In early 2019 there were five Offices of Equity in the entire United States and one of them was right here in Pittsburgh. That was due to the commitment of Mayor Bill Peduto and the man that runs the office, Chief Equity Officer Majestic Lane, to pursue much needed systemic change. Majestic is on a mission of pushing all of us outside our comfort zone to get things done, and you can often find him wearing a baseball cap with the initials GSD, which stands for Get Stuff Done - you are welcome to replace “Stuff” with a more convincing four-letter word, but the meaning doesn’t change. You could say Majestic is uncomfortable with comfort in a way that he’s dismissive of comfort, perhaps largely because it gets in the way of GSD’ing, and he’s all about not just talking, but getting things done.
We spoke to Majestic to learn more about his vision for Pittsburgh equity and how business and tech can help make Pittsburgh a better place – i.e. a more equal place – for everyone in the city.
“You hear a lot about equity but as far as being institutionalized at a municipal level, it’s relatively new. It goes from the government talking about equity to trying to operationalize it. Equity is the issue of our city, the issue of our country, it’s a global issue and the issues of inequality have large and lasting impacts. Equity is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative, as the conditions of the last four years and last couple of months, in particular, have shown us. It’s really about how a city government leads and has that discussion centering on all of our residents, no matter race, gender, orientation, age, or country of origin to actually make sure that everybody feels healthy, safe and that they belong in the city. That’s not only a good civic and moral duty, it’s an economic imperative as well.”
This is a tall order and quite a challenge, we were intrigued to learn what the major roadblocks of his job are. “Going from individual activity to systemic change. People can identify that lack of equity is wrong, but trying to change the systems can accompany discomfort in some of the changes and lack of understanding of how systems either act in vicious ways or virtuous ways. So the challenge of poverty, the challenge of exclusion, they’re punishing challenges but they’re often subtle. How do you get people to realize it and realize their role in it? But then for them to take a positive stance in being able to change it versus admonishing it. And create the enabling environment to be a part of the growth of all of our citizens.”
The current climate is certainly heated around racial issues in this country, how does this impact what his office is trying to accomplish? “Over the past six months in particular, we had a national conversation on race and dialogue about race and what that means and how that impacts so many other elements of our society. We’re at a place where we’re beginning to have those conversations, but cities, I would argue, as the laboratories of innovation that we speak about so much, have also the ability to be the laboratory to talk about issues of race, poverty and inequity in ways that can set the precedent for the state and national governments and actually internationally to talk about what this means.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Majestic moved to town to attend the University of Pittsburgh and ended up falling in love with the city. But he recognizes some weaknesses and is challenging all of us to step up to the plate. “I think Pittsburgh is really segregated. I want to see more places in Pittsburgh where more people can meet people that are different than them. I think that’s a big challenge. Our physical civic commons is not like Bryant Park in New York City, or the Bean, our civic commons is the Steelers, if you will. That’s the place where we all connect and then go home and are separate. So I do think we need some opportunities to break down a bit of the segregation in the city. I would say that’s something that becomes not a force multiplier but sometimes becomes the gift that keeps on giving. When you see these opportunities to have diverse engagements you just see new opportunities emerge. You see new restaurants emerge, you see new business opportunities emerge. But as long as folks stay segregated in what is comfortable we’ll continue to get what we have been having. The other thing I’ll say is that Pittsburgh has to continue to grow, but also think about who’s being impacted in the growth. We want to continue to see companies come and flourish, but we also want to continue to see if there are folks from the region, folks from the neighborhoods, folks from the suburbs and the exurbs who can also benefit in that growth and where’s that pathway to figure out whether it’s in education, whether it’s in the workforce, whether it’s in investing, whatever it is, that we can really get behind our companies in the same way we get behind our sports teams.
Majestic often talks about empowering communities to rise to the occasion and to their potential, but this is not a one-way street and requires effort from all sides. “It’s a unique environment we’re faced with that on one level it has to be from the community. Communities have to feel like they’re helping like they feel safe and like they belong and are empowered to be a citizen. And if you don’t have that you have isolation, which gives way to segregation, which gives way to civic breakdown. You have to have a bottom-up sense of empowerment, and equality and engagement and voice. But at the same time, we need leaders to acknowledge that the costs of inequity are too high for our cities and to lead by setting the standards in doing things in policies, procedures and programs that foster equity in their own institutions. As a guiding light for other folks. You need two triangles intersecting, if you will, you need a top-down approach where stuff is coming from the top and you also need the bottom-up approach.”
We were curious to hear if cities across the country are working together or learning anything from each other. “I’m a part of a cohort of ten Chief Equity Officers, the other CEOs as people say now, across the country and what we’re learning is that every city is unique but obviously every city has very similar if not the same challenges, so learning about the unique contours of individual cities and their enabling environments can help you recognize what’s possible in your own space. Cities like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Louisville have helped us see the arc of the possible and under the leadership of the Mayor really making this a priority for our administration and making sure we’re taking a collective and equity focus lens on making sure that people are doing better.”
There are a number of successful city initiatives that are paying off, one such example is the local non-profit Black Girls Code, which helps young African American ladies learn how to code. “If you introduce an industry to people and they see success and they see a pathway to success, and you can minimize the roadblocks to that success for them, they’ll become good at it. There was a time that African Americans played baseball and not basketball. What does that tell you, that at some point there’s a basketball court everywhere but you need nine people to play baseball, it’s a little different. As you reduce the roadblocks and you create more spaces showing success, it makes sense that people gravitated to that pathway. So if we know that’s how that happens, how do we start to create examples of people who are succeeding in tech? How do we make coding accessible? How about knowing what’s behind the curtain? When you look at the use of technology, black and brown children over-index on the use of it and purchasing it. And actually being influencers of engaging with it. But not necessarily the creation of it. So it’s really just a shift. In most industries, it kind of takes the time of a lifecycle to shift what you’re doing and how you do it. That’s what we have to be thinking about. It’s about examples and reducing the roadblocks to engagement. On a local level the city has hired someone to deal with digital equity in our department of parks and recreation and what he’s doing is setting up spaces that are rec centers to actually teach coding. So again, breaking down the roadblocks. He also does weekend classes for young people who want to learn. Actually, my son has participated in it and was beginning to learn the basics of coding. So this is someone from the city, from the neighborhood, having the experiences, who then decided to come and actually teach and can communicate the reality of coding in a way that folks can relate to. So we see classes of young African American females who had never been exposed to coding and weren’t particularly good in math or science who now have started to develop this interest. We now have classes in our rec centers that are overpacked, where we have to tell young people to come back next week because so many young people now want to start thinking about what this looks like. We’re going to be modeling this and really think how we can have rec centers be open-door to innovation and technology starting at a very early age. Just as we have-open door to summer camps, open-door to athletics, there should also be an open-door to technology.”
To Majestic’s point, the impact of such initiatives on innovation go far beyond civic duty and ethics but can have significant economic benefits for all involved. We know innovation benefits largely from diversity, with different approaches, lines of thinking and skills making the end result larger than the sum of its parts. “If you look at the cities who are burgeoning now and their innovation in tech and folks that are globally are leading in innovation, they’re not just monochromatic, and we see it, and we see the benefit of it. If we see places that are monochromatic and folks have the same perspective and the same mindset eventually the same kind of thinking kicks in which is really antithetical with innovation. If you have the same kind of thinking, you’re not going to get outside the box that you have to get out of to actually create a new idea. But often if we’re bringing everyone together that went to the same schools, have the same experience, play the same videogames, eat at the same places, we’re going to get more enhanced cycles of whatever we have. So it’s like innovation or tech has to use the same lens that it talks about in its structure about how we do things differently in its own ecosystem. That’s been the most difficult thing, so tech in that sense, is no different from government, tech is no different than business, tech is no different than all these other institutions that at some point have become victims of the same people doing the same things. So it’s really the mix of folks in tech looking at social innovation also thinking about what this means to take the lens and apply their lens to broader issues and then bring that lens that they kind of touched on and bring it back into their systems. And lead by example not just with hiring, but also with engagement. So you lead and acknowledge that talent is equally distributed but the opportunity is not. So if you operate from that maxim, you know that the next possibility usually isn’t in your space. That the next possibility is in the space that you’re not in. We’ve seen economically so many ways where that is actually the case.”
Majestic is very involved with the Pittsburgh tech community and sees a lot of opportunities of how the community can further help the cause. “We’ve had conversations with the Tech Council, but I think there’s still a process for folks to understand how they can engage and how they engage in ways that are comfortable to them, and part of it is that we have to get out of this space where it’s comfortable and kind of engage in a way that is not comfortable because that’s where the opportunity is. This opportunity is not in what we’ve been doing, the opportunity is how do you build relationships with connectors and influencers in the city that can actually take tech companies to communities to watch young people begin this process. Thinking about sponsoring a rec center where once a week or once a month somebody from the company comes and speaks and works with the young people. The Mayor had an idea that instead of community businesses sponsoring the sports leagues in our communities, what if Microsoft sponsored one of our youth football teams. And then part of the process of sponsoring is also engaging that particular team and that community. Again we want to normalize the idea of tech and not just being only someone buying but also engaging.”
We wanted to know why a Philadelphia native fell in love with Pittsburgh? What are things about this city, physical or cultural, that made him fall for it? “The history of the city, the neighborhoods and how neighborhoods feel distinct, the character of the different neighborhoods but also the close-knit nature of the city and the ability to feel like you’re in a place of community. In the Lincoln Lemington neighborhood, there are three houses that were developed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright that are totally unique to any other houses I’ve seen in Pittsburgh and they built them in the forest so that architecturally they would look different. It’s hard to find it and it’s harder to still get out of it once you find it, but they’re three houses built by acolytes of Frank Lloyd Wright that are some of the most unique dome-shaped houses that I’ve ever seen. It always goes to show to your point when we stay close and go far, we have a close-knit place here, but the impacts of what happens here have had a global impact and so that’s one thing I tell people you’d be surprised by the architecture you’ll see here if someone tells you about it.”
We couldn’t agree more and as a closing remark, asked Majestic to share his thoughts on his reference to getPittsburgh’s tagline of ‘Stay close. Go far.’ “It really underlies the ethic of what happens here. It underlies the possibility of a community that can actually develop a business or take an idea not just around Pittsburgh but around the world. That’s an example of that closely curated network of community members that are all here to do something interesting; it is what allows Pittsburgh to punch above its weight, proverbially, and really create things that have a global impact.”
(Photo by J.L. Martello /18ricco)