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Top writers keynote Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit

This week brings the 24th Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit – and the first since Pittsburgh swore in its first Black mayor.

The latter historic milestone suggests a shift in Pittsburgh’s racial dynamics. Mayor Ed Gainey, after all, defeated incumbent Bill Peduto with a platform largely built around addressing entrenched inequality in the city, particularly as it affects people of color.

The summit was first created by the group Black & White Reunion in response to the 1995 police killing of Black businessman Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop on Route 51. And just as Gainey frequently references the 2019 report “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” so does that document remain a touchstone for summit organizers.

“People want to know, well, what can we do to bring about equity in all these different domains that we’ve now seen outlined in that particular report,” said Kevin Jarbo, who led programming efforts for the 2022 summit.

The report, by the city’s Gender Equity Commission, highlighted in particular how poorly Black women fare in Pittsburgh. And in fact, this year’s summit is themed “Equity in Action: Navigating Intersections of Racial Justice.” The focus is on intersectionality — the idea that an individual can experience multiple forms of discrimination based on intersecting identities such as race, class, and gender.

As in 2021, this year’s summit will be virtual. The event includes some 30 workshops, panel discussions, and wellness sessions led by scholars, activists, and other experts on a range of topics, from police accountability and economic development to mental health, food and the arts. One session addresses the experiences of Black trans people in Pittsburgh, while another aims to dispel misinformation about critical race theory, an academic teaching tool that conservatives have sought to demonize.

The opening-night event is a “fireside chat” with three award-winning, nationally known Black writers from Pittsburgh, memoirists Brian Broome, and Damon Young, and fiction writer Deesha Philyaw.

Philyaw said the event will be a freewheeling conversation.

“What I always hope that I can contribute is to make sure that to present a narrative about life here for Black folks that doesn’t continue to erase us and continue to, you know, play nice,” she said. “I think it could be very easy for the summit to be kind of a feel-good thing, but I never want to be part of anything that’s feel good. I want people to be uncomfortable enough to make change and uncomfortable enough to challenge themselves, and the people here who hold the power to effect change.”

Philyaw’s debut story collection, 2020’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” earned awards including the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; Philyaw is currently helping develop the collection into an HBO series. Broome’s 2021 memoir, “Punch Me Up To The Gods” won the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. Young’s 2019 memoir-in-essays “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” won awards including the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Young also co-founded the influential online publication Very Smart Brothas.

The opening event also includes a prerecorded performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the Pittsburgh Heritage Gospel Chorale, directed by Herbert V.R.P. Jones.

For the second year in a row, the summit will be all virtual because of the pandemic. While that setup hinders the sort of casual networking that the event has long facilitated, organizers say there’s an upside in accessibility: Last year’s virtual summit drew about 1,000 guests, up from the 400 to 700 who Jarbo said typically attended the in-person event, held at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, in East Liberty.

“We have community here, you know?” said Daeja Baker, the summit’s lead organizer. “And if you’ve never come to the summit, or if you’re not from Pittsburgh, or you’re not super involved in racial justice, this is your chance to learn. And if you are someone who’s been super involved but has never been to the summit, this is the place to come and be in community.”

The summit is Fri., Jan. 21, and Sat., Jan. 22. The Jan. 21 fireside chat will stream live on YouTube and Facebook, and also be accessible through the event’s website. All Saturday programming, including the workshops, requires registration. The registration fee is $35, but lower-cost and free options are available.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: