Racism, Remote Work, and Community Development: The Skills and Frame of Mind to Move Forward

My remote work for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development has provided me the opportunity to get a glimpse at the public policy process from the private sector perspective. The Conference has a range of policy objectives that its member employers (for-profit and nonprofit) find to be vitally important to the Greater Pittsburgh region’s future. The Conference’s role in furthering the Conference’s agenda is making sure that lawmakers and agencies see the possibilities should they implement such policies. That’s why it is imperative for team members at the Conference to be concise, effective communicators who are excited to sell Pittsburgh and the surrounding region as a place for opportunity and social and economic growth. Recent events have made it clear that working at the Conference also requires critical self-reflection and unprecedented flexibility.

Because I am primarily interested in transportation and infrastructure, I have taken special interest in the work of the Conference to further transportation projects like the Downtown-Uptown-Oakland-East End Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that will eventually offer dedicated bus lanes that connect Oakland to Downtown with service to neighborhoods in the east. Working with partners like Port Authority, the Conference understood the massive economic potential of this project, worked to encourage local, state, and federal leaders to support the project, and stood in firm support of Port Authority’s plan to speed up travel between the two largest economic centers on this side of the state. Working at the Conference to advance projects like this require collaboration, patience, knowledge of the local, regional, state, and federal political landscape, and a clear headed vision for the future.

Addressing Racism

June 2020 statement from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development Board of Directors

The Conference has always been a key player in projects that facilitate economic growth in the region, but like much of the corporate world, it does not necessarily have the reputation of being the first to step up to the plate to address racism and police brutality. Recently, in response to unrest following the murder of George Floyd, companies and organizations across the US that usually do not address racial inequality or policing found themselves in a position where they had to say something. Now, the Conference is working to address these issues both internally and throughout the region and commonwealth. The work being done in this area requires the same skills as with any advocacy projects the Conference has undertaken before. What’s different about the Conference’s work on this project is that it also requires emotional investment, moral conviction, and self-reflection on the part of its staff, executive leadership, board of directors, and member organizations.

Racism is deeply entrenched in Pittsburgh and the way it operates, especially in the area the Conference is chiefly involved: economic development. Reflecting critically on the region’s legacy of racism will take more than a few weeks or months of soul-searching. It will take decades of rethinking the way the region operates and  understanding how political and business leaders have intentionally furthered racism, addressed racism with words alone, or decided to stay out of the racism conversation entirely. Navigating through equitable development, law enforcement, and education in the Pittsburgh region will be tough, and it will require many of my short-term coworkers to have conversations that they may not be used to having. If the Conference succeeds in its work, it has the potential to change Pittsburgh for the better and help to make it a truly livable city and region for more people.

Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce (an Allegheny Conference affiliate) “Encouraging Courageous Policy and Conversation” webinar on Racism and Public Policy with YWCA’s Angela Reynolds, PA State Rep. Austin Davis, Vibrant Pittsburgh’s Sabrina Saunders-Mosby, Pitt’s Katie Pope, and my coworker Larry Hailsham Jr.

Remote Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a whole host of challenges for people across the globe, and the Allegheny Conference is no exception. Externally, the Conference is trying to maintain and strengthen Pittsburgh’s economic position while helping local businesses and organizations navigate through operations during a pandemic, compiling resources from the CDC and various state agencies. Internally, the work of the Conference has been and continues to be completely remote, with most meetings taking place on Zoom and most conversations taking place on Slack and through email. Adjusting expectations and workflow to facilitate effective remote work requires many of my coworkers to work in positions that they are not used to being in. Because the Conference’s work is so people-centric, shifting board meetings and other traditionally in-person communication online was a huge shift in the way of doing things. 

Adapting to the new reality while accepting that some hiccups (like forgetting to unmute your mic) are inevitable is now a skill that everyone on staff at the Conference has had the chance to develop over the last four months. When I first joined the team for the summer, the whole staff sat down on a Zoom call and tried to learn how to use the software. Now, months later, using Zoom seems to be almost second-nature among the staff, including the soft skills required to make a Zoom call effective and worthwhile.

When it comes to remote productivity, conversations with my coworkers have made it apparent that a number of factors can make remote work a lot harder for some than others. Children, internet connection, environmental noise, and tech competence can affect the way someone works from home. While some of the factors are simply not avoidable (nor would you want your children to be an “avoidable factor!”), adapting one’s workflow and addressing what you can control has been huge for myself and for my coworkers at the Allegheny Conference.

As I reach the midpoint of my time at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, I am reflecting on the skills and strength exhibited by my coworkers in this field. In addition to their normal workload, they have adapted to remote work with the mission of the Conference top-of-mind. As the Conference begins its journey toward addressing racial injustice, its teams and relationships will be tested. Based on interactions and conversations with my team, it has the potential to rise to the challenge.

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