Photo by Alexander Catedral via Faith & Leadership.
Behind every great organization is a great board of directors, and at ELDI we count ourselves extremely fortunate to have a group of 10 dedicated individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds helping steward the community’s vision.
While our staff serves on the front line, our board works behind the scenes to establish policies, create programs, and provide leadership to not only the staff, but also to dozens of volunteers who serve on our six standing committees and countless ad-hoc initiatives. These members take pride in their work and take their commitment seriously. Steering the ship is President of the Board Reverend Patrice Fowler-Searcy who has been serving since 1998. In that time, she has played a key role in East Liberty’s dramatic transformation, providing her wisdom and insight with a kind and steady hand.
Patrice is the associate pastor for mission ministries at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church where she served for 19+ years as the director of mission ministries. She formerly served as the vice president of the board of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and continues to serve on the board’s executive, governance (co-chair), and student life and enrollment management committees. She was also formerly a member of the Pittsburgh Clergy Consortium and Pittsburgh United. She has previously served on the Board of Directors of the East End Growth Fund, the Board of Directors of the Western Pennsylvania Support Association of Oikocredit and Oikocredit USA, and as a charter board member of the Community Theater Project Corporation, Inc. (the Kelly Strayhorn Theater).
We caught up with Patrice to hear her reflections on more than 20 years of service in the East Liberty community. She shares the changes she’s witnessed, what it was like to guide ELDI in the early years, how she stays motivated, and what she wishes more people understood about community development.
When and how did you join the ELDI board?
I joined the board in 1998. I started working at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church (ELPC) in May of 1996 and Maelene Myers [ELDI’s executive director] started at ELDI in July of 1996. Around that time, ELDI was working on renovating and finding a viable new use for the Regent Theater (now the Kelly Strayhorn Theater). Eventually, ELPC got involved and was brought on as an anchor tenant for the development. I was doing community outreach at ELPC then and the pastor said, “You know, because we are going to become an anchor tenant of the theater, we need to have representation on the ELDI board.” So, I was elected to the board, and subsequently, to the board of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater that shepherded the second renovation and reopening.
What motivates you to serve on the ELDI board and be such an active member of the East Liberty community?
When I first joined the board, I knew very little about community development, but I had come to love the East Liberty neighborhood which was drastically and diametrically different then. East Liberty had kind of a funky vibe at that time because it was known as the hip hop area of Pittsburgh. I lived in Highland Park for a period, and I came to know the people we were serving. So, when Maelene came to ELPC and started hosting community meetings and the community started talking about what they wanted their community to become in the future, I wanted to be a part of that. I felt like it was an opportunity for the community to continue to be what it was, but also to be more than what it was, not only for the folks who lived here at that time—many of whom continue to live there—but also, hopefully, for the folks that would come. It wasn’t long after that I started traveling with ELDI to do benchmarking. We went to San Francisco, to Silver Springs, Maryland, to Oakland, California. We traveled to look at what other communities had done to transform themselves, and I just caught the bug.
How did ELDI begin to make those transformations in the community, and how did the board help shape the direction of that?
From 1996 to 1998, I remember Maelene and her staff coming into the church almost every month, sometimes twice a month, for community meetings. Hundreds of community members came into our social hall for these community meetings to start shaping what the future of East Liberty would look like. Eventually, I started peeking my head down there to see what was going on, and I would see the whiteboards where people were talking about the fact that they wanted affordable yet safe and modern housing, that they wanted the amenities that other neighborhoods had, and that East Liberty once had when it was the third-largest shopping area in the state of Pennsylvania. They wanted job opportunities, and they also wanted their children to have access to quality education. That vision for the community was already being established, so when I joined the board in 1998, most of the work was focused on housing.
The former Pennley Place Apartments were coming down and ELDI was working with The Community Builders to build replacement, mixed-income housing. Then we started talking about bringing down the towers that were on either end of the neighborhood and replacing that housing. It wasn’t until the first community plan was published in 1999 and we started traveling to look at what other communities had done that we started to think about how we were the only ones in the neighborhood who could take the risk of making sure that the community’s vision came to fruition. We recognized that for-profit developers were not going to take the risk in the beginning, neither the banks, nor even some of the foundations. We were the only ones that could, even though our balance sheet was terrible. We began to talk with people like Skip Schwab [now ELDI’s deputy director] who was program director at the Southwestern Pennsylvania office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and who believed in what we were trying to do. They were willing to give us loans, grants, and program related investments to do some of the work that we needed to do. We also eventually had conversations with the City about how they needed to start looking at infrastructure in the area if we were going to be able to bring in other retailers. Home Depot had already come at that time and Whole Foods was next. Throughout this early period, the board was there supporting the work of the staff, helping them stay on track in terms of the vision that had been laid out by the community, and, quite frankly, risking the organization’s reputation and finances to make sure that the work was done.
“We started to think about how we were the only ones in the neighborhood who could take the risk of making sure that the community’s vision came to fruition.”
From that period until now, can you speak to the changes that you’ve witnessed and helped bring about in the neighborhood?
The changes are obvious:
- We now have new housing that supports people of every income level. Although people tend to think that all of the people who are living with income insufficiency have moved out of the neighborhood, with the exception of two recent apartment buildings, all the apartments in the neighborhood are multi-income. That means people receiving public assistance and those making a six-figure salary are living right next door to each other in mirror units. So, in my opinion, we’ve created a just rental scenario in the neighborhood.
- We now have the amenities of many other large neighborhoods and have become a “grocery oasis”, with Giant Eagle, Target, Trader Joe’s, and other retailers. Now our residents have choices in terms of where they’re going to shop.
- In addition, those companies have brought employment opportunities for our residents, and ELDI worked very closely with most of the major employers to ensure that they hired neighborhood residents in the positions that were available, and that they hired them first.
What is your response to those who call these changes gentrification?
I’ll tell you a funny story that happened many years ago, even before Target came into the neighborhood. Maelene and I were walking down the street one day, and we saw a white gentleman in an Argyle sweater and khaki shorts walking his poodle. We looked at each other and laughed and thought, “This neighborhood has changed.” You would have never seen that in the past, but then you walk a few more blocks and the residents that have been there since the sixties are still here. So, for me, when we are accused of gentrifying the neighborhood, I always respond with, “No, we haven’t gentrified the neighborhood because gentrification implies displacement.” What we have done is diversified the neighborhood based on what the residents who lived here for many, many years said they wanted this neighborhood to become.
Now that so much of East Liberty’s community plans have been realized, what is the focus of the board moving forward?
I already mentioned that East Liberty is a community full of rental opportunities, but the one thing that we’re lacking is homeownership. That’s why the board and staff have really turned our attention to creating homeownership opportunities, primarily for individuals who are not able to purchase some of the homes at market rate in the neighborhood. We’re really excited about that because we want to be able to create opportunities for people no matter their income levels to own homes in the neighborhood, to invest in the neighborhood, and to invest in the lives of their families in terms of creating generational equity through homeownership. There are other organizations working in that area, such as Open Hand Ministries. We partnered with them for many years to help them provide homeownership to individuals who are living with low to moderate income, but their model only creates about one house a year. We want to ramp that up, not only to provide homeownership opportunities to people living with income insufficiency, but also to moderate- and middle-income families, including professional Black families, who have not necessarily embraced the neighborhood in terms of homeownership or rental.
What do you wish more people understood about community development in East Liberty or in general?
- One thing I would love for people to recognize about community development is that it doesn’t happen overnight. People seem to think that the changes that they see were planned a year or two ago, but it is a long-term process, and you must be willing to keep at it. You have to be committed in the long term to see things turn around or come to fruition.
- I also wish that people would realize, particularly about East Liberty, that the changes were made with what I call “legacy residents”—long-term residents—in mind. It wasn’t ELDI’s plan. It was the neighbors’ and residents’ plan—we are just the shepherds of it.
- Finally, I wish that people would look beyond the surface and be willing to hear the whole story, rather than taking a little bit of knowledge, or what they perceive to be knowledge, and running with it. I know that many communities absolutely have been gentrified; residents have been pushed out and can no longer afford to live there and the amenities are not there to serve the existing or legacy residents. But as it relates to East Liberty, new restaurants and amenities have moved in, but most of them, if not all of them, are available to our legacy residents as well as to our new residents or people who have come in from the outside. East Liberty, from my perspective, has always been a destination community, from when it was the third-largest shopping area to when it went through its era of being the hip hop destination, and it’s still a destination for people who live outside of our neighborhood. I think that people need to learn to embrace the diversity and the variety, rather than saying that they don’t want those people here.
“East Liberty, from my perspective, has always been a destination community. I think that people need to learn to embrace the diversity and the variety, rather than saying that they don’t want those people here.”
After doing this work for 20+ years, how do you stay motivated?
My motivation has always been to make sure that the least of these are cared for. And now that the community has changed, my motivation remains the same: to make sure that the least of these are cared for and benefit from the changes that have taken place.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I say all the time that ELDI would be nothing without Maelene and her staff, and that, in my opinion, they make our board of directors look good. Of course, Maelene always says that the board of directors are the reason that they’re able to do all the things they do. Our relationship is one of mutuality. The board is behind the scenes saying, “Go, go, go! Do, do, do!”, but the staff are the ones that are actually going and doing. They make sure that the vision that has been set by the community and embraced by the board comes to pass.