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Heinz Endowments, CMU Launch Center To Research Equity & Economic Empowerment in Pittsburgh

Gene J. Puskar

The Heinz Endowments and Carnegie Mellon University announced a $30 million initiative Wednesday to study solutions for socio-economic inequities in the greater Pittsburgh region. The initiative will fund the launch of the Center for Shared Prosperity and establish an endowment to support the center’s work.

CMU will collaborate with working groups made up of community partners on research in areas like housing, education, transportation, health care, technology fluency, and access to capital, according to a release announcing the grant.

Projects will be determined by a broad, 37-member committee comprised of CMU staff, the Endowments, schools, racial justice advocacy groups, transit and housing activists, nonprofits and others.

Committee members include a number of notable community leaders and organizers: Rochelle Jackson, founder and director of the Black Women’s Policy Agenda; Mónica Ruiz-Caraballo, executive director of Casa San José; Wasi Mohamed, senior policy officer of the Pittsburgh Foundation; Angelo Taranto, certified smoke reader at Allegheny County Clean Air Now; Laura Chu Weins, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit; Jasiri X, co-founder and CEO of 1Hood Media; and Jamil Bey, president and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute.

“What most excites me about the Center for Shared Prosperity is the tangible commitment from one of Pittsburgh’s anchor institutions to be part of the solutions,” Bey said. “By investing in community-driven goals and priorities, and providing funding to test and scale these solutions, it can create momentum that could begin to create needed structural change.”

The grant is the largest in the history of the Heinz Endowments, according to the announcement. The $30 million will be distributed over six years to the initiative in order to fund the center and its initial projects.

“The Heinz Endowments and CMU have worked together for decades on projects that support Pittsburghers, and this new initiative will expand our community collaborations at a particularly critical moment,” said Carnegie Mellon University president Farnam Jahanian.

“With both the pandemic and the rapid pace of technological change contributing to a widening opportunity gap, the solutions proposed through The Center for Shared Prosperity will help our region address societal barriers and will also serve as a model that can be replicated in communities across the country.”

Updates about the progress of the center's projects will be published online, and the hope is that they will inform decisions by policy-makers. Carnegie Mellon University has experience using data-driven models in this way; Pennsylvania health officials have used the University's COVIDcast dashboard to inform when to reopen the Commonwealth's economy and ease restrictions during the pandemic. CMU’s CREATE lab also recently used its EarthTime visualization tool to demonstrate how high rates of mortgage application denials and sharply increasing rental prices are impacting the ability of vulnerable populations to live and prosper in Pittsburgh. In partnership with The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the team is now studying how to make mortgage programs more equitable.

“Too rarely are local communities and complex social needs the real beneficiary or even the focus of the knowledge, creativity and wealth-creation flowing from these extraordinary engines of innovation,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Endowments. He expects the center to create real-world solutions for Pittsburghers.

The center aims to become a national model for university-community engagement using research to inspire practical actions that impact the issues facing community members.

“The issues facing Pittsburgh are perhaps unique, yet our work to find solutions can provide an opportunity to share our approach and outcomes with regions across the country facing their own challenges,” Nourbakhsh said. “We hope that the center’s approach and continuing evolution will help catalyze other university-community collaborations as they work to advance a more equitable future.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.