It appears to us at Community Empowerment Association, from recent observations that
7143 Fluery Ave—the Community Empowerment Cultural Center, has been sold, or is the process of being sold against the wishes of the organization and the community! For over 15 years Community Empowerment has provided exceptional social services to the Homewood area, and the entire Allegheny County. For three years, Community Empowerment has attempted to buy this property, only to be thwarted by deferments and excuses. Now, it seems that two organizations that have more political power and influence have been able to skirt the system and snatch the building from the hands of our indigenous institution!
Our Cultural Center provides meals, a safe-space, and educational and cultural enrichment to at least 50 local students daily. Students from around the city are bused to the center to participate in our Asante Afterschool program, Rites of Passage Program, Homework Help, Mentorship Groups, Therapeutic Support, and Art Programs. The center truly rests in the hands of the community as residents are free to use the computer lab, and host community events such as wedding receptions, birthday parties, and gatherings as one of the local safe spaces in the Homewood area.
Three years ago, Community Empowerment took over and renovated this long abandoned property. Upon leasing the building, CEA declared our intent to buy, as we felt that this particular space is very special and lends itself to the needs of the organization and the community both. Community Empowerment has worked tirelessly to create an institution that provides stability, comfort, safety, and education in the Homewood area. Our leaders, including our founder Rashad Byrdsong, and many of
our employees live in and have lived in Homewood for most of their lives. Replacing Community Empowerment’s Cultural Center with a local black fraternity and the magistrate’s office would be just another tragic case of outside hands displacing a community organization that is truly rooted and dedicated to serving their constituents!
Make sure that the URA does its job in supporting organizations that STABILIZE the community, not those that may have more political clout! Make sure that the process of obtaining and keeping land in our communities is transparent and just--which in our case, it has not been!
Most importantly, make sure that the more than 50 kids that come to the center daily continue to have a safe-space in their own communities to learn, and grow! Keep our center open! And keep our center LOCAL!
Please do whatever is in your power: contact local officials, your local magistrate, and city council and
make sure that they keep The Community Empowerment Association’s Cultural Center in tact!
Keeping Community Central: Community Empowerment Association’s Battle to Keep Their
Community Center Alive
A Simple Wish for Justice
Jamir Alston smiles widely at me when he announces that he is going to turn twelve this week. The local Homewood resident hops excitedly around the group of his many peers that surround him. Then suddenly, his face snaps to serious and he stares at me soberly: “My only birthday wish is that our center will stay open!”
The center that Jamir will think of when he blows out his candles this week is The Community Empowerment Association’s Cultural center on N. Homewood and Fluery Avenue, the old Rite-Aid building. Currently, it is run by the grassroots organization Community Empowerment Association who has been a presence all over the greater Pittsburgh area, specifically in Homewood for more than 15 years. Jamir tells me he’s been coming to the center for at least two years. It has been the place he’s learned history, math, and “where [he’s] made his best memories, going horseback riding, going to concerts, and making music.” Some of the other participants are graduating from high school this year and have been attending the programs at Community Empowerment since they were six years old.
Sadly, it seems that this long-standing community institution is in imminent danger of being displaced.
The day that I visit The Cultural Center I’m amazed at the harmony of some 50 kids ages 8-18 that share the space. Just glancing at the walls of the center, one can absorb much of the unique history of the organization. There are rows of news-clippings chronicling the active role that CEA and founder
Rashad Byrdsong have played in quelling youth violence. The faces of black political prisoners greet you on one end of the main recreational room, and the room behind it is the designated area for the young “Zulu Kings”. Some of the youth are quick to point me to their hand-drawn portraits and histories of the local Hill District and its residents. A few teens crowd around a computer in the lab working on a project. A youngster of about ten grabs his counselor’s hand so that he can check his algebra worksheet.
It is clear upon visiting that The Cultural Center teaches these kids a little something that they don’t learn at school; it provides them with enrichment they likely won’t get at any other program in the city. And the students express an intellectual and social aptitude that is way beyond their years. As I was interviewing 9th grader Cornell Brown, he quickly scolded one of the younger boys who made a mildly crude comment. “Don’t you see this lady sitting next to me?” he demanded.
After Cornell felt that I was receiving adequate respect, I delicately bring up the possibility of the center being pushed out of its current location. They prove to me that they have an understanding of the cultural center as more than just a place that they visit after school, but as a social entity among a scaffolding of socio-economic forces that operate in their neighborhood and their society.
“The cultural center helps us not to do bad things! And if it leaves, Homewood will get worse! CEA
keeps the community safe” Jamir added, justifying his birthday wish.
“And if CEA doesn’t teach us our history then no one will!” says 11 year old Nathanial Green. It seems that there is clarity in their points of views that many an adult would benefit from hearing.
In their own simple ways, they expressed sentiments that made sense to all of us. They expressed feelings of injustice “This isn’t fair!” They expressed their resentment that their voices were not addressed “No one asked us if we wanted to go!” They wanted to know who was trying to take their beloved building from them and most importantly they asked “Why are they trying to take the center from us?”
Unfortunately, these are all questions that founder, Rashad Byrdsong has also been mulling over these days. Why push out a long standing, wildly successful community based organization? It’s not as if they were nuisance leasers—quite the opposite. Byrdsong and CEA adopted an abandoned eyesore in
the community, maintained it, renovated it, and cultivated it to be a respected and ubiquitous force in the community. Byrdsong always paid promptly, and always made the intentions of the organization clear—Community Empowerment exists solely to benefit Homewood and similar disadvantaged communities.
Tracing the Clues
Three weeks ago Byrdsong received a phone call from a local Reverend and member of a black fraternity who implied that he already had received clearance to buy 7143 Fluery Avenue. He inquired whether Byrdsong would still be interested in leasing the lower part of the building from him. “I told him no, as far as I knew, we were still leasing with option to buy from the URA.”
The phone call was jarring but not shocking to Mr. Byrdsong or Ms. Gordon, the directors of the Community Empowerment Association. “We had been trying to buy the building for years. We had even offered to pay cash,” recalls the financial manager Ms. Gordon, “but there was always some impediment preventing us from taking ownership of the space.”
Community Empowerment Association was not shy about their intentions to own the building. Upon striking up a lease with the URA in 2006, they provided both a business plan, and a letter of intent to
buy the building to both the URA and the HBRDC. The former director of the URA even promised that CEA would be considered for ownership of the building. Yet after many unreturned phone calls, letters to the legal department “we still haven’t heard anything from them,” declares Byrdsong.
CEA hasn’t enjoyed the privilege of much clarity in their affairs with the Cultural Center. Without much direct communication from any of the organizations, Byrdsong has been trying to trace clues by rumor and word of mouth, leaving the community organization to question the future of their social service programs.
Since the initial call from The Reverend, the prospective buyers have visited the site twice, taking pictures, and measurements, and even leaving the remnants of their new plans behind. One CEA employee, who was present during one of the aforementioned visits reports that she heard the two
buyers repeatedly mention that “the judge needs this” and “the judge could he here” while taping out the space for their new “waiting room”. The pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit together when CEA realized that one local magistrate was also a member of the same black fraternity as the reverend.
Though CEA still waits an official announcement or notification by either organization it seems that “they are trying to replace Community Empowerment, an organization that makes sure at-risk youth stay on the right path, and stay out of trouble, with a correctional organization, one that sends those youth to prison,” says Community Empowerment employee of three years, Kirk Holbrook. They are falling into a
dangerous, American pattern of privileging and spending exorbitantly more on correction and punishment, then on prevention—even disregarding exceptionally successful groups such as CEA.
Yet, moving more politically favored organizations into black communities without the consensus of the residents is no new occurrence. It seems that by allowing a local fraternity and magistrate with few amicable ties to the community to snatch a building from a successful social organization, the city will
be following a longstanding pattern of allowing more prestigious outside organizations to take precedence over indigenous leadership without so much as surveying the community about their desires.
Furthermore, Byrdsong states that “There is no clarity in regards to gaining property in our black community. And there was definitely no clarity in our case. We need a fair and equitable process. This process can’t be based on cherry picking, political favors, or the patronage system!” So Byrdsong isn’t leaving without the voices of his community heard, and without an explanation as to why CEA was such an unsuitable tenant, and why a magistrate’s office is so desirable in its place.
As it is, along and around North Homewood Avenue, many of the buildings are boarded up, or owned by larger outside entities like the YMCA or Community College. Community Empowerment has been one of the few black owned organizations that have remained a fixed entity in the community, and employees feel that this particular building and its location is definitely paramount to their success.
As CEA program director Amargie Davis points out “We provide a full social service space. We have a kitchen so that kids can learn how to cook. We have space for a computer lab. We even have a recording studio in the back. We needed a place to house the 50 kids that walks through the door everyday. You can’t just stick us in a closet!” Indeed, The Community Center would be hard for community Empowerment to replace with just any substitute structure. It is right in the heart of Homewood, walking distance to many of the serviced children’s’ homes and schools. “We are right in the battlefield. We are surrounded by the blight and negativity, but this organization provides the light. This organization provides guidance out of all that,” Holbrook adds empathetically.
The question that remains to be answered is just who would want to displace a community organization that has clearly proven successful at preventing truancy, educating children, and providing them with a safe haven. And who would be brazen enough to attempt to surreptitiously usher out Community Empowerment without expecting a fight from the community?
One of the representatives for the purchasing organization came to survey the building, and she took out a few minutes to gaze vaguely at the art on the walls of the cultural center—drawings by students, and letters about their experiences at Community Empowerment. Then she promptly unsheathed the blue tape that she used to plan for “the new office”. Even after having a first hand view of the type of work that takes place in The Cultural Center, it seems as if she saw the children not as growing beings but as impediments in her organization’s planning process.
It remains clear to most people, even those who have limited experience with Community
Empowerment, just how successful and magical their programs really are.
New employee Karla Barham testifies, “I’ve only worked here a little over a month, and I already see
how much they enjoy this program. I see the sense of relief that washes over them when they walk through the door. This is their home away from home. If they take this center away, this will be just another thing that’s been stripped away from them that they love--and that happens to them everyday.”
So now, as CEA sits in the dark, uncertain if their programming will have a home next month, uncertain of the persons responsible for attempting to displace them—they are certain of a few things.
Community Empowerment will not bow quietly to organizations merely because of their political clout or affiliation and they will make sure that the voices of its community members are heard. For now,
they are just making sure that they do everything possible to make sure that Jamir gets his birthday wish.