Program Aims to Increase Positive Racial Identity in Pittsburgh’s Black Children

Imagine a group of Homewood children wandering through an outdoor festival, finding themselves surrounded by representations of black culture — everything from African dance to storytelling in the tradition of the African orators known as griots. Or a group of African-American parents sitting together in a small Hazelwood setting to discuss past racial experiences and the challenges specific to raising emotionally healthy black children. And perhaps thought leaders who study race and young children will travel from different parts of the country to Pittsburgh to talk about why these issues are pertinent to African-American families and the black community.

These possibilities and other experiences like them represent the vision Pitt’s Office of Child Development has for its newly established Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) program. Specifically for children, the program’s premise is simple, says director Aisha White: Counteract negative messages young African-American children receive and replace them with activities and programming that promote positive racial perceptions.

“Black children are smart, full of energy and have great potential to live healthy, productive lives. But all too often their environments send the message that they aren’t important or valued in society. At a very young age, they can quickly adopt feelings and beliefs of inferiority,” said White, a staff member in Pitt’s School of Education. “Through this project, we want to intervene and prevent that from happening in young African-American children in Pittsburgh. We want to help them understand, embrace and love their race and culture.”

Plans for the P.R.I.D.E. program began shortly after Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto joined Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff, to unveil the Understanding P.R.I.D.E. in Pittsburgh report in April 2016.

P.R.I.D.E.’s programming directly supports many of the recommendations made within the report, including continuous parent-child communications on race and increased partnerships between educational institutions and professional organizations. African-Americans make up about a quarter of Pittsburgh’s population, so P.R.I.D.E.’s efforts could have a major impact on the city’s well-being, said White.

The three-year campaign’s most public-facing initiative will be the Pop Up Mini Arts Festivals series launching this summer. The seasonal cultural fairs will rotate through predominantly African-American neighborhoods, emphasizing Africana art, culture and music. The first festival will take place Aug. 5 at the Kingsley Association in East Liberty. Also notable are Parent Villages — a series of group talking sessions that will meet regularly in East Liberty, Hazelwood, the Hill District and Homewood — that will create a forum for conversations on parenting matters and racial issues.

In partnership with local libraries, museums and public schools, project staff members are creating professional development sessions and programming that better support racial equity and identity in those organizations. Additionally, the University will bring prominent stakeholders to Pittsburgh for a biannual speaker series.

White said she is confident that this carefully crafted series of initiatives will succeed in helping black children to adopt more positive perceptions of their culture, ethnicity, history and themselves. Success, said White, will come in the form of black children who are more confident and socially aware as well as a city that is even more welcoming to all cultures.

Pittsburgh may just be the beginning for such efforts. Through the program, the P.R.I.D.E. team hopes to set a national example for how higher education institutions can support racial identity development efforts within major cities like Pittsburgh that have significant African-American populations, White said. She and colleagues plan to share their findings and most effective practices through reports, scholarly articles and national education meetings.

“Pittsburgh is an ideal setting to launch this work. We have an early childhood community that is absolutely dedicated to doing what’s best for all children. That combined with a growing awareness of how race impacts children positions us to make a real difference through this work,” said White. “Pittsburgh is ready to support efforts that build children’s positive racial identity, and I believe in the coming years, it will also be ready to stand as a national symbol of progress in this area.”