Maxwell King: Community Matters

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

A question about Baltimore: Who are the stakeholders in community?

“Why would people in Baltimore want to set fire to their own neighborhoods?” my son asked, exasperated in a Monday morning phone call.
I struggled  to provide an answer that made sense then, but now, after a night watching a city respect the calming voices and decide to step back from the brink, I want to try to answer that; at least, in part.
And I know that as the leader of the community foundation for a city about the same size and character as Baltimore, I need to process what happened – to figure out causes and understand what pathways will lead to solutions. I am hardly alone in thinking this easily could happen in other cities, even in Pittsburgh.  
I will not try, in any way at all, to excuse the worst outbreak of rioting in Baltimore since 1968; or, for that matter, fail to decry the fact that so much of the violence and destruction has hurt residents and businesses in disadvantaged parts of the city, places where people have struggled for years to build decent homes and paying businesses, and who can least afford to rebuild.
But there is something important for anyone who cares about creating healthy urban communities to learn from one of Baltimore’s most tragic episodes:
Many of the people lashing out and destroying cars and buildings in that city have suffered years—probably decades—of poor treatment from police who may have jumped to assuming guilt -- detaining and arresting them -- and sometimes treating them almost as roughly as they did Freddie Gray, the young Baltimore man who died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody. Years of such relentless mistreatment can cause a terrible anger and bitterness to well up.
Of course, there are many police departments with strong community relations records, and many police officers who do very difficult jobs right and do them well. They should not be conflated with the officers who abuse their authority. But it can be invaluable for those of us in the business of building a strong community identity to understand the wrath of those, particularly in African-American communities around the country, who have felt abused for years and see no evidence of improvement. To understand that wrath  is not to excuse the violence it has produced, but rather to try to learn from it and summon the community will to make changes.
In recent months, we have seen a series of incidents around the country that has brought home this issue of police/community confrontation and the terrible anger and resentment that can build in African-American neighborhoods. Beyond issues with police, we also are uncomfortable witnesses to the frustrations heaped on residents in their interactions with unresponsive government agencies, under-employment and long-term unemployment. 
I know my son. He is a bit of a tough guy. I believe that, if he felt he was mistreated year after year after year on several fronts, he would probably choose to fight back. I hope he would do so within the law. After all, our country leads the world in offering the protection of a robust rule of law.
But there is also the rule of economic disparity. Half the people who live in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood in Baltimore are unemployed. And, among young African-American men like Gray, that percentage is even higher. People who don’t have jobs, who don’t have means, or opportunity or education or any of the advantages my son and I have enjoyed, are not stakeholders in the community. They have little understanding of it as a force for good. That is true here in Pittsburgh, in this country, and elsewhere around the world. And those who are not engaged stakeholders—job holders, property owners, participating members of communities and their organizations—are far less likely to be protective of society, its norms, its culture, and the rule of law.
Since the 1970s, the data shows, America has been dividing along class lines (in which race can play a part) in terms of income, wealth, education and advancement —all the benefits  that are likely to weave that stakeholder loyalty into the fabric of community and culture.
In his recent book, “Our Kids,” Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam decries the damage done by the opportunity divide in our country. He focuses especially on the devastation inflicted on children who grow up in poverty or disadvantaged circumstances. Putnam grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, half a century ago; and he uses the economic decline in Port Clinton to illustrate his larger point about America today:
“In 2011 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, if you drove east from downtown Port Clinton along East Harbor Road, the census tract to your left along the Catawba lakeshore had a child poverty rate of 1 percent, whereas the census tract on the other side of the road had a child poverty rate of 51 percent.”
In exploring what has happened in this country in the last 40 years in terms of disparity of opportunity and wealth, Putnam focuses in part on the importance of public education. But education isn’t just important: it is the essential. For many of those trapped in poor neighborhoods – in Port Clinton,  in Baltimore, and, yes,  in Pittsburgh – education has failed them and opportunity eludes them.
Without a public education system that expresses our absolute commitment to The American Dream, we will keep slipping. If we want to understand the trauma that many American families face – especially in urban African-American neighborhoods – we need only look at the distraught faces of Baltimore parents as they search riot-torn streets for young sons and daughters.  
 We face the same urban issues in Pittsburgh, and for that reason we should consider this:
 The community outpouring in Baltimore that happened after the tragic fact to bring calm and a search for justice could happen here before such an explosion. We must search for ways to create stakeholder opportunities that build not just membership in community but an appreciation of its value.
That was the gist of an insightful response given this week by Pittsburgh’s Police Chief, Cameron McLay, in a round of media calls about how prepared Pittsburgh would be for such an event. The question that needs to be answered by every sector of the community, he said, is not “Are we prepared?” It’s “How do we prevent?”
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

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