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Inaugural Building Bridges Day looks to promote diversity, inclusion

Five women hold a sign with different colored hands over a yellow bridge.
Pittsburgh Builds Bridges
Ebtehal Badawi (second from left) poses with participants in her Pittsburgh Builds Bridges initiative.

It started as an anti-bullying initiative. It became a mission to connect people through art. Now, Ebtehal Badawi’s Pittsburgh Builds Bridges has its own festival.

The inaugural Building Bridges Day, which takes place Sat., Aug. 12, will fill the parking lot of Highmark Stadium with live music and dance performances representing a dozen cultures, plus food and more. And there will be a large-scale version of the interactive painting project Badawi has spent the past several years bringing to area schools and community events.

“I want to have a day for everyone to contribute and share how they build bridges. Because we do it every day in our life,” she said. “And my intention was for people to be intentional about how they do it so we can have this ripple of building bridges.”

Badawi, who lives in Jefferson Hills, launched Pittsburgh Builds Bridges in 2019, after her son was the victim of racist bullying on his community hockey team. She was born in Saudi Arabia, earned a master’s degree in industrial hygiene, and later attended art school. In hopes of spanning the gaps between people, she turned again to art.

She’s spent the past four years taking sketches of her “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” logo — it’s a bridge, with upraised arms of various skin tones — to grade schools, university campuses, corporate and community events, and even PPG Paints Arena, during a Penguins game. (Badawi said she is paid for her efforts.)

She invites visitors to contribute as little as a single brushstroke to color each image. She also asks participants the question “How do you build bridges between people?” and posts their responses on social media.

“Everyone has a different answer, but there is this answer that most people, a lot of people, say it in a different way: Listening and communication, that’s how they build bridges between people,” said Badawi.

She estimates some 4,000 children and adults have participated over the years.

She plans to grow that number by hundreds with Building Bridges Day. She said the event was inspired by a schoolchild who asked if she had ever actually painted on a bridge.

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Badawi wanted to hold the inaugural festival on one of the city’s iconic bridges. While she couldn’t make that happen this year, she notes the festival site is virtually in the shadow of the Fort Pitt Bridge.

The event, emceed by media personality Natalie Bencivenga, runs 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. It starts with the singing of the national anthem by Amber Keys, a one-mile walk, and a poem by former Allegheny County Youth Poet Laureate Danielle Obisie-Orlu.

Performances include short sets by Latin American band Besame, Balafon West African Dance Ensemble, the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh Dance Troupe, the Pittsburgh Steel Line drumline, the Shovlin Academy of Irish Dance, Nandanik Dance Troupe, Indonesians in Pittsburgh, Win-Win Kung Fu Culture Center, and Pittsburgh Samba. It concludes with an appearance by Pittsburgh rapper Frzy.

The day also includes free food from Salem’s Market and food offerings from other vendors. Sponsors include the Heinz Endowments, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Optimal Workplace & Environmental Wellness Corp. (Badawi is director of OWEW’s division of art wellness and community outreach.)

Guests can join members of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in contributing one or more brushstrokes to a large-scale canvas featuring Badawi’s “bridges” logo.

Mostly, though, Badawi wants guests to introduce themselves to someone they’ve never met before.

“A lot of times we go to festivals we just eat a little, we dance and we leave, and the intention is to start new relationship, new friendships at that day, to continue building these bridges,” she said.

Corrected: August 8, 2023 at 9:49 AM EDT
This article was amended to include the correct site where Ebtehal Badawi's son was bullied.
Corrected: August 7, 2023 at 9:31 AM EDT
The festival takes place on Aug. 12.
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: