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Business as Usual: Steel City Arts Initiative

Business as Usual

As one of our region's most important nonprofits, the Steel City Arts Initiative (SCAI) is a community-based agency dedicated to providing cultural, arts and education programs geared towards empowering school age children and their families.

We are excited to welcome SCAI Executive Director Jonnet Solomon to Business as Usual to show us how SCAI engages the community with its rich and diverse programming tailored to promote a sense of determination and accomplishment for all ages. 

Find out how SCAI has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to positively impact the region well into the future.






Good afternoon, everyone. This is Audrey with the tech Council. I am very thrilled to be here today. And I'm always joined by Jonathan kersting. He's vice president of all things media, marketing and storytelling at the Pittsburgh tech Council. Today is a great day to have a conversation about the arts about cultural history about the future. And we I'm going to introduce our guests today, Jonnet Solomon in one moment. And I know that you are going to be really thrilled to hear about what she is working on and her own journey. So I really appreciate her joining us and taking the time today. But before we start, I just want to give a shout out to Huntington bank for thanking them for being continuous sponsors and partnerships and caring about all the things that we care about at the tech Council, making sure that Southwestern Pennsylvania is an amazing place for all people to do business to build innovation and build the future. And today is part of the ecosystem in terms of what we find important, and that includes the art. So anytime we get a chance, any of you who know me know that I'm pretty passionate about this. So it's thrilling to have an opportunity to talk and just exchange the discussion with our guests. Also, appreciation for 40 by 80. That's the wholly owned subsidiary of the tech Council. It's our nonprofit arm, and 40 by 80 is the longitude and latitude of Pittsburgh. And in that space, we work on workforce development and entrepreneurship. So we've muted your microphones. And we've made sure that there's an opportunity for chat. And we are now just going to jump right in because we have Jonnet Solomon, Executive Director, she wears many hats, but this is one hat. And notice she's wearing wait cool hat. So it's very indicative of all that we're going to talk about. And she is the executive director of Steel City Arts Initiative, amongst some other things that we are going to dabble in. Hopefully, we have enough time to cover everything that we want to talk about. First of all, thank you so much for being with us. I hope this finds you safe and sound. I want to say Happy New Year to 2021. And I hope that everyone you know and love has been safe. And given the times that we've been in particularly over the last year. So thanks, welcome.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Oh, no, it's great. So before we jump in and sort of just talk about the business stuff and talk about all the all the fun stuff that you're cultivating, what are you good, tell us who you are. Tell us a little bit about your journey, anything that you'd like to share that would sort of just set the table for all of us as we dig into the conversation?

Sure. So I'll put my entire talent into one word. I'm an accountant. That's really my skill and my trade. It's my spotlight and my true talent. I do believe life is numbers and everything comes down to numbers and math. Not because I'm an accountant, it's just true. So around being an accountant, what's related to accounting is music. That's my second love and passion. My father is a musician. He's an inventor, he makes the steel pan. And so I grew up playing music. And it helped me to be a better accountant. And so in a nutshell, I've been an accountant. I've been a musician, and an educator. And that is how we have Steel City Arts Initiative. I've been teaching music here since 1994, which some of the faces I see look super young. So I started teaching in 1994. And I started my accounting firm in 1998. I no longer have the firm, but I still teach and our goal here at Sky we call Steel City Arts Initiative. Sky is to use music and art to help children heal from trauma so that they can be active and productive citizens. So that's what I do now.

Wow. That's a really bold initiative. And so, okay, that's fascinating and steel drums. Tell us a little bit about that hat. Just talk a little bit about your family. Are they made of Pittsburghers?

No. So we're from Ghana, South America. And my dad his dream was always to come to the Steel City to have a steel pan manufacturing company. When he bought my four sisters and my mom here, there was no steel. So because we moved to the Bronx, and then we moved to Pittsburgh and there was no feel my mom was like, okay, figure that out. We're not moving again, yet are still from Ohio.

That's, that's just amazing. So yes, so let's so you have you decided to start this organization, right? What was the premise of your

initiative used to be called young men and women's African heritage Association. I am not the founder of this organization. I'm, I'm the executive director now. And how I came to be here is in 1999, around 2000, I purchased the national Negro opera company in Homewood. And I, our goal was to restore the house in order to teach music and art. And at that time, the foundation Heinz endowment, they said, start your programs elsewhere. And then we will figure out how to restore the house because it's two separate things. So still, city Arts Initiative, basically came from teaching art and music as the original organization to foster and homeless children. So we started teaching music and art, and our target population was foster children, homeless children, because we found that when they played music, and they did art, and our signature program was called Ryman release, where children would write their thoughts that they couldn't express into a rhyme and release it into the world, we found that they really found healing from that. And it helped them to discover who they are, and were able to be that person. So that's how the organization kept going with the arts component, even though we don't provide foster care, because at the time the Opera House was not ready to, to house programs. It just,

it's not restored yet. So in so you're located, you actually have a physical location, right? Yes, physical location.

We're here on the north side on Boyle Street. And our organization really is funded by individual donations, and lots and lots of volunteers, and great partnerships with businesses here on the north side.

And so what kinds of programs are you running right now, given given COVID, and given some of the experiential work that I'm sure is is is an important part of your organization.

So COVID has really changed everything. Initially, we were in the school. And then we were teaching here at our building. And then we tried to start our programs, again, with social distancing, but it just was not safe. So we are working with our digital partners, like Dre media, and studio me, to help us provide our programs virtually. So we're building our photography studio will be virtual, where the children can come and work with the teacher, but everything will be set up where the students can self guide through the photography and video studio. And our music education program will also be virtual, and our Ryman release program will be virtual, where the students can come into the booth, they can write, they can record in the booth, the producers and the music teachers will be remote and on video.

So we're gonna put your website up there, what's the website, I want to put it out there?

It's SCA ii Okay,

so we'll put it out there for people to find out more about it. So, you know, where, you know, we are in the north side, the tech Council, we're in the north side. So we care about we love being in the community and care about that community, even though it's been COVID. And there's not been a lot of human interaction. So we're very excited to figure out ways to partner with you and escalate you know, the really just escalate and highlight the work that you're doing and seeing if any people in our tech community and our membership are interested in being helpful to you. So what surprises you about this work? You've been? You've been the Executive Director for how long?

Since 2014.

Okay, and so what are some of the surprises?

I think the biggest surprise for me is how easy people cannot care about children that are traumatized. The biggest surprises you can know and understand that a child is homeless, or a child is in foster care, and has no access to what they need to be a healthy person, but victimize them for that lack of access instead of giving them the resources they need. It is absolutely shocking to me that it's okay for people to turn a blind eye to the great need in the city. Our building is located right behind In light of life, and every day I speak to someone who is homeless. And I interact with someone who is in need of food. And they're still a human. And it's shocking on a daily basis how people can live their lives just regularly, without thinking about the absolute need that exists right here on the north side.

What could we do today? If you had if you had an ask for all of us today? What could we do? Right now in terms of the imminence of the of this?

I think our biggest ask is donations to serve more children. When we had our children come back from being away from COVID. We had children who when they first came to our program, they didn't speak. And then they started speaking and expressing themselves. And they were able to write rhymes, they were able to play music. And when they came back from COVID, after not being in our building from March to August, children regressed to where they were before they started coming. They stopped speaking, they weren't able to communicate, they were traumatized, and really, really hurt. And I think you know, these children are in school, they're interacting with adults, but nothing is happening to help them heal.

And so COVID is probably made it worse.

Yes, COVID COVID is traumatic. And everyone can figure out adults can figure out a way to heal from their trauma. Because COVID has been traumatic for some people, it's just listening to cool jazz with a glass of wine. But what is it for a 10 year old? Who has figured out how that 10 year old is dealing with their trauma of Colvin? And how are they communicating their trauma, and who's giving them a journey map to actually heal from what COVID is doing to them?

And so in, you know, everyone, if you can hear this there a 501 C, three dances, just ask that question, then you are 501 c three, that it is a charitable organization. So you can actually provide gifts and provide sponsorship or whatever you you desire, I would imagine that Janae is open to whatever kind of giving that you're open to the Northside neighborhood. What's really important is that as that neighborhood changes a little bit, I mean, it's been a long journey in the north side. But as that neighborhood starts to change, we want to make sure that that neighborhood is inclusive and remnant of the past, so that we're not eradicating the fabric of the north side. But we can't ignore the fact that there are people who are actually being left behind. And people are commenting their applause for the work that you're doing. So hopefully we can generate some interest and support. But you wear so many hats. She's wearing a hat today, the woman wear so many different hats. She talked about, you know, being in many ways started you were an entrepreneur, you are an entrepreneur doesn't matter what you're working in, and you come from an entrepreneurial family. And so talk about this opera house. Let's switch gears and let's just talk about the Opera House because I think people are going to be blown away. They need to understand the history of the Opera House, and they need to understand what what you're doing.

Absolutely. So the Opera House programming is what really led me to Sky. From our feasibility study in 2000. We've learned that access to music and art does help people it helps children. It helps a community. If you think about what people have been doing during COVID they've been exposed more to art and entertainment, whether it's Netflix, Amazon, any streaming music, it's how they're, they're being entertained. That's how they're being healed. So we definitely needed to figure out how to have more access to music and art, which we've done. But with the Opera House. The Opera House is a Queen Anne style mansion in Pittsburgh built in 1894. And the Opera House was owned by Louie Harris, and he rented the house out to several people, one of whom was Mary cago Dawson, and she started the national Negro opera company which is the first in America here in Pittsburgh. But the house wasn't just known for the National needle opera company. It was known because Louis Harris provided housing for Roberta Clemente when Roberto Clemente was recruited as a pitcher Bird pirates he had nowhere to stay because he was colored. And so Wilkie has rented a room to Roberta Clemente. That's why he stayed at the Opera House. Roberta Clemente, Mary harville, Dawson, Dini Harris, they all were at the Opera House. And it became a play called mystery Manor. Because so many celebrities would stay at the house, come to the house and have so much fun. But no one knew what really happened there. But I have pictures of the house where you can see Joe Lewis staying at the house with Roberta Clemente Lena Horne can't be, you know, all these people just in that living room playing music and having fun on any given day. So our goal is to restore that house, restore the history, bring the music and the culture and the diversity back to a space.

So you know, just I want to backtrack, I mentioned something about Dan Griffin, and Jonathan's going to manage some questions. Dan is actually been at the helm of the red, the regional asset. District, you probably know them. Hopefully, most people know about them, we'll put a link up, but he's saying please consider applying for rad funding.


Okay. And so I don't know if that applies to the opera house as well, Dan, but definitely, in terms of Steel City arts initiatives as well. So they're, they're looking at impact and outcomes. And I think you've articulated both. So what do you what is needed for the Opera House? So you're wearing another hat? In terms of something that's high need? What do you what do you need? Need there,

the Opera House? I honestly think the Opera House needs more advocates. Because so I started this restoration project in 2000. And there's been so many pitfalls and mistakes. You know, I think any entrepreneur or anyone who starts anything, um, follows into pitfalls. And it's not a lack of not working with experts. We have hired experts, but it's just the lack of having enough advocates, for people to think that the preservation and restoration of history in a structure is important. And that's when the Opera House needs. In October, we were on the 11th most endangered list, which is good, and it's bad. But it brought national attention to Pittsburgh national attention to the opera house. And that is helping us get more advocates to restore the house.

Wow. So you can see Dan and by the way, just in all transparency. Dan is one of a great friend of ours. At the tech council we actually worked, we went to Bilbao together and a whole bunch of leaders in the arts community to look at arts as a way for the pathway for innovation and tech. And so our partnership was great. And if you know anything about Bilbao, you know, they have an opera house. They also have the, you know, the Gehry designed Guggenheim. So Dan is now just saying capital support as possible as well, usually with some percentage. So hopefully you you folks can catch up offline. So you have a couple of questions here and I want Jonathan to grab them for you tonight. Okay.

Thanks for being with us today. But a fascinating story. You have to be making this all feel like slackers right now. I just love it. So Carl wants to know, who can make a referral to have kids sign up for your program? Is there a cost and do you take insurance?

So that's a great question. We are revamping our website so that children can be registered on the website. We provide scholarships to all of our children. So um, I am heavy in begging people for money because every child gets a full scholarship to every program. And all of our programs include food which is sponsored by Panera Bread and Trader Joe's. So we we feed all of our children, my my cheeks are from eating too much Panera Bread. But we we provide scholarships to every child. So once the site is updated, you'll be able to register and apply for scholarships on the site directly.

So how about for volunteers? Are there any specific skill sets that you look for with your volunteers?

No, no, we

do not look for any skill set except kindness.

It's a good skill set to have. We should all start with that for sure.

Okay, so we are if anyone who knows us at the tech Council and myself the intersection of art and culture and technology have been sort of the epicenter of the work that I tend to gravitate towards. And because we can't, we can't be innovators without music. And you make this really interesting point at the beginning about numbers, right? numbers and use that cat has had it, you know, you have this intersection there. What What does that mean, in terms of tech? And you know, where does that play in terms of the world that you're in? I mean, obviously, you're doing zoom, and you're doing remote remote learning, but what else? Where else do you see as a visionary in the space?

Well, that is such a great question. When we teach our children music, um, I music education here at Sky, it's very immersive. So when we teach our children music, and understanding the sensation of sound, and how it connects to you emotionally, we teach them that music basically, is numbers. Because every vibration is a number, it's a, it's a wave, that is translated into a number. So the point where children under they can home, it, you know, if they're feeling stressed, some of our children will just be like, Huh, they can find the tone, calm themselves down. So that is how important numbers are. And in addition to that, I teach them how important all of us are as people. And we start with binary learning, which is the power of zero and one. And part of what we're teaching here. Two years ago, we started the blockchain technology education center. So show our students how numbers and music and math is related. And just by having a binary system, just two numbers, zero and one, you can shift the entire world, you don't even need 09. You just need two numbers, and you have power. And so we show the children how numbers, music and their own life is intertwined. And you cannot separate them.

Wow, I am so glad we did that. Because I'm going to use that excerpt. We're going to reuse that, that excerpt as well. So we have thank you for giving us your perspective on that. Jonathan, are there more questions,

we are good to go out or keep the conversation?

So I yeah, I just want to I just want to be sensitive to that. So here, we're gonna, we are going to help connect you what other stories do you want us to know? What else do you think that is really important for our audience to hear from you.

Um, I think important story is the process of building community. What I found I I'm not from Pittsburgh, I'm from Guyana, as I mentioned. And so when we came to Pittsburgh, my dad used to take us on a Sunday drive. This is how I found the Opera House, I still drive around. Because for whatever reason, I get my absolute best ideas in the car. I don't, I don't know why. And so we always drove around the city. And my parents said, you know, understand your community understand people. And I think for some reason, as from the time we came to Pittsburgh to now we're losing a sense of community, you know, we wanted to do a campaign hashtag 15212. So that we would know every child and every person in hash tag 15212. So if you saw me on the street, you by AJ, you know, because if you go to Ghana, everyone will say, Hey, you know, they'll say they have nicknames for everyone. So like, I like to wear hats. They'll go Hey, hat, you know, and so the community knows who you are. And I think the biggest thing that the children are learning how to do is how to build community, how to build friendships. And the most important part of that is my takeaway word of 2020. is fragile. You know how to have relationships that are not fragile, how to have a community that's not fragile, how not to be a fragile person. You know, if I correct a student, let's say they're playing Mary had a little lamb. And lamb is GE and they hit D. I'm like, Oh, that's wrong. They'll feel insulted. And I'm like, it's wrong. So if someone tells you something is incorrect, they're not insulting you. They're telling you it's incorrect. And that that's how I realize how fragile people are. Our fragile communities are. And so the biggest thing that we want to do here is not just teach, but build a sense of community. That's not fragile, where you're not going to insult me and I never speak to you again. You're going to insult me. I'll tell you, you insulted me. We'll work it out. And we'll have a more stronger relationship and a stronger community.

Mm hmm. I think. Yeah. Someone who wrote anti fragility. It is it is interesting that that's, that's a way that maybe that's the movement today that you can you can riff off of what Bill just posted. Anti fragility, that's

already a movement at AI, Boyle Street, if you come to Boyle Street, you know, I am a big cook. We have a garden next to our building. And so part of what we teach is healthy eating. And the first time the children grew their own tomatoes, we made salsa, and we had a great salsa recipe and our comparison was el barrio was the elbows and elbows amazing. And I'm like, this is our gold standard for salsa, Alberto. So we have their salsa and we have our salsa, and our salsa was not ellenborough salsa. Your salsa is good, but it's not this awesome. And you know, we had children crying, like it's not an insult. The gold standard, but they were so fragile. But now today, if you came and you made salsa, and it wasn't delicious, the children will say, well, it's not elbowroom.

Yeah, it's so funny. That's so well put today, we have become a little bit sensitive on different topics. And so if we can start through food and music, and you know, dancing and steel drums and all the things that you and your family have brought to the city, in that kind of energy, you know, I I raised my coffee cup to 2021. I want to thank everyone for being on the call. This is been a delight today, you are not going to be a stranger to us. And I see that Dan Griffith is actually saying Griffin is saying please call. How about that?

How do I know though? Let

Diane know he said, Let Diane know. So we're all about making stuff happen here. Okay. And that was our objective. So any way that we can help you? We will I also want to let everyone know that we have Kelly hunt, confirmed from the SBA, because there's new PPP money that is going to be available. And we want to make sure that everyone has access to any kind of remedy to help that's affected each and every one of us or organizations through COVID. And Jonathan, who do we have?

Who do we have for tomorrow? Well, it's the Pittsburgh civic hackathon to Ross Yes, happening. So our own Ryan gent, along with Kitt Mueller from rustbelt, who are organizing this awesome hackathon or stopping by to give us all the details, because there's still time to be part of it,

it's gonna be a Shinae, you should tune in for that and find out what we're up to. Because it's all about civic muscle civic engagement, and solving problems that I think really have the intersection of many of the things that you've shared with us today. So I love that people have reached out already, I am thrilled about that. I'm thrilled that you spent the time with us today. Today, you will not be having me, you will not be a stranger. And we've learned a lot and remember, you know, she said it's all about numbers. So she's pretty clear about that. It's all about numbers. So we have to agree and she's definitely pretty definitive in her in her thesis of that. So thank you Janae Thank you everyone for being here. Thank you, Dan for for making some actions occur right now. And we will see all of you I cannot believe that it's Friday already. But Jonathan, we will have another VA you tomorrow. Stay tuned and thanks again. Janae. Stay safe, love your hat and love all the work that you're doing.

Thank you. Take care.

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