Robert Burack Fellow 15-16Robert Burack is a former Programs Director at Break Away, and current 2015-2016 Coro Fellow in Public Affairs.

Since I’ve moved to Pittsburgh, I’ve tried saying “yes” to every invitation (within reason).

This has been important for building a social and civic life, arriving in an unfamiliar city six months ago without a built-in community to call my own. My first weeks in Pittsburgh found me squarely in the “volunteer” stage of the Active Citizen Continuum; I was well-intended, but not particularly well-educated about the city’s 90 neighborhoods or its major social issues. As far as community participation goes, this was my spectator phase.

After some time, reading and conversation, and plenty of invitations accepted, I began to slowly understand the root causes of what I was seeing when I walked around the city. With eyes opened wider, I also re-saw what I had been seeing all along. An empty lot I had passed countless times was attached, slowly, to a history and to a context. Its high grass was the physical result of the systems and histories I was hearing about. As a budding “conscientious citizen,” I immersed myself in these details.

Saying “yes” ultimately jumpstarted my shift in active citizenship in Pittsburgh (active citizenship being the expression of community as a priority in life choices and values). It was a clumsy effort at first. I had to figure out what mattered to me here, and how I might contribute. Most of what I focused on was in proximity to me — to the neighborhoods surrounding my tidy apartment in Highland Park. In this way I was reminded of Frances Perkins, who found the cause of worker’s rights the day she stood on a New York City street and witnessed the tragedies of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The immediate compels, partly because it’s within our reach. Sometimes, when hand-wring about what causes or issues to pour ourselves into, we forget that there are needs already around us that we can effectively pour ourselves into. 

Lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson visited Pitt’s Law School a few weeks ago and drove this point home. He instructed the audience to get proximate to issues and neighborhoods, and to be willing to get uncomfortable, if we want to change the world. I’ve been working on getting closer and being more vulnerable in my citizenship in Pittsburgh, but have also been drawn in by a crisis farther away (a community that’s proximate to my life history).

Having gone to college in Flint, Michigan, I’ve been especially immersed in coverage of, and activism around, the water crisis. The lead poisoning has been on my mind daily and deeply – the institutional and governmental failures, the deceit and negligence, the deep-rooted environmental racism, the long-term, development consequences for over 6,000 children.

As Grant Oliphant, President of the Heinz Endowments, recently pointed out, Pittsburgh is at risk for echoing some aspects of these maladies. And, certainly, parts of Flint’s story are the story of several Midwestern legacy cities – disinvestment as a decades-long trend, the ceased functioning of basic city and human services, environments of mental and physical violence, spatial segregation that leaves physical, racial boundaries that map cities like faintly patched wounds.

Amidst all of this, I craved the kind of proximity Stevenson calls for. So, a few days ago I drove to Flint.

Our Pittsburgh delegation of four spent the bulk of the three-day weekend was spent volunteering with Crossing Water – a rapid response effort led by professional social workers – and having technical assistance meetings with Flint-based organizations and residents.

We heard from the EPA, Flint activists and organizers, and many Flint residents, including a mother who offered powerful testimony on her belief that her recent miscarriage was tied to the lead content. We joined responders from around the country in a door-to-door material and health needs assessment in the North End of Flint, which includes the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the majority of its African-American population. This effort, which seeks to fill many of the cracks in the Red Cross and United Way’s relief efforts, has reached over 8,000 homes the past few weeks.

Late Sunday afternoon, after our second canvassing shift had ended, we delivered cases of bottled water to several households that had been flagged “urgent” earlier in the day. We headed back to our housing that evening, and continued to turn on the tap with some caution.

On our last day, we met with volunteer organizations to consider the future role of short-term volunteer groups, and with a member of the professional arts community about a potential symposium for out-of-town artists who want to produce work in or about Flint and the water crisis. We plan to build on this work, and the relationships established, with periodic service and technical assistance visits to Flint over the next few months.

While proximity teaches us to get closer to the issues we care about and the places that matter to us, I don’t want to suggest that all of us who’ve felt for the kids affected by lead poisoning need to book an immediate ticket to Flint. We know that short-term volunteers are best utilized in recovery efforts (versus more immediate relief efforts). And getting proximate isn’t the ending point, and isn’t in and of itself nearly enough – it must be matched by thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and strategic empathy. We get closer for the opportunity to know better, and thus do better.

The views and statements written here are the opinions of the current Coro Fellows in Public Affairs, not necessarily the views of Coro Pittsburgh.