Making a promise

The citizen: Winter ’09
by Saleem Ghubril
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Pittsburgh has a way of weaseling itself into one’s heart. My wife, a Midwestern girl raised in Sioux City, and I, an Arab boy born in Lebanon, moved to Pittsburgh in 1984. We brought with us our 3-​month-​old daughter, youthful idealism, boundless energy and lots of naïve inexperience.

Into this mix, one year later, were born our son and our work at The Pittsburgh Project, a community-​based organization on the North Side. Our children grew up there and later graduated from Perry Traditional Academy. I was blessed to serve as the Project’s executive director until September 2008.

Pittsburgh has been so effective in its heart-​weaseling work that our life’s vision statement is crafted with the city at its center. This vision is adapted from the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, and we adapted it more by inserting the word “Pittsburgh” into Zechariah’s statement: “That Pittsburgh will be called a City of Truth, where once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets, each with cane in hand because of age, and where the city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” This is a picture of renewal, hope, wholeness and peace. In other words, it is a portrait of promise.

I was honored and humbled to be asked to lead The Pittsburgh Promise as its first executive director. It was difficult to leave my work at the Project, but I recognized the immense potential of the Promise and its vision to serve kids and families, reform public education in Pittsburgh and develop our city’s neighborhoods.

The Pittsburgh Promise is a covenant we make with children who are enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools. It goes like this: if you dream big and work hard, money will not be an obstacle in your way of reaching your dreams. At its most basic level, The Pittsburgh Promise provides scholarships for our graduates to pursue higher education in accredited four-​year or two-​year colleges, as well as technical and vocational schools. Currently, and through 2011, the scholarship may be up to $5,000 per year, for four years. In 2012, the scholarship will grow to up to $10,000 per year for four years, or a maximum award of $40,000. This is neither need nor merit based, and there is not a limit to the number of qualifying children from the same family.

At deeper and more foundational levels, we promise our kids a first-​rate, excellent-​quality, urban public education that will set them up for success post-​high school. We promise we will develop our urban neighborhoods — the places where our kids live, go to school, play and grow. We will build them into healthy, safe, nurturing and prosperous places conducive to learning, where kids can focus on Pythagoras, Hannibal, Monet and Shakespeare, rather than be preoccupied with community violence, neighborhood rivalries and underground economies. Efforts are in motion to coalesce community leaders from public safety, government, faith, education, business, medicine, art, social service and families and equip them to lock elbows and create a safety net around and under our kids.

Keeping the promise will require $250 million. This sum will enable us to honor our promise for at least the next 25 years. During any season, this is a task of giant proportions. In this time of economic uncertainty, it is Goliath on steroids.

However, here is some remarkable news: recognizing the strategic importance of The Pittsburgh Promise to the vitality and viability of our region, UPMC made an extraordinary challenge grant. Its leaders placed $100 million on the table, payable in $10 million increments over 10 years. Similarly, local foundations, even in today’s market, are deliberating making a substantial commitment to ensure that the Promise delivers.

And soon we will launch a community-​wide campaign — embracing businesses, individuals and families, as well as foundations — calling on all of us to do our part.

All of us who love this region, call it home, raise our children in it and work for its future have a stake in its promise.

Saleem Ghubril is executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program.

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