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March 02, 2020

Washington Rallies Support for a More Inclusive Pittsburgh

By Bruce Gerson

Numbers don’t lie, and for Sakena Washington, a black woman raising a family in Pittsburgh, the numbers are not good.

Washington, who has a background in clinical research, was shocked and fearful after reading the study “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race.” How could Pittsburgh, once rated the Most Livable City in America, be one of the worst places for black women to live?  

The study, commissioned by Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission, found drastic inequalities between black and white residents in areas such as health, income, employment and education. A burning question immediately popped into Washington’s mind: Should I stay or should I go? 

She’s staying. And she’s not alone. 

Thanks in part to her guest column in the Huffington Post, Washington is rallying support to help make Pittsburgh a more inclusive and sustainable place for everyone.

“I just started writing how I felt,” she said. ”I think it’s important for people to use their voice. I say that because the more I talk about this topic, I’m finding I’m not alone in my observations. I’ve met some women who remind me of myself in the way they look at life and their kids. I also found people that don’t look like me who want to be part of the solution.”

“I just started writing how I felt. I think it’s important for people to use their voice.”

In her column, Washington eloquently writes about Pittsburgh’s deficient socio-economic black infrastructure, and her friends who have chosen to move, where they are prospering and feeling more connected.

Responses have been positive.

“One woman wrote to me and said, ‘I’d love to meet for lunch and talk about schools because I’m thinking about that, too.’ I’ve made several new friends,” Washington said.

She’s heard from a researcher at UPMC Children’s Hospital who wants to talk about livability in Pittsburgh and health outcomes for children. She’s been invited to Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission meetings. She also was recently asked to speak about her article to high school students in the Green Building Alliance’s Emerging Youth program.

“They were making observations about things in their high school that relate to racial and gender equity and the lack of resources for different groups. They got my article. That was the most powerful response yet. I see the next generation trying to be part of the solution,” she said.

Washington’s enthusiasm carries over into her work at CMU, where she recently was hired as director of communications for the Office of the Provost. Prior to starting her new role March 2, she was a digital content manager for Marketing & Communications, where she curated content and visuals for some of the university’s top-level webpages, including the Provost’s Office, and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and research sites.  She recently finished work on CMU’s new Sustainability Initiative page.

“I really love putting words on the page in a way that’s engaging to the visitor,” she said. “When you can get the message across in a way in which someone can get the gist and move on, they’ll be encouraged to revisit.”

“I really love putting words on the page in a way that’s engaging to the visitor.”

Washington joined CMU three years ago from the University of Pittsburgh, where she managed and developed websites and worked as a qualitative researcher for surgeons at UPMC. She interviewed patients about their medical procedures to help improve processes and health outcomes. She conducted clinical research at UCLA with Huntington disease patients while attending graduate school at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where she earned her master’s degree in creative writing. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Clark Atlanta University. 

Throughout her young career, Washington has been writing, from fiction, to book reviews to personal essays. She’s taking a nonfiction essay class with Creative Nonfiction, a local literary magazine and foundation. Her work has been published in Brevity, Fray Magazine, ReWire News and, of course, the Huffington Post.

Washington’s husband, Ricardo, teaches digital art and virtual reality experience at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center. Their daughter, Kyra, is 8 months old. She said she is optimistic about her family’s future in Pittsburgh, as her work has led people to reach out, connect and work together to make things better. 

“I want to stay here and be a pioneer for change,” she said.

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