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Working toward Leadership in Pittsburgh: A Conversation with Anita Porter

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

Anita Porter is the Community Engagement Coordinator in NAC’s allied housing community of East Hills in eastern Pittsburgh, where residents know her as “Miss Anita.” While she works on a range of administrative and organizational tasks, her biggest passion is the Workforce Development program, an area in which she has worked for almost 40 years.

I love what I do. I love helping people. In this world, we know there will always be people who need help. And there has to be somebody willing to step up to the plate to do that, to extend that olive branch.

The community of East Hills partners with more than a dozen organizations, including the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and PA CareerLink. These partnerships, which have evolved over time and support Anita’s holistic approach to resident services and community engagement, facilitate access to basic needs like clothing, food, childcare, assistance for pregnant women and mothers, and more. In the same way, her approach to workforce development engages all aspects of the employment process: completing resumes and job applications; facilitating access to work attire; navigating the government assistance application process; and developing job skills.

Anita’s approach to leadership and resident priorities in East Hills is deeply informed by her experiences in the working world. In college, she worked with a Growth and Development program that addressed the needs of teens at risk of dropping out of school. Anita recalls that teens lacked not only counseling and opportunities to explore different careers, but exposure to life outside their immediate surroundings. And so, they learned how to take the bus. This kind of work put her on her own career road. “That’s how I got started: I realized that there were actually kids out here that didn’t know how to go about accessing things.” Close attention to detail how Anita creates comprehensive programs for residents -- and that practice exemplifies leadership that builds organically on the challenges and resources of everyday life.

In her early days with East Hills, Anita pioneered a successful program for mothers and children, in which mothers brought their children to the community center to access computers and other resources. In turn, they could be more involved in their children’s education and receive a computer and free internet access for a year. Although many of these mothers were battling addiction, the program yielded high participation and retention. “When you have addicted women who come to your program at 9 in the morning, break for lunch at 12, and return at 3, that says something.”

Anita is mindful of how the context of a whole shapes employment opportunities: “You have to be of sound mind and well-being just to be able to go out and work” as well as to get an education, find childcare, pay bills, and maintain health. She finds that not enough attention is given to these aspects: “You have to holistically address everything that’s wrong before a person can become successful.” To her, Workforce Development isn’t just about getting a job -- it’s a mindset change. Residents are often confronted with the challenges of generational poverty and can lack knowledge of the unspoken rules of the professional world. It is essential that programs understand the nuances of residents' lives: “a program is successful’s ready to meet your needs. We have everything here for you.”

After four decades, Anita is ready to pass the torch. And her goal is ambitious: she wants to turn over the responsibilities of her position to the residents of East Hills themselves. Recently, she has been encouraging residents to attend meetings and form connections with community partners, and plans to involve residents even further in the next two years before her retirement. What tenets of leadership and community strengths are necessary in resident self-governance?

We learn to work become knowledgeable of who our neighbors are....You can’t survive in this world alone.

Reflecting on her time at East Hills brings Anita great satisfaction. She watches residents improve their lives. And she recalls how the help she received as a single widowed mother gave her a framework to connect with and transform the lives of neighborhood mothers. As “Miss Anita” looks back on what has been accomplished so far, she looks forward to a future where every home in the community has its own Miss Anita, carrying on the work of Public Kinship, East Hills-style.

Anita Porter at an East Hills produce give-away, May 2020

Interview by Emma Sullivan, NAC, July 2021

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