Ujamaa Collective Brings African Flavor to Hill District

By Qui Ante S. Anderson | Urban Agenda

Walk into 1901 Centre Ave., located in the “Heart of the Hill District.” What do your eyes see? Colorful dresses that wrap around and have bold African patterns with matching headpieces.

What do your ears hear? Women, dressed as if they are from the continent of Africa calling each other, their customers and people in the community “sister” or “brother.”

You wonder, “Have I not seen these women before?” Perhaps you have, maybe at a local market where they showcase various art pieces, at a community event, at a play, or dance performance. But where are you?

Welcome to Ujamaa Collective, a small business in the urban community of the Hill District! You may have seen the sisters of Ujamaa Collective in a play or performance because they are deeply involved in theater about African and African diaspora culture, from African folktales to African history and from African dances to African symbols and language.

“Ujamaa,” within African diaspora culture, means supporting one another economically by supporting each other’s businesses.

“The root of the word ‘Ujamaa’ comes from the Eastern African country Tanzania,” said the executive director of the Ujamaa Collective, Lakeisha Wolf. “Most people are familiar with the word ‘Ujamaa’ as the fourth principle from the African diaspora holiday Kwanza.”

Ujamaa Collective is not just a store, but a place where artisans come together to present their creations. Wolf said that Ujamaa collects from local, regional and global artisans who are African or of the African Diaspora. She added that Ujamaa’s network includes artisans from the Hill District, the greater Pittsburgh area, northeastern United States, the Caribbean and Africa who gather organically and leave their pieces on the shelves and tables of the Ujamaa Collective.

“We recognize artists and we seek them out,” Wolf said. “Or someone tells the artist about us and the artist seeks us out.”

She described how small, locally run businesses are a necessity for a community to be economically stable and healthy. For example, suppose a costumer decides not to buy a $5 journal from Ujamaa Collective, but from Family Dollar because it is $2 at that store. Those dollars at Family Dollar are going into the wallet or pocket of a big shot corporate official instead of back into the community and prevents Ujamaa from receiving the revenue it needs for expenses and to support local artists.

“Ujamaa is not just my store as ‘executive director,’” Wolf said. “It lets you as an artist give Ujamaa a piece of art. It would be both of our store.”

Marlene Landrum, project manager for the Hill District Community Development Corp., said small businesses like the Ujamaa Collective help build up a community. “If you own a small business in a community, you are more intertwined with the community than a big box store,” she said.

The Hill CDC works with residents and other stakeholders to promote community development efforts in the Hill District. Among its initiatives that support small business development and entrepreneurial innovation are BIZLAB, which Landrum described as a business incubator and BIZU, which is a training program.

She added the businesses like the Ujamaa Collective are able to be more culturally aware and creatively in tune to an African diaspora community than commercial chains such as Claire’s, which had considered opening a store in the Hill District but ultimately did not do so.

Since the Ujamaa Collective opened in 2008, more than 150 artisans have had their pieces sold there, Wolf said. Revenues from the sales are divided among the artisans, Ujamaa and a fund that is used in various ways to support the community such as workshops on African cultural awareness and arts and crafts.

“We teach our members entrepreneurial skills,” Wolf added. And because Ujamaa is a nonprofit, the funds it receives are used primarily to take of housekeeping necessities.

Ultimately, Ujamaa’s goals include being an example to the community as they support and are a part of it. That’s one reason why the women in the collective call others “sister” or “brother.” As Wolf explains, it reflects the sense of family that is part of African culture — and the Ujamaa Collective.

Mentors Guide Pre-Teen Girls Through Middle School

By Gabrielle Walker | Urban Agenda

Middle school can either make or break little girls, teen mentors say. Raging hormones, bullies, dances and first crushes can take their tolls emotionally on preteen girls. Middle school is often the place where girls decide what path they will take in academic and social settings.

But if girls have a mentor to guide them, finding the right direction won’t seem so foreign.

“Build a relationship, make her feel comfortable, teach good communication skills, school always comes first and, for me, to just be there,” said Britney Hayes, 16, a junior and mentor at Barack Obama Academy. Mentors work in the child’s best interest, and determines what wants,and needs are important, she said.

“I just want my girls to be able to have someone to trust and talk to if they feel like they can’t talk to me,” said Ashley Menefee, a mother of twin 9-year-old girls.

Girls go through stages during preteen years and can be confused about whom to trust, said Menefee, a Youth Support Partner supervisor and coach at Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

“I talk to teenagers for a living, without a problem. But when it’s my own kid, I know I can be overbearing and have struggled accepting they’re growing up,” Menefee said.

It can be hard for parents seeing their kids go from depending on them for their every need to having minds of their own, which sometimes can be in opposition to parents’ mindsets. Middle school can consist of dealing with a diversity of people, drama and puberty, and children sometimes don’t know what to think, mentors said.

“Misguided, curious and an urging want to be heard,” said Hayes, describing her mentee. Kids at the preteen age can very easily be confused on who they think they’re supposed to be, she said. So when they listen to music on the radio and watch reality TV shows, sometimes they follow what they see. Hayes tries to be the ear her mentee feels she doesn’t have.

As a collective, parents and mentors can easily interject to prevent bad copycat behavior and set a good example for girls to follow, mentors said. Mentoring programs for girls can give them some positivity to follow.

“We teach young girls about strong, powerful women who are great role models for the correct road to follow,” said Laura Pollanen, Strong Women Strong Girls program manager.

“Self-esteem, communicating and teamwork is what we try to instill, along with other great values,” Pollanen said. Mentors can sometimes reach teens in more of a “sisterly” way rather than chastising.

State Representative Fights for Regulation of Body Modification

By Ana Kioko | Urban Agenda

Scott Edelman’s arms are adorned with folded American flags and empty dog tags that the 29-year-old Philadelphia native, former Marine and self-proclaimed “shop rat” said are his “expression of self.”

Nevertheless, Edelman did not know that the tattoo industry in Pennsylvania is not regulated.

“I’m putting trust in you to do something,” he said of the artists. ”It’s common sense … the health department should go in there and inspect.”

Edelman could be in luck if a state bill to regulate body modification is resurrected. To Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe County, a lack of regulation is shocking. Barbers and similar professions must be licensed; however, tattoo artists are allowed to operate without sanctions, said Brian Fenstermaker, Brown’s chief of staff.

Brown’s 2013 bill would have required the state Department of Health to regulate tattoos, piercings and permanent make-up, as well as limit tongue-splitting. It passed the House with a vote of 181 to 16 but died in the Senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Brown is reworking the bill’s language in order to reintroduce it, said Fenstermaker.

“Tattooing is an intimate affair,” said Brandon Cantu, who founded Evolver Tattoo Arts on the South Side four years ago with partner Drew Ziccardi. “You’re giving access to your bloodstream to someone else. People need to be confident that they can get tattoos without negative effects.”

Kelly Schlabach, 22, hails from Athens, Ohio where body modification is regulated by the state. She was shocked to find that just across the border, such protections do not exist.

“That would make me very nervous,” said Schlabach, who sports a geometric design on her upper thigh.

Edelman, who works in the food industry, said he changes his gloves frequently throughout the day to prevent contamination, and keeps every surface spotless. The same principles should apply in tattoo parlors.

“It should be like a hospital,” he said.

Evolver’s patrons can see that everything is “first use” — all materials are freshly opened for each patron.

“The cleanliness aspect is expected by clients,” Cantu said.

Shop owners also expect a healthy environment. When Paul Darrison, the founder of Ink Splat 13 Tattoo in East Stroudsburg, decided to set up a shop, he called the Department of Health expecting to find a slew of rules and regulations. Instead, Darrison said, the department told him it has no oversight over the tattoo industry.

Schlabach said she knows “a lot of people (have) given themselves tattoos or go to friends” and end up contracting hepatitis C, a contagious and sometimes chronic disease resulting in inflammation of the liver.

Edelman, too, has heard stories of people getting sick from unsanitary environments. However, both he and Schlabach agreed that an artist’s reputation matters more than their state’s regulation policies. Cantu said that “any respectable artist tends to do things the right way.”

Schlabach said she expects to find more experienced artists in a city of Pittsburgh’s size, but the lack of laws would prompt her to raise questions. “I would ask them ‘Do you clean your needles? Do you change them out?’”

Edelman said artists “should be able to start their own shop and be able to make their own money,” but there needs to be a balance between lawful health codes and the freedom to tattoo.

“Set yourself up for success, and do it the right way,” Edelman advises.

Schlabach said regulation would be an obstacle to business, but not a bad one.

“I would feel safer,” she said.

Pittsburgh Workers Wage Battle for Higher Pay

By Sean Spencer | Urban Agenda

Across the nation, workers are in a fight to raise the minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. are already in the process of raising their minimum wages to $15 by the year 2020.

But workers in many other cities are still protesting.

Marc Knezevich, Squirrel Hill, Stage 4 cancer patient, protests outside the City-County Building in Pittsburgh. Photo by Sean Spencer.

Marc Knezevich, Squirrel Hill, Stage 4 cancer patient, protests outside the City-County Building in Pittsburgh. Photo by Sean Spencer.

The Fight for $15 organization is a national advocacy group that wants the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour and workers to have the right to form unions. On its website, the organization said, “Even though we work hard, we’re forced to live in poverty.” It said that employers even know of their workers’ financial struggles and do nothing about it.

“It’s not right,” the website said. “That’s why we strike.”

On Aug. 4, more than 100 hospital workers rallied outside the City-County Building in Pittsburgh.

“We don’t get paid enough for what we do,” Marcus Ptomey, an assistant patient care technician, said.

Ashona Osborne, a cashier at an Aldi grocery store and McDonald’s, is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Service Employees International Union,or SEIU, and supports the Fight for $15 campaign. She is a single mother working two jobs and said someone in a fast food job “can’t provide for family and a house” with minimum wage. She thinks the minimum wage should be increased because a person is “guaranteed comfortable living.”

SEIU’s plan of action is to raise minimum wage by putting “pressure on companies and organizations,” Osborne said. She added that if wages rise, “people would be happier to go to work,” improving the work environment.

Some Pittsburgh residents see things differently.

Emma Cusick,17, said that current minimum-wage jobs are worth the amount a worker is getting paid because it is “better than nothing,” while Maggie Cochran, 17, thinks a person should have flexible pay based on life and family situations. But Dante Engram, who works for Macy’s downtown, said he believes that workers who receive $7.25 an hour aren’t being paid enough.

Engram also said the minimum wage should be raised to at least $10, but believes that would cause inflation. Cusick, Cochran and Mattie Schmidt, 17, all agreed that the minimum wage should be increased to between $8 and $10.

Marcel Majors Jr., 16, works at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Penn Hills for minimum wage, and said that his job as a cook and cashier is worth more than the $7.25 an hour he is earning. He feels it should be raised to $9, at most, because “$11 and $12 is too much and would cause inflation. I don’t want to be paying $10 for eggs.”

Youtube Stars Finding Internet Fame Can Pay Off

By Dillon Hawrylak | Urban Agenda

YouTube star PewDiePie made national headlines in July when reports revealed he earned $7.4 million in 2014 through his YouTube channel, which includes money made from advertising.

The idea of getting paid to post stuff on the Internet might seem unlikely, but for an increasing number of people – including Pittsburgh citizens – it has become their reality.

Nick Colletti, a Pittsburgh native who started telling jokes through social media outlets such as Twitter, has gained 870,000 followers on social media site Vine and recently signed to All Def Digital, Russell Simmons’ entertainment label. “I believe in consistency with this stuff. Uploading videos every day really helped me gain a large following,” Colletti said.

Since Colletti signed to the label, he has been paid to attend parties in Los Angeles and hang out with celebrities. Colletti’s value is quite simple: he has the ability to send a message to hundreds of thousands of people in seconds. Marketers are willing to pay a lot of money for people to see their product, whether it’s via a social event or a certain form of entertainment.

For example, All Def Digital made the connections to get Colletti paid to appear in a video created by Complex magazine. In some instances, it’s even simpler than that. 

“Sometimes I will just get paid to tweet that I’m at a party,” Colletti said.

Heather Starr-Fiedler, founder of the blog “Pittsburgh Mom,” started writing about her experiences for local audiences and eventually developed a large fanbase. This led the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to buy “Pittsburgh Mom” and pay Starr-Fiedler monthly to write the blog. 

“I knew there was some money to be made, but I never thought I would receive an offer to have my blog purchased by the Post-Gazette,” Starr-Fiedler said.

Starr-Fiedler has since seen the intensity of the advertisement industry firsthand. She described instances where she was told to write reviews on products that were paying the Post-Gazette for ad space. For example, the P-G told her to write a review on eyeglasses from a specific company that wanted advertisements in the paper, even though she had never been a frequent user of eyeglasses.

“It got to a point where anything I wanted to write about had to be able to make money in some way off of advertisement. Even something as simple as a review on the Children’s Museum would have to be put on hold until they could see if they could receive some advertising from the Children’s Museum,” Starr-Fiedler said.

Sometimes, Internet popularity can blindside users.

Clarence Turner and Cheyenne Springette were freshmen at the Pittsburgh High School for Creative and Performing Arts when they decided to create a funny video to post online and share with friends. The final product consisted of a group of kids in a circle chanting a phrase, then saying, “But I still take sausage.” 

“After we made it, we just had all of our friends post it to all their social media accounts and it spread from there,” Springette said.

One of those accounts was a popular Facebook account dedicated to former Disney star Dylan Sprouse. Since the video was posted to that account, it has received about 3.7 million views. According to therichest.com, PewDiePie makes between $0.50 and $2.50 per thousand views. Under the same formula, if Turner and Springette’s video was seen 3.7 million times on YouTube, they would have made somewhere between $1,850 and $9,250.

“We never thought of making any money off it. Honestly, we didn’t think it was worth anything,” Springette said. 

On the other hand, Colletti plans to take his career as far as it can go. “I feel great to get in on this industry in its early phase. I’m ready to take this as far as it can go.”

Experts: Heroin Use Growing Across Western Pennsylvania

By Bailey Creamer | Urban Agenda

While drug use is usually associated with urban areas, overdoses have caused multiple deaths and ruined many lives in suburbia since 2002, according to Westmoreland County’s Coroner’s Office statistics. 

Pennsylvanians were treated for heroin more than any other drug in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Drug Control Update released by the White House and Westmoreland Coroner Kenneth Bacha said he’s seen that increase firsthand.

“Absolutely. Huge,” Bacha said.

As of July 31, there have been 49 confirmed deaths caused by drug overdoses this year, 20 of which were heroin-related, according to a county website. And 26 more deaths are probable overdoses waiting for toxicology reports.

Bacha noted that there are “probably around 77 or 78 cases (and) roughly half of those are heroin (related).” Some of these victims thought they were purchasing regular painkillers, he explained, but ended up purchasing stamp bags full of fentanyl, a drug that causes effects similar to heroin.

No age group is safe from heroin abuse; there have been cases of overdose from ages 15 to 70. Few people make heroin their first choice of drug — the majority of cases involving drug abuse begin with pain medications, whether the medication was for a sprained ankle or surgical recovery.

Bacha said some subjects would develop an addiction and continue going back to the doctor for more medication before being cut off from the drug. They would then find other physicians to provide the medication until they ran out of money. Finally, they would finally turn to heroin.

Despite its previous reputation, heroin is “accessible, attainable, and inexpensive” when compared to other drugs, Bacha said. Someone can get 30 milligrams of OxyContin for $30, but one stamp of heroin can sell for $8. 

Detective John Devlin of the Murrysville Police Department has also noticed a rise in heroin abuse.

“Most of the problems occur between the people 20-30 years old,” Devlin said, who began to notice the rise in overdoses about five years ago.

He said that a lot of the problem is that heroin is “more readily available and cheaper.”

Neil Capretto, a medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center (GRC), said that he has seen an increase in heroin addicts seeking out treatment.

“We’ve seen a steady rise for years,” he said.

Capretto explained that in the mid-1980s, one or two people a year came in to seek treatment. In 2015, GRC receives close to 10 new people every day.

The majority of addicts the center receives are from the suburbs. While in the past, most patients were from the inner city and impoverished areas, Capretto said they now see more and more people from more affluent neighborhoods like Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon and Greene County.

GRC sees patients of all ages, with the largest group being ages 21-26. However, Capretto said he has seen a larger number of people age 50 and over than he expected, many of whom began their heroin use within the last few years.

According to statistics, 90 to 95 percent of those admitted with heroin addictions began their problems with prescription pain medications. Capretto said users would rather get $40 or $50 per day worth of heroin instead of $200 worth of pain pills a day.

He recalls one instance where a 60-year-old patient began using heroin when he was 58. The patient had surgery, developed an addiction to his medication, ran out of money to pay for it and finally turned to heroin.

Not only are addicts facing the possibility of death with pain medications and snorting heroin, they are facing other major health risks with injections.

Capretto said GRC has seen a rise in hepatitis C and HIV in their patients. 

While Capretto’s patients have not died, they still face that chance if they do not continue treatment.  

Heroin addiction is affecting more people than ever, said Scott Shaw, manager of marketing and communications at GRC. Shaw is currently at a conference in St. Louis discussing possible actions to take against the problem.  

“It’s a national epidemic,” Shaw said.