McCants Lewis says she’s proud of the work the center has done to add a wide variety of talents to its board. “We're just working to build our board and have a range of community leaders, advocates, philanthropists, and business leaders that support the organization.”
Though her appointment is still new, McCants Lewis says she’s excited to carry on the legacy of August Wilson and bring more programs to the center. The playwright has been lauded by audiences around the world, but she says there is still something uniquely Pittsburgh about a lot of his work.
“You can look at it and see almost like he predicted some things that we see in Pittsburgh,” she says. “And we also, I think, when you look at his work and you look at the plays, what you're seeing in them is, you know what's happening in Pittsburgh. He spoke the history of Pittsburgh throughout his work.”
Though Wilson’s work has been turned from the stage to the screen with popular adaptations on platforms like Netflix, young people in Pittsburgh may still not know who August Wilson was, or have any idea that he is from Pittsburgh. As one of the most significant playwrights of the 20th century, McCants Lewis says it’s important to make local youth aware of his work.
“They need to know that August Wilson grew up less than a mile from the center in the Hill District and that his contribution was not only to the city of Pittsburgh and our rich cultural and arts legacy, but what he gave to the world and internationally,” she says. “That's something we do want to just make sure that we're celebrating August Wilson.” McCants Lewis says the center is currently working on a program called the August Wilson: A Writer’s Landscape, an interactive exhibit that will allow visitors to see Wilson’s impact, not just in the city limits of Pittsburgh, but beyond. Having grown up in Monroeville with family in the North Side, McCants Lewis is very much a local. After graduating from high school, she attended Gannon University to get her bachelor’s degree in political science, then attended Duquesne Law School for her doctorate. She spent over 10 years at Duquesne as a law professor teaching civil rights litigation. From there, she transitioned to re-entry work, helping individuals with criminal backgrounds get their records cleared or expunged, or receive pardons through the governor’s office.
She says her interest in this kind of work came after an individual approached her and wanted to look at Pittsburgh becoming a “ban the box” city. The initiative seeks to remove the box on job applications asking about past criminal convictions. In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he would be “banning the box” from “non-civil service employment applications” under his jurisdiction.
McCants Lewis says she and her students researched the matter as a civil rights issue, as “more Black and Brown people are affected by having a criminal record.”
McCants Lewis says she enjoyed her time teaching and helping individuals in the community, while also serving as the Director of HR for the Pittsburgh Penguins. She’s been with Pittsburgh’s professional hockey team for a little over two years, and she says that while the sport has a reputation for not being diverse, things are changing at the game and leadership levels.
She says the organization has been hiring more diverse candidates, and earlier this year, launched the Willie O’Ree Academy for Black youth hockey players in the Pittsburgh region. The academy, named after Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the National Hockey League, will start in June with a free nine-week training program.
“They have the skills, they can skate, they can play, but they need those social resources,” says McCants Lewis. “Because, you know, I've been in opportunities. I've been in situations, jobs, organizations where I'm ‘the only’; whether it be the ‘only’ woman, the ‘only’ Black woman in the organization. Being the ‘only,’ sometimes you need that support. That's what this initiative will do.”
August Wilson African American Cultural Center
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Willie O’Ree Academy penguins.nhl.com/community/willie-oree-academy
This community feature is made possible by the financial support of Peoples, an Essential Utilities Company