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Age-Friendly Pittsburgh and Equity

A look at how the Pennsylvania city is working to ensure fair access and opportunities for its older adults


Photo Courtesy Lively Pittsburgh

The Wilkinsburg Drum Circle grew out of community organizing that began at an Aging Your Way workshop in 2019. The diverse group of intergenerational and interracial participants meet regularly in public spaces. "By coming together in this way, they are building resiliency in the community through resource connections and reducing social isolation," say organizers. (Click on the image to see a video about the group.)

The Community

Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh serves the city of Pittsburgh and communities within Allegheny County. The county is home to 1.2 million residents, 300,000 of whom live within the city limits. Roughly 20 percent of county residents are age 65 or older, approximately 22 percent of county residents are people of color. Greater Pittsburgh has been a member of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities since 2015 and adopted its action plan in 2017. 

Partner Organizations

Pittsburgh, PA

Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh

Click on the image to download the "Aging Your Way Toolkit."

Community Representatives

  • Laura Poskin, Executive Director, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh
  • Ted Cmarada, Director of Community Engagement, Lively Pittsburgh

Equity Focus

  • Communities of color

The Work

Laura Poskin explains how Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh is recentering its work on equity as impacts from COVID-19 and increased calls for racial justice have elevated the need for the community to pause, reflect and act.

Reflection Leads to Focus on Black Lives

“As we move into our second five-year cycle within the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, we are taking a hard look at our practices, both internally and externally," says Poskin. "We have always been working toward being a region that’s more inclusive and respectful of all ages, but a revealing report — Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race, released by the city’s Gender Equity Commission in September 2019, coupled with COVID-19 and this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — has made us pause, reflect and act. Pittsburgh is often heralded as one of the most livable cities — but for whom?"

White women in the region can expect to live to 78, while Black men can expect to live to 64. Pittsburgh ranks among the least livable cities for Black residents, particularly Black women. "Disparities across health, income, employment and education are pervasive — and they have been laid bare by COVID-19," Poskin says.

"I keep coming back to a phrase we included in a response to the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, which we sent to our mailing list in June," says Poskin. "It states, 'Everyone should have the opportunity to grow old in an environment that is safe and healthy, and in communities that are thriving.' This is different than how we have framed our work in the past."

“Even though this focus on equity builds on the last five years, it is still in its infancy. Our team is becoming more diverse and better educated, and we know this takes ongoing learning and growing. In a conversation with Nii-Quartelai Quartey [a senior advisor for AARP Community, State and National Affairs], he noted that the only mention of race in our action plan is on the demographics page. We are proud of our plan and it has been referenced as a model — and yet we haven’t been naming race or addressing racism by name. We must do better.”   

Laura Poskin, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh

"We are moving away from 'Our Population is Growing Older,' to the recognition that not everyone has that privilege," says Poskin. "We all deserve access to longer, healthier lives. To accomplish this depends on confronting the systemic disparities that make the realization of a long, healthy life less likely for our Black citizens."

Internal Changes and  External Invitations

Poskin explains that "we have been asking ourselves: “Who is at the table?” During a recent hiring process, we were intentionally recruiting for diversity and extending interviews to a diverse pool of candidates. I am a gerontologist by training, but as a 37-year-old white woman, I don’t have the same experiences with age, race and other dimensions of identity. That’s why a diverse team comprised of people with a variety of lived experiences is critical. We are working with AARP Pennsylvania to advance our efforts on equitable leadership."

Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh is also being more intentional about the stories and photos it shares on its website, in its social feeds and in its publications, including its Age-Friendly Progress Report released in September 2020.

"We want everyone to see themselves in our work," says Poskin. “We hired a community organizer to reach out to leaders in Black communities across Allegheny County, and we continue to grow these relationships. This is an effort to better understand the priorities of Black communities and, as we move forward, to work alongside one another to create the inclusive region we want."

Externally, the initiative is also considering who it invites to its events and how and where it is engaging. "Our longtime partner Lively Pittsburgh is responsible for much of our neighborhood-level engagement, such as Aging Your Way workshops and demonstrations like The Crossings," explains Poskin. "The Lively Pittsburgh team develops relationships over time, listening to what community members need to live in their neighborhoods as long as possible — and supports them to bring their own projects to life." (See the video and other links below to learn more.)

Ted Cmarada describes how to truly meet people where they are, develop relationships and work together to make change.

Engage, Build Together and Empower

 “We engage the community to build relationships and connect neighborhoods to existing power structures," says Cmarada. "The old model of simply bringing services or resources to a community is fundamentally patriarchal and unsustainable. For numerous reasons community members may be resistant to 'outsider' intervention. They often have their own good ideas, talents and visions for their neighborhood, but may lack the time and resources to activate change. Additionally, especially in communities of color, systemic racism and disenfranchisement have engendered distrust and despair. So, the first order of business is to show up consistently, ask good questions, demonstrate authentic respect and build mutual trust.”

“The old model of simply bringing services or resources to a community is fundamentally patriarchal and unsustainable.”   

Ted Cmarada, Lively Pittsburgh

He continues: "At Lively, we embed more deeply and over longer periods of time to develop relationships. We listen and devote time to more spacious dialogue. We participate in the neighborhood’s existing activities, following their lead."

For instance, the predominantly African American Larimer neighborhood features an African Healing Garden, birthed by an older adult who is seeking to heal collective trauma. Lively Pittsburgh members regularly help in the garden, getting to know folks. They help with voter registration, food drives and occasionally attend monthly senior lunches.

"Such involvement creates a foundation for future projects and more productive Aging Your Way workshops, which are central to the activation of their mission to inspire and support healthy communities," Cmarada adds. "Through this deep engagement we learn more about who people are, what matters to them, what they value and what they truly need. By participating we cultivate trust and from this deep engagement we can co-create programs that are in direct response to the unique needs of the community."

One of Lively's programs, The Crossings, brings the community together — different ages, ethnicities, abilities and economic backgrounds — to bring attention to dangerous intersections and street designs. The community identifies the intersection, and Lively Pittsburgh helps attract attention to the problem by mapping data along with residents, engaging local stakeholders and government officials and co-creating flash mob-like street demonstrations to compel attention and effective remedies.

"We want to amplify the message that this intersection is dangerous and that residents are committed to their community," says Cmarada. "Our goal is to build a sense of empowerment in neighborhoods that are overlooked by the existing power structures. We want to work alongside people to show that they can lift their voices and be heard and get a response. The takeaway is that if their voices can change a dangerous intersection, their voices can challenge other issues facing their community.”

Lively Pittsburgh likes to say that this is the power of having “serious fun” together to instigate and manifest positive change.

VIDEO: The Crossings, East Liberty Neighborhood, Pittsburgh

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