On the morning of Saturday October 13, members of DBLAC (Digital Black Lit—Literatures and Literacies—and Composition), made their way down North Homewood Avenue from breakfast at the Everyday Café to the University of Pittsburgh’s new Community Engagement Center in Homewood (CEC). The building had not yet officially been opened to the public—at least not this renovated version of it; so, Mr. Raub, the security guard, let us into a space that would be the site of our day-long informational and writing sessions. The moment was significant for a number of reasons: the historically Black community of Homewood was not the ‘usual’ site of university-related business but, recently, had become a place for transformative energy—the kind of energy that DBLAC eagerly fosters. The Black students and faculty attending the sessions knew only too well how unwelcome their presence has been at historically white institutions and academic fields but were also acutely aware of the change they could embody within them.
DBLAC was founded in 2016 by two Black graduate students, Khirsten Scott and Lou Maraj, who in response to their respective “traumatic graduate school experiences” came together and decided to form a group to push against their marginalization for the betterment of Black students. Flashforward to 2018, and Scott and Maraj are new faculty in Pitt’s English department. Their mentorship organization is developing a national presence, and the co-founders were hosting their inaugural Writing Retreat for Black graduate students from across the country in Pittsburgh. We filled the space of the CEC with students from East Carolina University, Howard, Iowa State, IUP, and Pitt—all bringing with them their trials, struggles, and triumphs of Black graduate-student life. But we were also there to learn about the space we were occupying: what it meant for whom, and why it meant what it did for them.
Lina Dostilio, EdD, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement at Pitt provided some context for how Pitt had come to the site to begin our morning session. She stood in front of a black and white photo of the Homewood neighborhood taken several decades ago, pointing to the space where we had now gathered—its past, our present, and our collective futures interacting to culminate in the potentials of the moment. Dostilio emphasized that the university had not bought the building but had leased it from its Homewood-based owners. The move was a strategic one, that sought to respect the significance of often-fraught relationships between historically white institutions and marginalized communities surrounding them. After a presentation lead by DBLAC’s Scholar-in-Residence for the retreat, Dr. Beverly J. Moss, we enjoyed lunch from Indulge with Mo, a Homewood-based catering company. Dr. John M. Wallace Jr., Pitt’s David E. Epperson Endowed Chair of Social Work, later offered retreat attendees a detailed history and walking tour of the neighborhood, a history of his grandfather’s legacy on which he was actively building, a history of efforts to transform a stigmatized Black neighborhood into a community on the cutting edge of science, agriculture, technology, and culture.
As one retreat attendee described, the day at the CEC was the most beneficial part of their retreat experience. They highlighted how the “experience allowed [us] to connect with more than just Black academics, but also a community. [We] now have a place that [we] can go to volunteer or teach [our] own community classes.” On October 13, we intentionally gathered, wrote, and shared at the intersections of identity, space, and community, recognizing that our time at the CEC in Homewood lives past its immediate reality. DBLAC’s day at the Center resonates beyond any one moment or person present—it forwards a different, collective, coalitional history for the university, the community, and for traditionally marginalized people within them.
This post was written and submitted by DBLAC co-founders Khirsten Scott and Lou Maraj.