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Identity & Community

Wilkinsburg Councilwoman: People Don’t See How Loved The Community Is

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson as pictured at the WESA studios on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson was scrambling to organize her community at this time last year. The Wilkinsburg Borough councilwoman said she felt there was a need to come together after five people, including a pregnant woman, were murdered at a backyard barbecue in the neighborhood.

90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with McCarthy-Johnson about the challenges the community has faced since then.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was your initial reaction to the shooting?

I think it was truly shocking and I got dinged in an article because I said, “it wasn’t your normal everyday shooting” that people see happening, that people see on TV, that we as a society have started to become numb to it. This was beyond the norm. Right before then, we had two pretty major incidents in Wilkinsburg, so this came on the heels of both of those. It really caused the community to stand up and say, “This is not who we are. This is not Wilkinsburg. This is not what we represent.”

What's changed in Wilkinsburg in the past year?

I think the sense of community has changed a little bit, I think people are more willing to get past minor issues.

Did the shooting impact outside perception of Wilkinsburg?

Our media portrays Wilkinsburg as the bed of the worst criminals and most dangerous people in the world, so I’m not exactly sure if it got any worse. Our local media, if an incident happens in another community, but the person who was a participant is "Wilkinsburg man, Wilkinsburg woman," blah blah blah. So all you hear is the negative side of Wilkinsburg, where people don’t really see how we are and how loved the community is.

McCarthy-Johnson held initial community meetings after the shooting, but says maintaining monthly follow-ups has been a challenge.

Actually I kind of got burned out, and I will take the position that I probably should have pushed it a little bit more. So right now I’ve been trying to get people back to being interested in joining a resident group, because I think as residents, you have more of a voice than depending on your local government to do things. I don’t see it as a member of the Wilkinsburg council doing this, I see it as a person that’s concerned about the future of Wilkinsburg, and about how we are perceived in the media.

What are the barriers to getting people engaged?

You know what, I don’t know (what the barriers are). I know one of my issues was I ran out of time, so now I’m out there again trying to get people involved, and starting to talk to different communities.  I’ve reached to organizations in Homewood that are doing really nice, good things, that we can duplicate without reinventing the wheel, but the problem is getting physical bodies, and getting people involved. I think I have a pretty good base of people that are interested, but I have to, for me I have to re-energize them.

How much can the community do at the borough level to curb violence?

I think we’ve done a lot of it. It’s educating the public about what can be done, making sure that they’re calling 911 when they see anything, because people hear gun shots all the time and they don’t know where it’s coming from so they won’t call, but call about everything. I call about cars parked contrary to flow. I know my neighbors hate me but that’s OK. You start to reel in all the minor things and you start getting people to have pride in their community. You get them to realize that it affects everybody.

How do you gain support for the community outside of Wilkinsburg?

We’ve been pretty fortunate to have a really good relationship with our local officials, our representatives Ed Gainey, Jay Costa and our federal congressman Mike Doyle all showed up, and are all willing to support things that we do in Wilkinsburg. And I think that’s a big help. When we need something that will help stem the violence or work on a project, they’re willing to put their recommendations in and get to that point. I think they all want to see these resident groups start forming, because that helps them in the long run.