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Pennsylvania State Rep. Ed Gainey has witnessed Pittsburgh’s tech boom firsthand, including those it has lifted, and those who remain left behind.
Gainey, a Democrat, in May became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent mayor in a City of Pittsburgh primary election in 88 years. He is poised to become the city’s first Black mayor come November’s election in the overwhelmingly Democratic, Rust Belt city.
His perspective on Pittsburgh’s evolution dates back well before his political career, and is rooted in his city upbringing.
“It’s funny. It’s like two different streets, right?” Gainey said of Penn Avenue, the commercial artery that runs through East Liberty, the thriving city neighborhood where Gainey grew up in subsidized housing.
Once Pennsylvania’s third-largest commercial shopping district, East Liberty is today home to tech companies like Duolingo and Google. A Whole Foods now sits where affordable public housing one stood. It has become for many the poster child for gentrification in a city that lost approximately 7,000 — or about 6% — of its people of color between 2014 and 2018, and which, as Gainey noted, still lacks a middle-class Black neighborhood.
Gainey’s comments came Thursday at a virtual event as he articulated his vision for a more equitable Pittsburgh economy and tech space. The half-hour discussion, which was part of the Pittsburgh Tech Council’s “Going Beyond Business as Usual” series, was led by longtime Tech Council President and CEO Audrey Russo, and at one point featured over 50 attendees, including elected officials, media members, lobbyists, as well as tech and government liaisons eager for a glimpse of the presumptive mayor’s priorities.
“It’s not that we don’t want new development, but we want integrated development where people don’t feel displaced, but included in a new economy,” said the 51-year-old Gainey.
We want integrated development where people don't feel displaced, but included in a new economy.
While current Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has prioritized opportunities to develop the city’s innovation economy, his all-but-certain successor has made it clear that his priority is a livable Pittsburgh for all.
Gainey, who declined an interview for this story, kept policy details vague, but articulated a vision that included meaningful workforce development and jobs placement, early childhood education, safe infrastructure, affordable public transportation and improved communication and dialogue between communities.
“Pittsburgh has to become more welcoming, and the business community has to open up to be laser focused and intent — even in the tech community — about bringing in minorities,” Gainey said.
According to data provided by the Allegheny Conference, about 4.6% of the 36,870 information technology jobs in the 10-county region of Western PA go to Black residents. (Census data shows the region to be roughly 7.7% Black or African American, while the City of Pittsburgh is about 23% Black.)
The employment data covers an array of careers in the IT field with a range of salaries, from customer service representatives making about $34,000 annually to information systems managers making over $130,000 annually. The data does not parse out occupation by demographic.
“The greatest common denominator is jobs,” said Gainey. “We need jobs.”
A reset moment
From the onset of his tenure, Peduto envisioned a booming tech economy as a driver of equitable development in the city. In fall 2014, just a few months into his first term, he articulated his vision for the Pittsburgh Journal Of Technology Law & Policy.
“If the tech and innovation economy only serves to enrich one segment of our population, we will all have failed,” he wrote. “We must ensure that as this economy grows, we are creating opportunity not just for those with Ph.D.s but for those with GEDs, as well.”
We must ensure that as this economy grows, we are creating opportunity not just for those with PhDs but for those with GEDs, as well
During Peduto’s tenure, the city’s reputation as a tech hub grew, fueled by a pipeline of research and skilled graduates from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, among others. According to data from the Allegheny Conference, university research spending on IT in Western Pennsylvania grew 95.4% in the past 10 years, up to just over $198 million in 2019.
In one of the most high-profile additions, Uber arrived in Pittsburgh in 2014 and greatly ramped up its autonomous vehicle testing in the following years. Today, Aurora Innovation, which purchased Uber ATG in 2020, employs approximately 1150 people in the region.
Throughout his two terms, with an eye toward examining exactly where the city’s shortcomings lie, Peduto, who did not respond to a request for comment, created a number of offices and commissions to more fully evaluate and tackle the challenges and inequities facing city residents.
In June 2019, Peduto’s Gender Equity Commission released a report that encapsulated the lived experience of thousands: Pittsburgh, in many regards, was the least livable city in the country for Black women in particular. Among other findings, the report found that Pittsburgh’s Black women are less likely to be employed and more likely to live in poverty than Black women in 85% of cities.
At the same time, Pittsburgh repeatedly ranked near the top of The Economist’s “most livable city” index. Pittsburgh came in second in 2018, third in 2019 — the same year as the gender equity report — and third place again in 2021. Even city letterhead, before and during Peduto’s administration, touted Pittsburgh as “America’s Most Livable City.”
Gainey’s campaign, which was outspent by Peduto three-to-one in the primary race and was backed by a patchwork coalition of progressive labor unions, politicians and social justice organizations exasperated by police violence and the city’s inequities, posed a simple rejoinder: A most livable city, for whom?
Mark Anthony Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, called the 2019 gender equity report the beginning of a “pretty tough two years for a thriving Black Community,” which was bookended by Gainey’s primary election victory.
“There’s no secret that the Pittsburgh tech economy has not been as inclusive for Black workers as we want it to be,” said Thomas, who highlighted workforce development efforts as a priority his organization has identified for nearly a decade.
Gainey’s election, Thomas believes, “sends a signal that we’re heading in a different direction and that we can actually be a place for Black people to thrive and be successful.”
“Obviously, as a person of color myself, I want to make sure that message is as amplified as possible,” Thomas continued. “And so it gives us a reset in how we speak about who Pittsburgh is for, but also how do we then deliver the vision that people want to see?
Gainey's campaign posed a rejoinder: A most livable city, for whom?
As with any new administration, there will be a time of transition. Gainey still hasn’t officially won the mayoral election, as there is still a general election in November, though Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the city. And there will be the work of bringing campaign pledges into governing policy. So, many tech leaders aren’t speaking publicly yet. Kelauni Jasmyn, who was recently profiled by Technical.ly with the launch of the $50 million Black Tech Nation Ventures fund, declined to give comment for this piece, opting to wait until Gainey’s plans are more fully fleshed out.
In the meantime, she said her organization Black Tech Nation has just started a research project to gather first-person accounts and data to come away with a better understanding of the true scope and scale of the landscape for Black technologists in Pittsburgh, so they can better understand how BTN can maintain a more active presence in Pittsburgh, and eventually scale nationwide.
Building sustainable programs
Gainey, who also expressed a desire to see more manufacturing jobs in the area to complement the existing research and development, doesn’t have to start from scratch when it comes to equity in tech: Peduto sowed the seeds for many equity programs that have only recently begun to bear fruit.
Alums of his administration have a presence in the tech community, as well. Annia Aleman, now innovation director at East Liberty tech incubator Ascender, worked in the Peduto administration’s Department of Innovation and Performance for about four years. There, she spearheaded Inclusive Innovation Week, which gathered organizations and individuals working in the equity space, and also headed PGH Lab, a city-backed incubator for startups looking to pilot and scale case studies for civic-minded tech solutions.
Today, PGH Lab is run by Itha Cao, who in fall 2020 recalibrated the program to give preference to entrepreneurs “led by members of and/or benefiting underrepresented communities.”
“My goal for PGHLab is not just to prioritize minority, women-owned small businesses, but also to get them in that ecosystem that is not very diverse,” said Cao, “and give them the opportunity that many others have, but it’s only because they were born into structures that allowed them to have access.”
Along with supporting new companies, Peduto also started efforts to bring tech skills training to underrepresented communities. In 2019, Peduto’s office reached out to Max Dennison, director of youth coding program Beta Builders, and named him the city’s digital inclusion coordinator. Now armed with the backing of the city, Dennison said he found it much easier to elicit contributions from the city’s corporate and tech elite to fund coding bootcamps and other youth STEM education efforts.
Dennison currently oversees grant writing efforts, implementation of STEM programming and summer coding bootcamps, and is part of a team that oversees the transformation of 10 city recreation centers in underserved areas into tech centers. Last summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins and First National Bank contributed $100,000 toward a STEM lab at a makerspace in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Also in 2020, the City of Pittsburgh, along with the City of Baltimore, received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant for just this type of rec to tech transformation.
“If I do my job correctly with the city, then the programming I want to institute, the pipeline we are trying to build, will last way longer than me,” said Dennison.
Knowledge is power!
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