Making Pittsburgh Shine as a Child-Friendly City
The following article was published in the April 2009 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

What began with a discussion of whether western Pennsylvania needs to refine its thinking about how children and families are served has broader initiative to build upon existing resources and improve the well-being of children in the greater Pittsburgh area.

An ad hoc group of advisors to the Grable Foundation, known as the Grable Community Cabinet, has taken the lead in shaping a strategy to rally policymakers, practitioners and the public around an agenda for making Pittsburgh "the best place to be a child and to raise a child."

To a large extent, the precise steps necessary to achieve that goal remain works in progress. However, two broad approaches have been identified. One is to better weave together people and ideas to strengthen the region’s network of providers of services for children and families. Another is to find ways to amplify the voices of children and youth so they might contribute to the public dialogue on issues that affect them.

“Its strength is trying to put the needs and issues of children, adolescents, and families out in a broad public manner that will be much more effective at engaging the community,” Ray Firth, director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development’s Division of Policy Initiatives, OCD supports. “In that context, it is a great effort and it links nicely to promoting the region as a place to live and work.”

Engaging The Community

In December 2007, the Grable Foundation gathered 10 leaders of nonprofits that work with children and families to explore the status of children in western Pennsylvania, the region’s strengths as they relate to child well-being, whether there is a need to disrupt local thinking about how children are served, and other issues. The nonprofit leaders had been convened to advise the foundation, whose mission is focused on ensuring the healthy development of children.

Information was gathered from a range of sources, including sessions with leaders in education, human services and health care, such as Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh CEO Roger Oxendale, Allegheny County Department of Human Services Director Marc Cherna, and Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Community Cabinet studied other?U.S. cities that have citywide children’s agendas, including Santa Clara, Calif. and St. Louis, Mo. and they made a fact-finding trip to Toronto, which has embraced a children’s agenda that includes regular progress reports, a children’s advisory committee that reports to city government, and a 10-year blueprint for providing integrated, comprehensive, high-quality children’s services.

“That was an exciting place to start because it challenged us to think about how Pittsburgh matched up and whether there is more that we should be doing,” said Linda Miller Krynski, who chairs the Grable Community Cabinet.

The information-gathering process produced encouraging evidence about services available in western Pennsylvania and identified areas that can be improved. “We have terrific things happening here for children and families,” said Krynski. “But there are other cities that are further ahead at pulling it all together.”

Among the cabinet’s key findings was that the well-being of children often depends on where they live in the region. They noted that local services could be better coordinated and local government and the community at large needed to work together on a comprehensive children’s agenda. Pittsburgh also lacks a region-specific report card that would help measure child well-being and whether progress is being made at addressing areas of concern. And the cabinet found that children’s stories and voices are generally not heard when policies are debated or developed that affect their lives.

Two Big Ideas

The findings helped the Grable Community Cabinet develop two initial approaches to making Pittsburgh one of the nation’s most child-friendly regions. Over the past year, some progress has been made toward adding detail to the strategies, but much work remains.

One strategy is to more effectively connect practitioners, educators, policymakers and others whose work is critical to the well-being of children and families and to kindle greater public awareness of children’s issues. By weaving people and ideas, the cabinet hopes to promote collaboration, innovation, and efficiency in children’s and family services, and support for a comprehensive children’s agenda in the region.

“The goal is efficiency, more collaboration, and more coverage,” said Grable Foundation Program Officer Kristen Burns. “But it also goes hand-in-hand with innovation. When you get all of these smart people together who care about the same issues, things start happening.”?

Steps taken so far include establishing a blog on the Grable website devoted to discussion of children’s issues. Another strategy the cabinet recommended was to hold a regional leadership conference for later this year. Such a conference is being organized by Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc. and will focus on children’s and family issues. The conference attempts to replicate the Technology, Education, Design (TED) talks that have been conducted across the country for the purpose of convening experts in select fields to stimulate discussion and new ideas on topics ranging from science and education to economics and world affairs.

Other strategies still being developed include raising public awareness of children’s issues through articles in local publications, creating multimedia materials to disseminate information to stakeholders, strengthening school districts as sources of information and support for children and families, and drafting a partnership agreement in support of a shared vision and commitment to improving child well-being.

The second approach toward creating a more child-friendly region is to give children a stronger voice in the community than they have today.

A stories project, for example, has been developed to teach children to use communications technologies such as gigapan, audio-radio production and online media. In addition, the project teaches them effective ways of expressing their views, ideas, goals and needs.

“Everyday people in this city in positions of power are making decisions that affect children whether they know it or not,” Burns said. “They might be decisions about kids and kid’s services or budgets that will come back and rest on the shoulders of kids. It’s hard to imagine a decision that doesn’t in some way affect children and families.

“It is important for those people to hear the voices of children so they can incorporate those viewpoints into their decisions. It is also important for children to know how to express their views and tell their stories in a way that can be heard and it is important to their self esteem to know that people want to hear those stories, that they matter.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION about the Grable Community Cabinet, visit the Grable Foundation website: