By Wasiullah Mohamed, Forward Cities Local Director – Pittsburgh, PA
It was beautiful seeing hundreds of ecosystem builders from around the country converge in my city, Pittsburgh, PA. I do value coming together and exchanging best practices and strategies, but what will stay with me most is peoples’ stories and the relationships we built. The work of returning justice to an economic system that has injustice so deeply ingrained is exhausting. It was heartening and energizing to learn of the attendees’ dreams and aspirations, commiserate over common hurdles, and share in the excitement over recent successes and accomplishments. There are several moments that I shared with fellow attendees that will stay with me forever and will keep motivated in this work for years to come.
One of the most memorable parts of the conference was the first day. In the August Wilson Center, whose namesake I believe to be America’s greatest playwright, we attended a powerful racial equity training. Through numbers and statistics, the Racial Equity Institute showed us all that the same racial intolerance and inequity August Wilson wrote about still exists today in many forms. The training was followed by a reception where Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke on the same issues.
Mayor Peduto recognized that in Pittsburgh’s history, we have not done justice to the minority communities to which we owe our success. He mentioned that as Pittsburgh aims to reinvent itself, we must do so in a way that aims to correct those past injustices and build a Pittsburgh for all. He said, “We believe in a Pittsburgh where if it’s not for all, it’s not for us!” The attendees all clapped at this, but I think what he said a few sentences later was a crucial addition to that statement. He recognized that although we increasingly have a better understanding of the scope of inequity, we still need help finding the solutions. He applauded those in the room for attending and noted how there is “tremendous opportunity when diverse people come together to problem solve.” He has made the commitment to advance equity, but he understands that those same communities that have been historically overlooked must be the ones to lead the way in determining what that pathway to equity. If people are not put in the center of our work, then we are repeating the mistakes of our past generations.
In our work, centering people means ensuring the voice of entrepreneurs comes in at every stage. Leaders are important, I am grateful to have our Mayor’s support, but the Racial Equity Institute presentation taught us that “systems-level disparities cannot be explained by a few ‘bad apples’ or ill-intentioned gatekeepers.” Inequity exists across systems and at every level, so we must reform every system and push back at every level. One of the most complicated and important spaces to do this is in entrepreneurship. Our task is monumental, but that’s why we come together. That’s why we must build and strengthen these relationships. There is no need to fight for change alone when you have colleagues around the country who would love to help. We gathered in the City of Bridges to build more, and I challenge each and every person that attended to follow up with people, follow each others’ work, and share resources. I couldn’t wait to get back to work on Monday, energized not only by some new strategies but by a calendar full of people committed to making the same change I am.