especially in the area of equal employment opportunity.

Much of the operational work for the campaign has come through the Campaign for What Works, our lobbying initiative in Harrisburg, headed by John Denny and Steve Drachler of Denny Civic Solutions. Their guidance on strategy and networking has been invaluable.

Amid the recent depressing examples of government paralysis and citizen apathy, we are grateful to have this bright and promising example of collaboration in pursuit of a policy goal that defines the basic quality of life standard for people of this state: the right to work and the right to the human dignity that comes with it.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

Aylan, the pope and Pittsburgh

One of the most important images connected to Pope Francis’ trip to the United States last week actually happened, from my view, several weeks before his arrival. It was the profoundly tragic and heartwrenching picture of a lifeless 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt and long shorts washed up on a beach resort in northeastern Turkey.

The issues that played into his death and the issues that the pope spoke about at every opportunity in his three-city American tour are immigration and the growing refugee crisis. Millions of Syrians and other Middle East groups are fleeing their war-torn countries only to confront closed borders, unscrupulous human smugglers and denied claims for asylum in Europe and North America.

That was the situation with Aylan, his parents and his brother, who were among 23 Syrians in two boats launched from Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula and headed to the Greek island of Kos, a way stop on their ultimate destination, Vancouver, Canada. As is the case with many refugees’ attempts to reach other countries, the Kurdi family’s water crossing ended badly. Aylan’s father was the only member of the family to survive when the boat they were in capsized.

As the father of two sons and as the president of a foundation dedicated to improving the human condition in local communities, I am focused on the image of Aylan and how the refugee issue affects all of us in Pittsburgh.

Anyone who spends more than a few days here knows that Pittsburgh was built on the backs of immigrants and refugees who fled poverty and acts of inhumanity over the past two centuries. Based on history alone, I believe we have a moral duty to support the federal government in going beyond the current commitment to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees into the United States through next year. This is a paltry number in comparison to the four million Syrians who have fled to other countries.

And we need to offer Pittsburgh as a welcoming resettlement city.    

I know that there is a perfectly logical and cautious argument against Pittsburgh getting involved: the struggles of millions of foreigners, while pitiable, should not be our problem. After all, it is happening an ocean’s distance away and we have more than enough problems to solve in our own back yard.

But it is rich irony that the “Not-in-our-back-yard” argument is playing out in many of the same Eastern European countries that saw citizens flee generations ago to Pittsburgh to find freedom and better lives.

The policy of encouraging immigrants to settle here has been central to Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan to bring 20,000 new residents to the city over the next decade. He also has joined 17 other mayors across the country – from Allentown to Los Angeles – as signatories on a letter to President Obama promising to welcome and support Syrian refugees in their cities and urging him to raise the number accepted for resettlement. With proper screening and coordination with federal authorities, there is no reason why Pittsburgh couldn’t become one of the new hometowns for refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

In Pittsburgh, a wide range of organizations have experience in refugee resettlement – from faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Children’s Services to the Squirrel Hill Health Center to Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, which was instrumental in temporary resettlement of many New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.   

Once federal and local governments have specific plans to accommodate some of the refugees coming through Europe, we at The Pittsburgh Foundation stand ready to help with the program, as we have in the past. In this case, we will rely on our colleagues in government and the nonprofit sector to advise us on how to be part of what we hope will be an outpouring of support across this region to meet the needs of refugees who resettle here.

The pope has done all of us in this country a service by focusing on the immigrant and refugee experience. He reminds those of us in local philanthropy and government that as our cultural and historical roots have sustained us, now we must sustain others. “We, the people of this continent cannot be fearful of foreigners,” he told Congress, “because most of us once were foreigners.”

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation


One of the things that attracts people to Pittsburgh--that brings young people here to work, that keeps people here who were born in the Pittsburgh region, that attracts companies to bring their business here, that convinces retirees to stay in the region--is the distinctive character of our place. 

You can go to a lot of places in America that seem . . . well, like a lot of other places in America; that just blend into a homogenous stretch of the urban and suburban. But not Pittsburgh. When you come here to live and work, or just for a visit, you know where you are. 

And you know what you get in the very particular Pittsburgh ethos. The modifiers that usually append to our town are:

Unpretentious, hard-working, direct, honest, caring, committed, community-focused, good-hearted and good-humored. And just downright full of the joy of a great engagement with life.

When you look up all those words in my dictionary, the definitions you read paint a picture: 

A picture of a very beautiful, wonderful, charming and powerful lady: Elsie Hillman. 

No one ever, in my experience here, better captured the Pittsburgh spirit than Elsie Hillman and her husband, Henry Hillman. When Elsie died last month, a beacon was dimmed. Dimmed, but not extinguished, because Elsie's sprit, her heart and her commitment, live on for all of us who remain.

And her dedication to her community never flagged. Never. Even in the last few months of her life, she continued to meet with people from the foundation community and the nonprofit community to see if there were ways in which her great depth of experience could be helpful.

I attended a meeting with David K. Roger, president of the Hillman Family Foundations, and others to talk about public media and civic engagement, two of the most important topics to Elsie. She sat comfortably in a chair, looking frail but elegant and beautiful, and frequently leaned forward to make an important point, particularly when it related to WQED, the community-based public-television station here that she loved and championed for decades.

Elsie also had a life-long commitment to her “political philanthropy.” Everyone knows that she was a devoted and masterful leader of the state and national Republican Party, but she wasn’t partisan. Her highest ambition was to see that smart people with integrity run for elected office and be effective public servants.

She distinguished herself, her party and her hometown in living her Pittsburgh values, especially in working to make the city more diverse and inclusive. It made a powerful impression in Pittsburgh’s white- and male-dominated power sectors that a wealthy, white Republican woman encouraged African Americans to run for office and sit on boards; or that she was linked arm-in-arm with other Pittsburgh women in public demonstrations favoring the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive rights; or that in the early 1980s, when fear and discrimination ruled the AIDS epidemic, she purchased a home in Shadyside that became an informal hospice center for HIV/AIDS patients, and worked there as a volunteer. 

Her example remains a very powerful one, here in Pittsburgh and around the country.

When Elsie is memorialized at a special service here in Pittsburgh this Saturday, there will be great good humor, wonderful stories to be told, and much laughter and joy in the recollection of her life. And there will be tears--tears because we will all be so terribly aware that there has not been, nor will there be, another like her. 

She was--she is--greatly beloved. And she will be greatly missed by us all.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation



The funerals are being completed and the grieving is continuing for the nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., who were shot to death June 17 as they studied the Bible, sang and prayed.

Many of us connected to community foundations across the country are trying to move past our shock and profound sadness to recognize that this heinous act has ignited a movement with the potential to confront racism honestly and completely rather than continuing the pattern of denial that has been embedded in America’s history.

As the Charleston families bury their dead; all over the rest of America, those who are horrified by a whole series of events that have taken the lives of African-American citizens are collectively thinking the same word:


 “Wednesday’s shooting was not an isolated incident, nor is it unspeakable,” Richard Hendry, interim president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, writes on the foundation’s website. “We encourage everyone to lead or participate in discussions about gun violence, race relations and other systemic factors that contributed to the shooting. This is an opportunity for us to begin a sustained, continuing conversation in our community on issues that transcend this one, horrible event.”

The most recent news coming out of the South has focused on the issue of the Confederate flag. In photographs of the accused shooter, 21-year-old Dylan Roof, that flag is as prominent and chilling as the gun he is brandishing. Already, South Carolina’s Legislature, its governor, national politicians from both major parties and major retailers have called for the flag to be removed from public display, circulation and sale. And all of us who live in Pennsylvania know well that the fealty to that flag is hardly confined to southern states.

Symbols are important. It is time to take legitimacy from a battle flag that was the emblem of those who fought to destroy the United States and to protect slavery.

And we believe community foundations are well positioned to advance the kind of progress that goes well beyond the symbolic.

It is our hope that in the coming months, the Pittsburgh community will have many open, honest conversations about race and racism--about ways in which racism still affects Pittsburgh culture and ways in which we can honestly think, and talk our way to a more constructive future. Those sorts of conversations can be the best ways to ensure that we avoid the sort of trauma that has hit other communities so very hard in recent months.

At The Pittsburgh Foundation, we want to be a part of those conversations, and a force in advancing the sort of dialogue that can find meaning in honest inquiry and careful listening.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

Fundraisers to help the homeless are only half the tale of effective philanthropy

Anyone who knows me also knows that I love a great story.

The one that I’ve been telling and re-telling to illustrate what The Pittsburgh Foundation does for our community is centered on a public appeal we launched during last year’s holiday period to address homelessness and housing insecurity in Allegheny County. It was a classic fundraising campaign with a modern twist: the Foundation promised to match every contribution dollar for dollar – up to $100,000.

We expected this event would require a few weeks to exhaust the match, but barely an hour into the run, public donations already had reached the $100,000 mark. It was a wonderful problem: Pittsburghers were responding at an extraordinary level, and thanks to added contributions to the match pool from our caring donors, we were able to keep the campaign rolling until nearly $1 million was raised.

For myself, the staff and board, the event was one of the triumphs of last year’s work. I have enjoyed – really enjoyed – telling the story at every opportunity to give people an immediate understanding of Pittsburgh as a community of remarkable generosity – as much from work-a-day residents as the wealthy who run big foundations.

But my excitement in telling it started to diminish when a long-simmering public policy debate about whether to raise the minimum wage began to boil over in town squares, corporate board rooms and legislative offices.

Reacting to it, I realized the story I had been telling was not as complete as I had assumed. There is the potential for it to be much broader, especially in validating the leadership role our community foundation is supposed to play in the civic life of this city.

So what does a hike in the base hourly wage for workers have to do with telling a better story about a foundation’s work to help the homeless? 

For me, the first uncomfortable link happened at a lunch-hour public demonstration on April 15, Tax Day, in Market Square, Downtown, just across PPG plaza from our offices. Scores of Pittsburghers – fast food workers, security guards, adjunct teachers, students, nurse aides and union members among them – were joining the event known as “Fight For $15,” which is also the name for the movement calling for a more-than-doubling of the minimum wage to $15.15 an hour. A similar protest that day crowded the streets of Oakland near the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

And news stories of these events had demonstrators describing how difficult it is for them to maintain a basic standard of living on the current $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage, especially in finding housing that is habitable and still affordable.

The second link came just a few weeks ago in a study by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition that determined there is no community in Pittsburgh, or Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania where a full-time, minimum-wage worker can rent a one-bedroom apartment for 30 percent of his or her total income, the standard yardstick of affordability.

In fact, the survey report shows that there is no community in the country that can offer a decent one-bedroom apartment to a full-time worker receiving the current minimum wage and abide by the 30 percent-of-total-income rule. To drive the point home, the report includes a map showing how many hours a minimum-wage-earning employee would have to work each week to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment. In Pennsylvania, the tally is 78 hours.

All this leads me to the conclusion that if a community foundation is going to be honest about taking on a basic quality-of-life issue such as homelessness, it must be willing to do the fuller job of identifying the financial pressure points that lead to chronic housing insecurity, and then be unrelenting in searching for systemic solutions.

That’s why we at The Pittsburgh Foundation will be carefully examining the various proposals to raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania – in the Legislature alone there are no fewer than five bills floating right now. And we’ll be having conversations with people who stand to be most affected by a minimum wage increase. We’ll be sharing that information with other public- and private-sector leaders in determining the best minimum-wage policy to advocate for in the coming months.

And we may have arrived at a point where we can deliberate based on economic evidence and not poisoned politics. Yes, the issue continues to be held hostage in the partisan wars raging in Washington, but some state governments and large cities have been falling into line to increase the minimum wage. And major companies such as Walmart, Aetna and McDonald’s also have joined the ranks in raising wages for lowest-level employees.

A range of conservative voices also are beginning to sound downright progressive on the issue, some of them economists who are paying attention to studies showing that a $9, $10, or even a $15-per-hour minimum wage increase will not result in major job losses because it will put money in the pockets of millions of low-wage workers who will spend it – thereby giving working families and the overall economy a boost, and creating jobs.

So, in my future telling of the story of what Pittsburgh’s community foundation did to eradicate the scourge of homelessness and housing insecurity, I will continue to point proudly to the helping-the-homeless fundraising, but I also want to relate how our community foundation, in a period where 95 percent of all economic gains in this country are going to the top 1 percent, stood up for systemic change that makes a difference.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation