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Converge Left: Region's social-justice groups assembling to "level the playing field"

"Without coordinating and bringing people together, nothing is going to change."

Converge Left: Region's social-justice groups assembling to "level the playing field"
Nick Palazzetti is among those leading the charge for a five-year social-justice plan for the region.

In Washington and Greene counties, groups fight against long-wall mining, acid drainage and mountaintop removal. In Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, there are those focused on fighting Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling. But despite the distances, many have the same goals: clean water and environmental sustainability. 

The Three Rivers Community Foundation wants to bring those and a multitude of other groups together to consolidate their efforts. The group has identified 190 groups across Southwestern Pennsylvania working on social-justice issues ranging from clean water and prison reform to disability rights and environmental activism.

 During a series of mini-summits in rural communities where many of the groups operate, TRCF found that "the groups were aware of each other but not unified in any way," says Nick Palazzetti, executive director of the grant-making organization, which supports community-based groups steeped in social-justice activism. "There were groups … fighting the same battle."

Since the summits have taken place, TRCF and representatives from the other groups have been using the feedback to unify their fight. That data will become part of an Action Plan for Building Social Justice in Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

A draft of the five-year plan will be rolled out at Building Change: A Convergence for Social Justice and Youth Leading Change, an October event co-sponsored by the foundation and several other social-justice groups including the Thomas Merton Center and Women & Girls Foundation. 

The three-day gathering will host skill-building workshops, art, a film festival, and discussions on issues like prison reform, disability rights, LGBT rights, racial justice and environmental advocacy. Those in attendance will have the opportunity to provide feedback to ultimately shape the rest of the social-justice plan.

"The action plan is really a broad, sort of forward-looking perspective on issues prominent in the social-justice movement that people are organizing around," says Craig Stevens, a TRCF board member and member of the committee developing the draft. "The draft is a baby step and will be open for discussion, with room for pushing and pulling."


As important as the convergence events are, organizers say much of the work will take place afterward -- when it comes time to put the plan in action. 

The TRCF has formed a "continuations committee" of representatives from the various groups to convene after the convergence and finalize the draft. "The convergence isn't just a stand-alone event," says Stevens. "Everyone will go home after, but it will trigger a process that will be participatory." 

Palazzetti estimates it could take 18 months to develop the specifics, as organizers take into account the feedback from the convergence and input from many of the groups. But Stevens says it's worth the wait. "It's a framing document to build the social-justice movement. It's looking down the road rather than scrambling for what we can do right now."

And to their knowledge, nothing like this has been done before. 

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, is a co-sponsor of the event. While he supports the creation of a plan, he says, "I don't know that it can be done. But any effort at harnessing and prioritizing concerns of young people … is a good step forward."

Palazzetti says that a more coordinated effort is needed to further social-justice causes -- and to bring together the 190 groups, which range from the Sierra Club and the Center for Coalfield Justice to PFLAG in Butler County and Persad in Pittsburgh fighting for similar LGBT causes --and the five-year plan is a solid start.

 "[Conservatives] have a lot of wealth and are very well coordinated. They are very competent at messaging," Palazzetti says. "The folks with the money, the power and the voice are the controller of many." For example, he says "You don't find coal mining and gas wells in Fox Chapel and Upper St. Clair. They don't stand for it."

Since the GOP has been "co-opted" by movements like the Tea Party, Palazzetti says, those fighting for social justice must coordinate their efforts, and their voices.

"There needs to be a leveling of the playing field. Without coordinating and bringing people together, nothing is going to change."

Ferlo says he doesn't think progressives have failed at messaging; the failure has come in execution of that message, and that has led to frustration. 

"I think people built up so much hope, including many independents, for when Obama and Democrats finally took control … and basically got nothing," he says. "That's not what people worked their butts off for."

Ferlo hopes the convergence will act as a non-partisan opportunity for skill building for the younger generation.

"Let's empower the young people ourselves, regardless of the broad political persuasion, and let's have an opportunity this October to think out loud and talk out loud about what their perceptions are for a change, instead of being talked to," he says. "That in and of itself is a powerful advocacy effort."


Though Stevens and Palazzetti don't know what the plan might look like after the convergence, two hot-button issues have been among the top concerns discussed during the draft process: Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling and LGBT rights.

To help form the LGBT angle of the plan, Rayden Sorock, a fellow with the Initiative for Transgender Leadership at the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania and member of the convergence's five-year plan committee, has organized a focus group of LGBT advocates for input. Prevention Point Pittsburgh; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Persad; Black Pride; and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services are among those participating.

Transportation and divides within the community are two areas of concern, Sorock says. "Because there is racial segregation in Pittsburgh, there is racial segregation in [the LGBT] community. It affects what spaces we share or don't share with each other, where we feel safe and included, where we feel like we have a voice."

Other LGBT advocates agree. Vanessa Davis, secretary of GLSEN's board of directors, feels there's a "general lack of a sense of community" in the greater LGBT community. Thomas Waters, advocacy chair of the Delta Foundation, which sponsors the annual Pittsburgh Pride festival, praises Sorock's efforts and believes some of that divide has been created because the diverse parts of the community "really don't know enough about each other, and therefore often don't trust that others around the table share a mutual respect for each other," he says. "That will change the more we talk to each other and work to understand each other. So gatherings such as this are essential to improving how we all work together."

Palazzetti at TRCF also believes the effort will help groups who have fundamentally disagreed, like religious organizations and LGBT advocates. 

 "There's a great stigma in the African-American communities with regards to LGBTQ issues," he says. "You wouldn't expect these constituencies to be friendly to one another."

But they are discovering a commonality, he says: "They are coming to understand that the person who is their opponent is the same person."


Building Change: A Convergence for Social Justice, Oct. 13-15, Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. Daily tickets on a sliding scale of $5 to $20; three-day summit pass, $20 to $25.

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