‘Audacious’ Pittsburgh Study works to ensure all children thrive

Photo by William Fortunato.

By Pittwire

Recently, Kathy Humphrey, the University of Pittsburgh’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees, joined Liz Miller and Felicia Savage Friedman virtually to discuss their work in the community and their involvement with the Pittsburgh Study. (Watch and listen to their discussion here.)

The study is a community-partnered initiative to find out what works to help children thrive. Since 2019, the study partners with community members to learn together about child health and thriving and address root causes of inequity. The study develops and tests interventions at different developmental stages and follows children and families in Allegheny County from before birth through high school.

Through the study, Miller, director of adolescent and young adult health and of community health at UPMC Children’s Hospital and its department of pediatrics, and Friedman, founder and CEO of YogaRoots On Location—an anti-racist Raja yoga training business—are also working with their community partners to ask families what life is like in their household during the pandemic.

“We work shoulder to shoulder to bring childhood thriving into the forefront of our life and prayerfully to dispel a lot of the oppression that continues to be so violent with our vulnerable community,” said Friedman. “I’m excited to do this work and bring this anti-racist framework to the Pittsburgh Study and to the University of Pittsburgh.”

After a brief introduction, Humphrey offered several questions to prompt discussion of the history, scope and aim of the project. Pittwire presents an overview of their conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What makes the Pittsburgh Study different?

Humphrey introduced the Pittsburgh Study as the quintessential example of what the University means by community engagement. “It engages the community in the work that we do here, from beginning to end,” she said, before asking Miller and Friedman for further background about the initiative.

Miller noted that while the study has its origins at UPMC, it was never meant to be a health care-led project: “The Pittsburgh Study is about understanding, together with our community members, what it will take to ensure that every child, every young person in Allegheny County is thriving, healthy and meeting their academic goals.”

Though the study is focused on Allegheny County, the team hopes that it will become a national and global example for what can happen when work is truly centered in the community. Miller highlighted Val Chavis, the original co-lead of the study, who recognized the project as an opportunity to do science differently. (Chavis is now a Pitt employee and community engagement coordinator in the Center for Parents and Children in the Department of Psychology.)

“We came together with several hundred community members to think together about what the principles of the Pittsburgh Study’s work would be. Most important is the commitment of research with—not research on, not research at, not research to—the community is the way we will move forward,” Miller said.

“The research is really powerful because it is audacious,” said Friedman. “We know that part of us defining the research is acknowledging that research has specifically white supremacist roots—and the harm that has been done by health care, as well as education. I’m excited because we’re being honest, as opposed to it being rhetoric.”

What have they learned so far, and what’s getting better?

Friedman, a Pitt alum who was born and raised in the city, said the study is the first time she’s seen people from Pitt and UPMC have these kinds of conversations; she called the change monumental.

“It’s a very vulnerable space that we are curating and holding space for,” she said, noting that she’s seen people be more honest. “Not holding our tongue, not going away from meetings and having those other conversations that weren’t had at the meeting. I’m excited about that.”

As the community co-lead, Friedman is charged with bringing an anti-racist framework to the internal work space, weekly meetings and the Pittsburgh Study anti-racist workshops. The workshops are offered to all Pittsburgh Study community members, including nonprofit and for-profit community members and Pitt and UPMC staff and faculty.

“Part of the way in which we structured the Pittsburgh Study was to actually start by having community members as leaders and having all of our scientific committees—every single one of them—have greater than 50% community member representation,” Miller added, noting that the approach was different from the usual experience in which researchers might come up with an idea to run by a community advisory group for feedback. This study is much more collaborative.

“What we are trying to shift here are the power dynamics, by setting things up such that our professional scientists work side by side with community members as citizen scientists, and that every one of our community members is part of producing science together,” she said. “What that means is that people are listening and thinking and collaborating in ways that feel new and that feel uncomfortable and feel vulnerable, and that is exactly what we want in truly engaged scholarship.”

A commitment to equity and justice

Miller noted that Pitt’s commitment to equity and justice was what drew her to the city 10 years ago. She said that commitment is more important than ever as we grapple with COVID-19.

“Not only were we in the midst of a pandemic, but seeing nationally, all of us, the incredible suffering and pain and harm and murders of Brown and Black people that finally became the wake-up call for our country, that we are finally at a place where we are opening up a space for what I would call truth and reconciliation for a time where we can comfortably talk about history,” she said.

“Being able to learn in this space of the Pittsburgh Study the vital importance of centering that history and acknowledging the need for repair has been a vital piece of this work,” she continued, noting that people are welcoming this conversation, which she said feels “open.”

“And I think it’s just amazing, Kathy, that this is our Year of Engagement. That somehow everything has aligned, that we are in the midst of a pandemic and yet we’re having this conversation today and we’re talking about systemic racism. We’re talking about structural inequities and doing so and not having to hide behind some kind of whitewashed language.”

Giving young people hope

Friedman shared a story about how she and Miller met at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, while working under a violence prevention grant. “My work was bringing into the youth, as well as the staff and administrators, integrative Raja yoga, which really is universal concepts of how we can be more humane to each other and the youth, as well as the staff,” she said.

She recalled an instance of working with a young man experiencing a panic attack and calming him through breathing techniques and the relationship that they had developed. “He trusted me and really allowed himself to just breathe in that moment, and so we’re talking about hope. We go beyond hope, to that faith space that things can be and will be better. We will be able to pass this on, this lineage of being positive about our future.”

“The Pittsburgh Study is very intentionally about thriving, and I think that was really what Felicia taught me in those moments in the detention facility,” Miller said. “So often we’re like, ‘Let’s just focus on keeping you out of prison,’ but not getting incarcerated is such a low bar. It’s really about, ‘Let’s make sure that you are thinking about your future, thinking about your hope, and this is your human right. Breathing is your right. You have a right to this.’”

Hope is among the myriad questions the Pittsburgh Study asks, she said. “How do we instill it? How do we think about the future? How do we think about and imagine that every one of our young people deserves the future? It’s really that kind of listening to community members and crafting how we think about thriving where we hope to change the conversation away from deficits to strengths, away from what we don’t have to what we do have, to recognize the beauty in our community and the wisdom of our community members.”

What can the rest of us do?

Miller said there is ample opportunity for every discipline to think about child and adolescent thriving.

“We are doing this work, centering racial equity, justice and inclusion. We recognize that to support a child who has a strong sense of self-worth, who has a strong body, that means being surrounded by safety, opportunity for fun and happiness, clean air, clean water, healthy environments, thriving communities, thriving families. It is all nested.”

“What I would love to see is more of the folks from my community be able to access the University of Pittsburgh, and of course that starts in elementary school,” said Friedman.

“But it all starts with visioning and seeing all children as human and deserving that right. No exceptions, socioeconomic status, skin shade doesn’t matter. All children should have access to the University of Pittsburgh because it gave me a foundation that I’ve been able to grow a business, an education business. And I’m not special. All of us are special and we have unique gifts and talents.”

Pittwire is a publication of the University of Pittsburgh Communications Department.