Zabriawn Smith

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Zabriawn Smith

The story of Aliquippa Green really starts with a partnership I attended. I participated in Public Allies, a program that helps people find their place in nonprofit organizations. I began to learn the nonprofit world in that sector and what demands of you as far as an individual looking to do good and still find a way to build sustainable systems.

I feel it was a common issue in many other nonprofit organizations that they were trying to develop but were in a difficult place with growing administrative costs and things of that nature. I think I noticed that, and then my partner Alexandra Jones, also a co-founder of Aliquippa Green, noticed a similar pattern. I think one of the things that have made the work that we do important is just the understanding of making sure that it’s more about the impact of the work than the sustainability of the organization or the system or anything of that nature. So about two years back, we began discussing things that were necessary to see in the nonprofit work in communities. I am from Aliquippa, born and raised in Aliquippa. So I spoke a lot of Aliquippa in the conversation, and it comes through our work towards Aliquippa in just saying, ‘Well, what if we just focus just here and use this as a way to model successful economic development, if we are able to achieve so?’ 

The first place that we’ve looked was trying to close or reduce the disparity in the educational gaps that exist, just due to this odd system where property taxes inform the quality of the education. We’re all aware of it; we’re all aware of the short followings of that type of thinking and that system, but, you know, no one’s addressed any of it. And so, what we do is look for ways to empower students. Still, we are looking to get into adult education eventually, but empowering residents to be the solution they need for themselves. One of the things that are mostly absent in many of these conversations is, well, the people we’re helping are capable of helping themselves? And I believe the answer is yes, as long as we provide them with the correct educational resources and educational opportunities to design their path and pursuit of happiness.

I think that a lot of predominantly African American communities have school systems that are not forward-thinking—through no fault of their own—because, again, you go back to that negative feedback loop that happens with how we fund schools, public schools in this country. And because of that lack of forward-thinking, even when we try to remediate the situation, there’s always a growing disparity, because as we’re looking to get someone to point, you know, to the second step, there are other communities that are already on the fourth and fifth step. Part of this cycle is that we are always in this space where it’s always three steps behind those who have the opportunity to go on and innovate and become entrepreneurs and create these billion-dollar companies because they’ve had access to—and a platform to—grow and build themselves from day one. So we are trying to establish that type of foundation in a community such as this and to see if that produces a better result than what we’ve had over the decades worth of disincentivized educational work in communities such as this.

I think that the allocation of resources—on a county level, on a state level, on a federal level—has always been skewed. I think that you know, more importantly, Aliquippa is symptomatic of something that’s often found in Black communities where there is an incentive to leave the community, even for those who would have valuable resources that they could provide to the community. And so there’s this ultimate goal in a place like Aliquippa, where everyone is kind of conditioned to say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get out of here,’ not recognizing that, if everyone stayed, everyone contributed; it would be a lot easier to build this up. So I don’t think it’s solely a matter of capital resources. I like to tell the story and just say that my family was one of the first black families that came up—actually, both sides of my family. I was one of the earlier black families who came up to work at J&L (Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation), right at the riverfront. Black people primarily lived in what was called the holler, which is a hillside. It was a shanty town hillside not far from the plant. The rest of Aliquippa was pretty much split up into different white ethnicities. So that was the original makeup. And then, as the city grew increasingly black, you had this kind of like a smaller version of white flight where the further that black families made it over to different areas where, you know, they were historically Italian, historically Ukrainian, historically Serbian. Those communities moved further towards where we currently have I-376 and Aliquippa meets I-376. So you can almost track the disinvestment of the community almost parallel to the ‘white flight’ that happened within the city.

I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just about allocating capital resources in the form of currency. Still, it’s about the allocation of, you know, human capital and the resources that are there and finding a way to retain high-quality individuals who are interested in doing community development. You know, some people can graduate from Aliquippa, go to college, graduate from college, and then end up doing community work, social work, things of that nature, in a completely different city. Right? And I understand that, and I’m not saying everyone has to live here and stay here forever. I didn’t do that. But it is a matter of, you know, who better to know how to address these issues than someone who can go out into the world, learn all of these things about the world and how everything works, you know, so you understand these problems aren’t just an Aliquippa problem. And then you can come back and apply some of that knowledge and some of that learning to Aliquippa and in a way that will be more responsive than someone who’s not from the area coming into here.

You know, before I attended a BLAC Listening Session, I was getting my hair cut. I spoke to my barber. He asked, ‘Well, how do I build my credit?’ So we talked about secured credit cards and the process that goes into that. Being able to have those relevant conversations with the actual people that make up the city. It’s important. And then, right before I walked in there, there were two vacant commercial buildings nearby. One of them was a bar that was shut down as a nuisance. The other was a corner store that was also shut down as a nuisance. And I was speaking with two young men, probably both in their 30s. And we were just discussing real estate and understanding there’s always this conversation of ‘Oh, they have a plan, they have a plan,’ not fully understanding the agency that you as an individual, you as a resident of the city, have and just saying, ‘Well, I have a plan,’ and being able to implement that plan. And that kind of goes back to the educational gap, right? That educational disparity. Understanding self-sufficiency, that hey, you can make a plan. And it might not work the next day. Still, understanding that you can see it to completion is challenging to teach at an older age, but when you have these opportunities for the youth, they can do these project-based learning things. They can work with other people or their relationships with other resources.

So being able to have those agency conversations and the amount of control that you have just by being a resident is significant. And I think it’s almost always missing from these conversations where we have organizations that come in, and, you know, they essentially land a large silo into communities like this. So if you come in and you accept a certain doctrine, or you choose a certain lifestyle, then you can reap the benefits of what they have to offer. But that’s not very responsive to the actual community as a whole. And it’s siloed because you very rarely have an opportunity to know what’s going on there. Because, you know, sometimes people don’t even live within the city limits, and they just drive-in, they go into their building, they drive out, right out of their building. You know, none of them are walking up and down the streets. None of them are stopping to talk to the people that are there. Some of them are, but I’m saying it’s, it’s a common thing that you find where they have these siloed organizations that are more interested in self-sustaining and sustaining themselves as an organization, as opposed to doing impactful work, and going out and kind of just getting their hands dirty, and saying, ‘Hey, whatever you’re going through, we’re going through it as well.’ And for that reason, I think that it makes more sense to encourage self-empowerment and that understanding that you can do things on your own and bring people back that have relevant resources and have that familial connection to the community. It makes it a lot easier to do the type of work that’s necessary when it’s your cousin, or when it’s your niece, or when it’s, you know, your uncle. Right? And you’re able to help them.