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Diversity : Civic Impact

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'Kinky Boots' actor returns to Pittsburgh to chair Art for Change fundraiser

Actor and Pittsburgh native Billy Porter is returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh on May 12 to serve as the honorary chair for the Persad Center’s 26th Art for Change event, an annual art auction fundraiser held to benefit the organization.

Porter is well recognized for his performance in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots” where he portrayed the character Lola, a drag queen that helps main character, Charlie, save his shoe factory. Porter won a Tony award for Best Musical Actor in 2013 for his performance.

“The show Billy won the Tony for, Kinky Boots, very much fits into the work that Persad Center is doing by changing people’s hearts and minds about how people perceive the LGBTQ community,” says Bob McGrogan, Persad Center’s Director of Development. “Kinky Boots is a tale of a drag performer who helps save a failing shoe factory and along the way also changes the way a blue collar community perceives her. The Art for Change auction is the celebration of this kind of work.”

Art for Change serves as Persad Center’s largest annual fundraiser that helps the organization support its mission of improving the well-being of the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities through outreach, prevention, training and advocacy, and professional counseling.

This year’s fundraising goal is $250,000 and will benefit the non-profit’s Free Care Fund that helps provide free services to the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities.

“Our Board of Directors has pledged that we will not deny our quality services to any eligible client regardless of their ability to pay,” says McGrogan. “We also do so much work in advocacy and outreach that is not charged for obviously. This work is made possible by the support of our Free Care Fund.”

The event, held at the Wyndham Grand in downtown from 6PM to 11PM, will feature a verbal and silent auction featuring over 200 donated works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, furniture and jewelry. Among the many notable pieces of art included in the auction is a Herb Ritts black and white photograph featuring Pee Wee Herman dressed as a cowboy posing with a horse. The auction will also feature artwork from local artists including Michael Lotenero, Thad Mosley, Mark Perrot, Martha Rial, Lila Hirsch Brody, Patrick Ruane and Jack Weiss.

“The event was started in 1988 and has been supported by the art community both locally and nationally ever since,” says McGrogan. “Many of the artists that donate have been donating for many, many years and keep coming back. We are honored and privileged of our relationship with the arts community.”

The event will also feature food from 20 different local restaurants, entertainment, and a cash bar. Guests who purchase VIP tickets will have access to a VIP lounge where Billy Porter will be greeting and mingling with guests.

General admission and VIP tickets for Art for Change can be purchased at www.persadcenter.com

Writer: Liz Miles
Source: Bob McGrogan, Persad Center

Every Child to bring upwards of 500 non-profits to Pittsburgh this fall

Every Child is about to bring up to 500 nonprofits to town this fall for a national conference – and is also prepping for another conference next month that will help local kids in foster care.
 
“Our services are focused on family permanency,” says Jada Shirriel, director of marketing and development for the nonprofit.That includes child abuse and neglect prevention, pregnancy support, help with foster care and adoption and assistance caring for medically fragile children. It also runs special programs, such as one in an East Pittsburgh public housing community to help residents “understand more productive ways of working with their children and being a better example for generations to come,” Shirriel explains.
 
All the nonprofit’s services are delivered in clients’ homes. “We go to where our families are, where they are comfortable,” she says. In 2012, it began working with the local Persad Center to make sure Every Child staff members knew how best to help families with a member identifying as LGBT.
 
The national conference, the 2014 gathering of the Alliance for Children and Families, will take place here in Pittsburgh, Oct 15-17, just a month after Every Child’s gala Sept. 19, hosted by Ramon Foster of the Steelers. On April 26, the group will hold its “LIVING in Care” youth conference (LIVING stands for “Let’s invest in values intended to nurture growth”), for which Every Child received a Heinz Endowment youth philanthropy grant. LIVING will be a health education conference for youth in foster care, focusing on “My mind, my body, my relationships,” for kids 10-15 and will also offer a training track for foster parents.
 
Source: Jada Shirriel and Rachel Rodgers; Every Child

Kids pitch their best biz ideas to Entrepreneuring Youth

Pittsburgh-area kids who want to start their own companies are getting an early boost from Entrepreneuring Youth this year,  The group's first business-pitching event was Saturday.
 
"We realized a few years ago that we needed to start earlier with kids … to help them think creatively about ideas they can pursue for a business opportunity," says Entrepreneuring Youth leader Jerry Cozewith. Today the group partners with two local charter schools (Urban Pathways and Manchester Academic) and two schools in Beaver County to guide 6th through 12th graders in underserved neighborhoods through realistic training on how to form and pitch business ideas.
 
This June, the group's kids will participate in the George W. Tippins Business Plan Competition, named after one of Pittsburgh's more successful businessmen. Saturday's pitch, before local businesspeople at Google headquarters in Bakery Square, was practice for the Tippins contest in June.
 
These same business people will be working as coaches of the kids over the next few months, teaching them how to identify markets and customers, how to set prices and other fundamentals.
 
Eighteen kids – half from middle schools, half from high schools – gave two-minute pitches for ideas ranging from party-planning services to bakeries. Last year's competitors pitched lines of cosmetics, a video service, clothing companies and more.
 
Learning to make a two-minute elevator pitch "is a prized skill," Cozewith says, which can help kids learn how to talk to other adults "to get a summer job or into the college of your choice." Still, he allows, talking in front of a roomful of strangers for two minutes is "an eternity to young kids." Some of the aspiring entrepreneurs will not yet have made a single product. "They're as much selling themselves as their ideas," he says.
 
"The parents are proud and even amazed at what their kids can do – the way they speak, the poise they have, the confidence that have."
 
This weekend's six winners received gift cards as seed capital to buy materials for their businesses.
 
"This is just an awful lot of fun for everybody," Cozewith says.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Jerry Cozewith, Entrepreneuring Youth

Coro wants South Pittsburgh known for peace and cooperation

The South Side and its South Pittsburgh neighbors have great community leaders, but they’re all vying for the same bucks and volunteers, says Robert Young, director of development for the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, Pittsburgh. The Coro NEXT Leaders Project aims to fix that, answering the question “How can we bring together community leaders in the south of Pittsburgh to better collaborate on the common issues?” at this year’s NEXT Leaders Project opening event on March 6 at  St Paul's Retreat Center on the South Side.
 
Young, who is part of the NEXT Leaders program, says the group has already had a number of strategy sessions and dialog with leaders, both seasoned and emerging, in preparation for this event. The issues they’ll be concentrating on include youth engagement – “How to start almost from the cradle … to engage youth as the next generation of leaders,” he says.
 
Those issues also include street-level blight – better cleanup, raising the quality of the housing stock—as well as public safety, which can involve building a better block watch program, and educating the neighborhood groups on how to obtain grants.
 
All of this will move the groups toward a one-day summit in late summer, where Young says the effort will continue to create partnerships, to share innovative projects already underway in their communities, to learn from one another and to gain a better understanding of how to cooperate.
 
To RSVP for the March 6 event, click here.


'Housing options' offers creative housing solutions for those with disabilities

Among people with disabilities such as autism in Pennsylvania, there's a 17,000-person waiting list seeking community housing funds, says Linda Marino, resource coordinator at Jewish Family & Children’s Service (www.jfcspgh.org) (JF&CS).
 
That’s why JF&CS and Jewish Residential Services, which focuses its support work on families of individuals with special needs, will present “Housing options for individuals with disabilities” on March 4 at Rodef Shalom in Oakland.
 
Local disability housing advocates appearing to speak and answer questions include Deborah Friedman, executive director of Jewish Residential Services, who will talk about current residential programs and plans for housing in Squirrel Hill; Mary Hartley, a consultant for the United Way of Allegheny County’s 21andAble Initiative, discussing innovative housing models for adults with disabilities; Elliot Frank, president of Autism Housing Development Corporation of Pittsburgh, who will speak on The Heidelberg Apartment project for autism spectrum adults and typical adults living together; Nancy Murray, head of the ARC of Greater Pittsburgh and ACHIEVA, will talk on ACHIEVA’s “A Home of My Own” program that combines a family's private resources with government funding and natural supports to help people with disabilities to live safely in a home of their choice; and Robert Garber, an attorney, landlord, court-appointed co-guardian and family member of an individual with special needs, whose topic is privately arranging residential services for a family member with special needs.
 
The event, Marino says, “isn’t a step-by-step approach to getting housing. Some people are doing some very creative things to get housing for their loved ones,” and the event will highlight “how housing can be provided by thinking outside the box,” such as creating housing with other parents of adult children with disabilities, or directly with a social services agency.
 
She points to The Heidelberg Apartment project as a great example of community housing possibilities. “We want them all to live in the community together – that’s what inclusion is all about,” she says of adults with disabilities, although there are various degrees of independence. “A lot of people can live in the community with support. Everybody’s different, so everybodys needs are at a different level. The preference is for folks to live in a community. My son’s group home is in a community and he’s a part of the community.”
 
The presentation is free and open to the community and includes a light kosher meal at 6 p.m. Registration is required. For more information or to register, contact Marino at 412-422-7200 or email here.
 
 “I think this is a good start for a lot of people looking for adults to live in their community and not in their [family] houses,” she says.
 
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Linda Marino, Jewish Family & Children’s Service

National scholarships for African Americans come here

The NAACP offers two college scholarships annually, and last year no students from the Pittsburgh area applied for either of them.
 
That will likely change this year as the national scholarship opportunities are being administered by the local POISE Foundation – the first public foundation in Pennsylvania organized and managed by African Americans.
 
The POISE Foundation’s mission, says Karris Jackson, its vice president of programs, "is to assist the Pittsburgh region’s black community in achieving self-sustaining practices, through strategic leadership, collective giving, grant making and advocacy." POISE manages 150 scholarship and grant funds currently.
 
The NAACP's Agnes Jones Jackson Scholarship is available only to NAACP members, but its Hubertus W.V. Willems Scholarship is available to all male students.
 
"I find that a lot of students start the application but never complete it," Jackson says. "That’s usually because they did not give themselves enough time to gather all the necessary documents and/or to write a thoughtful essay."
 
Over the past few years, POISE has heard from an increasing number of students needing emergency funding to remain in school, she notes. "African American students often lack access to the networks that expose them to the vast number of available scholarships," she adds. "I also think that African American students have a higher degree of need and, as a result, depend more heavily on scholarship money to help cover the cost of tuition.
 
"Scholarships help to close the gap between financial aid and family responsibility," she concludes. The NAACP scholarships provide up to $3,000 each. "This is a great opportunity for students in the Pittsburgh region and we hope more will take advantage."
 
Applications are being accepted from now until March 17.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Karris Jackson, POISE Foundation
 

Aiming at a larger problem -- Racial Equity in Arts group starts

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC) has launched the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts because "the arts really have an ability to lead broader society and push the changes," says Tiffany Wilhelm, deputy director of GPAC.
 
The Coalition has just begun but already has 80 individual and group members.  GPAC has been sponsoring workshops and arts events promoting better arts access for those with disabilities, and the new Coalition will add to GPAC's ongoing push for diversity in the arts, she says.
 
"Now we want to be more public about talking about race and racial equity," Wilhelm says. "We see organizations that are led by people of color or involve artists of color not getting as much opportunity … People say that they feel like funding is not always equitable and that people are getting passed up for exhibitions and performances. It really is the same challenges and inequities we see in broader society."
 
Wilhelm notes that the current exhibition in GPAC's own gallery features art by African American men. "They felt it was unusual to have an opportunity to exhibit Downtown," she reports. "We felt that that shouldn't be unusual."
 
How can the arts help to fix these societal issues? Arts organizations and individual artists can exhibit and perform work that starts people talking about race. Wilhelm points to Bricolage's theatrical series focused on race relations and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's "Race: Are we so different?" exhibit slated to open in March. The first Coalition event will be "Moving Against Racism in the Arts" on Feb. 20 at The Alloy Studio (5530 Penn Ave.) in partnership with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The dance and discussion program for artists and arts administrators is being billed as "a candid community conversation with movement, writing, and small group sharing to set us in motion to listen, learn, and lead."
 
"The more we can connect to what is happening in the community and the conversations that are already happening, the better off we will be," concludes Wilhelm. In the meantime, the Coalition will be looking for more events that will provide "lots of entry points for people to join the conversation ..."
      
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Tiffany Wilhelm, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council

NPC's Design Our Future targets action on startups, diversity, public policy

The New Pittsburgh Collaborative (NPC) has narrowed down the priorities for its Design Our Future program, starting its members on a two-year effort to focus greater city attention on three areas:

  • Diversity, inclusion, and equity
  • Public policy and leadership
  • Startups, innovation, and entrepreneurship
The process began on Nov. 9, when more than 60 individuals from about 40 organizations met at NPC to come up with the region's biggest opportunities and challenges. Since then, 300 ideas became 40 issue-specific designs, now narrowed to the three categories above.

"Accessibility is such a big issue," says NPC head Dan Law about the first focal issue for Design Our Future, "not just to jobs but to our civic organizations, our local government, the chance for young people to be integrated into our neighborhoods." Solutions may lie in changing people's "economic trajectory," Law says.  
 
Law says the discussions about the issues will include not only young professionals in their twenties and thirties but younger students and older people in mid-career. "The intergenerational, interdisciplinary approach is going to be the linchpin for future collaboration," he says.
 
"We're still trying to figure out what is the recipe for constructive and productive dialog on equity," Law adds. "These are very difficult questions, but we firmly believe we need to take the time to have dialog before we move to have constructive programs."
           
Law hopes to encourage local individuals and groups to contact the NPC and be a part of Design Our Future. Concludes Law: "We don't have all the answers yet but we're going to spend the next two years figuring it out."
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Dan Law, NPC

Women candidates and campaigners get one-day primer

“Ready to Run Campaign Training for Women” – both campaign workers and candidates – is set once again for Jan. 25 from the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.
 
“It’s bi-partisan, of course,” says the center's executive director, Dana Brown. “And it's one day, which is certainly a bit of a challenge.”
 
That's because the event covers navigating the political party structure, running for judge, media training, fundraising, public speaking and developing a campaign plan. Trainers include Deb Scofield, president of Executive Speech & Presentations Coaching, and Nancy Bocskor, author of Go Fish: How to Catch (and Keep) Contributors: A Practical Guide to Fundraising.
 
The keynote will be given by Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, who will talk about her experience and what women candidates need to know before embarking on their own campaigns.
 
“Even though I do this every year I always take away new things myself,” says Brown.
 
Fewer than 25 percent of state legislative offices are held by women, she points out, and the state has never had a female senator or governor. There are several barriers to entering politics, she acknowledges.
 
No one likes the lack of privacy that candidates endure, and the negativity in campaigns. For women, the political party structure can throw up barriers as well, Brown says: "It's a little less friendly to women ... It was created by men, so any time they’re expanding they tend to pull from their networks.”
 
Women are also more affected by the work/life imbalance of a political career, since women still tend to be primary caretakers of children and aging parents.
 
While this event has greater attendance in odd-numbered years – when local political races happen – campaigning is still a desired skill, she says. “While a lot of folks actually are down [on politics] because of what we see in Congress or federally, locally there does seem to be consistent interest. My job is to get women off the fence.”
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Dana Brown, Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics

Diversity focus of mini grants from Civic Inclusion and Engagement Fund

Two local nonprofits – Vibrant Pittsburgh and the Urban Affairs Foundation (of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) put their heads and money together and have awarded Civic Inclusion & Engagement Fund mini-grants to 12 projects. These dozen projects will provide services to African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, refugees and new immigrants, individuals with disabilities and faith-based community groups.  
 
Among the awardees are:
  • Union Project and Creative Citizens Studios, which will make hands-on arts experiences more accessible and affordable to people with disabilities
  • Coro Latinoamericano and the Latin American Cultural Union, for Canta Pittsburgh, which will promote Latino culture in Pittsburgh through a children's choir, musical instruction and performances
  • Just Harvest, Latino Family Center, One Woman Farm and Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, aiming to expand Citiparks Farmers’ Markets to new, diverse neighborhoods
  • J-Serve International, the Agency for Jewish Learning, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Repair the World Pittsburgh, creating a teen volunteer experience
  • University of Pittsburgh's Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth & Empowerment (FORGE) and Keep It Real Pittsburgh, forming a summer camp with English and academic skill-building and creative expression workshops and programming
  • Chinese Association for Science and Technology and Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Pittsburgh, working to attract and retain young Chinese talent in the greater Pittsburgh area through networking and mentoring
  • Junior Achievement of Western PA, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, South Hill Interfaith Ministries and PRYSE Academy, instituting a Refugee Youth Employment Program
  • Dreams of Hope, Father Ryan Arts Center and Little House, Big Art, whose speaQ project is billed as "a youth-led, neighborhood open mic program"
  • Christian Evangelic Economic Development and Union of African Communities, creating a diversity festival and speaker series
  • Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Northern Area Multiservice Center, creating World Refugee Day Celebration, and
  • Black Political Empowerment Project, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Cease Fire/PA and Voices Against Violence establishing a Youth Summit Against Violence.
 
Writer: Marty Levine

Oral histories and exhibit honor local African Americans

When Demeatria Boccella, founder of the Utopia Modeling Agency for African Americans and the Fashion Africana event, was a young girl, she read fashion magazines and wanted to be a model. But, she recalls, she “saw limited, narrow portrayals of women of color … I saw no one like me who had darker skin or stronger African features. It led to a few self-destructive actions.”
 
Today, thanks to mentors who aided her self-esteem, she grew into an adult who has been able to make a difference in the fashion industry. Now she is one of 12 African Americans from Western Pennsylvania who are being honored as "individuals who have achieved milestones in civic leadership, the arts and civil rights" by PNC. The company has recorded their oral histories, which will be available as part of a free public exhibit that opens on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 20, at PNC’s Pittsburgh Legacy Building.
  • The other honorees are:
    Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh
  • Alma Speed Fox, civil and women’s rights advocate
  • Patricia Prattis Jennings, the first black woman to be awarded a major American symphony's full contract
  • Wendell Freeland, bombardier with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, local Urban League leader and co-founder of Hill House Association
  • Helen Faison, a pioneer Pittsburgh teacher after whom the district has named two schools
  • Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier
  • Thaddeus Mosley, nationally renowned sculptor
  • Julius Jones, retired chief executive officer of the YMCA of Pittsburgh
  • Swin Cash, two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA champion
  • Billy Porter, Tony award-winning actor
  • Sean Jones, trumpeter and artistic director of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra 
“It is such a distinguished group of individuals," says Boccella, "and it is truly an honor to be recognized with them. They are individuals who really inspire me.
 
“I love the outreach to the young people," she adds, pointing to essays written by 6th through 8th graders in city schools as part of this project. "When I was young I knew very few people who looked like me” in the professional world. “There are quite a few black professionals who are being recognized, and I think that it is very exciting.
 
“I hope they are inspired," she says of any young people who see he exhibit Downtown, "that they feel like, hey, I could do this too, that they feel empowered and inspired to pursue their dreams.”
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Demeatria Boccella

Happy hours for globally minded people

"We call it happy hour for globally minded people," says Thomas Buell, Jr., director of marketing and the Study Pittsburgh initiative for GlobalPittsburgh.
 
He's talking about GlobalPittsburgh First Thursdays, held next on Dec. 5 at Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille in the Strip District from 5:30 to 8 p.m., then in February and following (after skipping January) at Steel Cactus in Shadyside.
 
About 150 people from across the globe and the city usually attend, from 37 countries and speaking 27 languages. The crowd, Buell says, includes "a lot of internationals – professionals, students and ex-pats – but also a lot of local people who are interested in learning about the world… They have travelled or they are interested in seeing how global Pittsburgh has become.
           
"It seems like it's really unlike a lot of networking, where people know each other," he adds. "This one, you can walk up to any table and introduce yourself. It's really friendly and welcoming.
           
Through this "citizen diplomacy," Buell says, the confluence of people can do things "the diplomats in Washington can't really achieve."
 
A hundred years ago, he notes, 33 percent of Pittsburghers were born outside the U.S. In recent years, that has fallen as low as four percent. Currently, it is around 10 percent. "This is a way to make Pittsburgh more welcoming and inclusive for people who live here, not just for newcomers," he says. "The visitors who come in learn from Pittsburgh but we want to make sure that Pittsburgh … learns from the people we bring in.
 
Register here for the event, which is free for GlobalPittsburgh members and $5 for others, and includes complimentary appetizers, prize drawings and more.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Thomas Buell, Jr., GlobalPittsburgh

MLK essay contest sending winners to Chautauqua

Carnegie Mellon University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards contest for local high-school and college students is calling for entries once again – and winners this year may get the chance to read their works at a special event in Chautauqua, New York.
 
Poetry and prose about students' personal experiences with race and discrimination are invited as contest entries by Nov. 22, with the awards ceremony set for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Jan. 20, 2014).  
 
It's sometimes difficult to get entries from kids in high school unless their teachers get involved and oversee the writing process, says organizer Jim Daniels, Thomas Stockham Baker Professor of English at CMU. "It's a hard subject for [kids] to write about and they need a lot of encouragement," Daniels says, "but if we ignore or don't talk about it, it's just beneath the surface and horrible things happen."

Among the increasing subjects of past winners has been the experience of international students here and in their own countries, "a reminder that it is not just an issue for this country," he says. Last year's winners included a student from Sri Lanka who talked about her experience there and in Lebanon as a family of immigrants finding their way. Another winning essay concerned a student whose mixed Latin American heritage, he said, was not evident, even to fellow Latinos. The first time a stranger approached him as a fellow Hispanic, asking him in Spanish what country he was from, was a thrilling moment he was able to record for his essay.
 
For the contest's 15th year, says Daniels, the awards ceremony and reading will also involve a performance by the CMU drama department's gospel choir. But bringing winners to Chautauqua is the most exciting development, he says, helping both students and the audience ponder the issues of race and discrimination more often than one day per year.
 
"None of them had been there before," he says of the students he brought to New York. "They were particularly surprised by the enthusiasm of the audience. They wanted us to stay longer." The group had a lunch and tour and were interviewed by the local daily for a long article. "They want us back. We want to go back. It's an exciting development."
 
Daniels hopes this year's entrants include more college students too. "The more people who get involved in responding, the more rewarding the awards will be," he concludes. "There are always surprises; I learn something every year from these pieces."
 
Entries should be less than 2,000 words and double-spaced (or up to five poems) and should be sent as Microsoft Word attachments (.docx preferred) here or to MLK Writing Contest, Department of English, Baker Hall 259, CMU, 5000 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.?Include your name, school, age, title of work(s) submitted, category of work(s) submitted (fiction, poetry, nonfiction), email address, home address and home phone number.

Selected entries are published by CMU.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Jim Daniels, CMU

ReelAbilities fest shows the power of film to reveal hidden lives

"About 20 percent of American’s have some sort of disability," notes Kristy Trautmann, head of the FISA Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of people with disabilities, as well as women and girls. "It’s the only minority group that any of us could join at any time through illness or accident. And yet many people were raised to avoid people with disabilities. Children are chastened not to stare, not to ask questions. In fact, if they were honest many adults would admit that they aren’t sure how to approach a person with a disability – they don’t know what language is appropriate or how to act, and they don’t want to offend."
 
That's why FISA has teamed with JFilm, whose annual Jewish Film Festival aims to promote diversity and inclusion, to bring ReelAbilities to Pittsburgh for the first time. Pop City is a media sponsor. The Oct. 26-29 film festival (begun in New York in 2007) aims to "change perceptions and celebrate the many contributions of people with disabilities to our society," Trautmann says.
 
"It’s all about looking and seeing and coming to better understand someone else’s experience," Trautmann adds.
 
Says Kathryn Spitz Cohan, JFilm executive director: "While television shows have recently added more characters with disabilities … it is in these films that we really get a deeper look into the lives of individuals with disabilities."
 
Each film is accompanied by local programming, including speakers, panel discussions, art exhibits. In Jet Li's first dramatic role, in "Ocean Heaven," he plays a single father of a son with autism; the ReelAbilities showing of this movie concludes with a talk on community and social capital by Al Condeluci, head of Community Living and Support Services, and a reception. A program of short films includes guided tours of the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratory, while the documentary "Crooked Beauty" is followed by story telling and performance art emceed by stand-up comedian Marion Grodin.
 
Says Trautmann: "There are a lot of challenges still facing people with disabilities: stigma, lack of accessible housing, a shortage of services to help individuals live in the community, difficulty finding employment. We hope that the festival will help people see that inclusion of people with disabilities is an important issue for our whole community. It’s about justice, not about charity."
 
For more information, go to the ReelAbilities website, call 412-992-5203 or email here.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Kristy Trautmann, FISA Foundation; Kathryn Spitz Cohan, JFilm

Accessible arts performances are good for everyone, says FISA Foundation

The FISA Foundation's multi-year effort to expand arts access for people with disabilities is having a real impact, according to a new report compiled by the organization.
 
"While we’ve come a long way in changing attitudes and promoting inclusion of people with disabilities," says Kristy Trautmann, FISA's executive director, "it is still very upsetting how many organizations and individuals consider accessibility as an afterthought, if they think about it at all. Too often the focus of accessibility planning is still about meeting the code," – doing only what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires – "as if to communicate that we would have done less if we could have."
 
To get past that way of thinking, FISA has spent the last five years bringing arts groups to a deeper understanding of how arts accessibility is not only the right thing to do, but it's good for business as well. The report reviews the changes arts groups can make in their performances and presentations, from more accessible seating to sign-language interpretation, assistive listening devices, large-print programs, captioning and "touch tours." More than that, it shows how local arts groups have benefited from changing their practices, with City Theatre and Pittsburgh Opera leading the charge.
 
FISA teamed with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to help local arts groups discover low-cost accessibility aids. They held accessibility workshops for the groups and involved those with disabilities in assessing needs, building an audience and creating and staging disability-focused art pieces.
 
"It’s inspiring to see how many arts managers are now champions of accessibility and inclusion," says Trautmann. "They are driving this agenda because they deeply believe in it. We can all learn a lot from their example.
 
"One of the challenges is that many people who could benefit from these efforts don’t think of themselves as disabled," she adds. "They just know their hearing or vision 'isn’t what it used to be.' Many people used to love the arts but have reluctantly stopped purchasing tickets because it stopped being enjoyable. We want them to know that it’s time to come back and try again."
 
Rona Nesbit, executive vice president of the Cultural Trust, notes that "adding diversity to our audiences enhances everyone's experience. We believe that half of the pleasure of artistic engagement is being able to experience it with others."
 
And other cities' arts groups are taking notice, she adds: Representatives from the Cleveland Playhouse attended the recent autism-friendly performance of "The Lion King." The Trust also has received a request to serve as a consultant for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as well as other arts groups around the country.
 
"We are up front about the fact that this is a work in progress," says Trautmann. "The most important thing any community member can do is to give feedback. If you have a good experience – if something works for you – let the arts organizations know. And if you see an opportunity for something to be better – let them know that too."
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Kristy Trautmann, FISA Foundation; Rona Nesbit, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
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