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Monday, June 17, 2013

Dowd leaving council to pilot "start-up nonprofit" focused on children's issues

Posted By on Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 12:05 PM

City Councilor Patrick Dowd will be leaving his elected post to lead a newly established children's advocacy group, Allies for Children, this summer.

"This is just a new form of public service," Dowd said at a press conference held this morning at Downtown's CAPA arts school.

One in six western Pennsylvania children lives in poverty, Dowd noted; roughly one-half live in families designated as low-income. Children in such circumstances, Dowd said "are starting their life ... without the things they need in order to succeed," and thus were at higher risk for negative outcomes like dropping out of school, ending up in prison. "There is a real urgency to this work."

As Dowd noted, there is already a plethora of local agencies and advocacy groups working on children's issues. Allies for Children was "not going to supplant that work," he said, but instead work on "broadening the base of support" for it. Allies, he said, would "build a united front" on advocating for a wide range of children's issues, including children's health and early-education, at the federal, state, and local level.

Allies for Children is an outgrowth of Childwatch, a longtime children's advocacy group. Dowd and other officials said the new effort would be distinguished by its comprehensive scope, and by the fact that it would have long-term backing from a broad range of local corporations and foundations. Allies would "help set the advocacy agenda" for children in western Pennsylvania, said Kevin Jenkins, a senior program officer for the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Dowd says he was hired last week, and planned to formally submit his resignation next month, adding that he still wanted to finish up some initiatives, especially at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, where he is a board member. That timeline would allow his replacement to be chosen in a special election coinciding with the November general election. Dowd declined to speculate on the dynamics of the race, saying that was for the voters to decide. Dowd said he and Allies began talking in April about the post, and while he declined to say who initiated those discussions, board chair Martha Isler said Dowd responded to an online job listing advertising the job.

In one sense, the move seems a natural step for Dowd: He previously taught history at the Ellis School and served as a member of the city's school board. He was also active in a campaign to levy a tax benefiting the Carnegie Library system. This morning, he cited his own work cobbling together coalitions as a city councilor — drumming up opposition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposal to lease the city's parking facilities — as experience that would come in handy.

But the timing is ironic: Over the years, Dowd had expressed frustration with Ravenstahl, and backed Democratic nominee Bill Peduto in the May primary. Did he regret leaving city council just when it seemed he'd have a new mayor to work with? "My hope is [that working with the mayor] is what I'll be doing, but not in an elective capacity," Dowd answers.

For now, Dowd's job is largely a blank slate. While it will work in partnership with exiting groups, for example, it remains to be seen how it would proceed if those groups disagreed on a specific policy question. Dowd says such questions are among the "details that are going to have to be worked out," though he cited a list of "guiding principles" that the group had already adopted. (Among the principles: to be data-driven and to "work with all stakeholders in a respectful manner.") But Isler says a likely model for the coalition will be PA Partnerships for Children, an umbrella group that advocates on a statewide level. At that level, says Isler, if a group that opposes the consensus frequently "agree not to oppose" the broader group's position, even if they don't actively support it. "Sometimes it is like herding cats," she added.

And despite the ambitious agenda, Allies remains a fledgling operation, with an office in the Pittsburgh Children's Museum; Dowd joked that he wasn't sure it had a phone yet. The podium used in this morning's press conference was a sheet of typing paper with the organization's name typed out in plain text. As for his own salary, Dowd said "we actually haven't negotiated that." The online job posting promised "a competitive six-figure salary," but while Dowd acknowledged it would be "more than I'm making now" -- councilors earn in the mid-$50,000 range -- Dowd said "this isn't about making money."

Three local foundations -- the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Grable Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments -- are all backing the effort. Isler said that between those foundations and pledges from individual board members, the Alliance had enough funding commitments to ensure at least three years of operation. "We are very excited about that buy-in" from community leaders, contrasting that with the position of other advocacy groups, who often have to scramble for funding. While the online job listing indicated a rough operating budget of $700,000, Isler noted that decisions about staffing, for example, had yet to be made.

Indeed, the Alliance's board is made up of some heavy-hitters, with representatives from UPMC, BNY Mellon, Oxford Development, Reed Smith and other law firms, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and a handful of children's groups.

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