A Conversation with Marimba Milliones, Part Two

Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones

Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones

Daevan Mangalmurti and Sam Bisno

We’re back with the second half of our interview with Marimba Milliones, head of the Hill CDC. We’d like to extend our gratitude to Ms. Milliones for allowing us to speak to her for more than an hour on a wide range of topics relevant to the future of not only the Hill District but of this city as a whole, and we invite students to learn more about the work of the Hill CDC here.

Sam Bisno: You mentioned that your father ran for public office and was maybe even going to consider running for mayor. Would you ever consider running for public office?

People ask me that all the time. I would not say it is my desire. I’ve obviously had opportunities if I desired to run for public office. I do view this role, to some degree, as a public role. I take it very seriously as if it is a public office, because grants, philanthropy, donations, those are all to some degree tax dollars. That’s the way to evade your question the best that I can [laughs]. I can’t say never, but I’m not targeting an office or anything of that nature.

Daevan Mangalmurti: On that topic, what would it mean for Pittsburgh to have an African-American mayor?

I think that it’s long overdue. Most major cities at this point have had a black mayor. I would hope that the right candidate for mayor, a black mayor so to speak, truly understood the needs of the black community and other communities. And it’s a complex question because I tend not to want to say, “Oh, it’s time for a woman,” or, “Oh, it’s time for a black person.” Nor do I say we ought to keep a man, in particular that we ought to keep a white male. I think that the important thing is that people demonstrate the quality of leadership and the right values. In this case, because your question is around race, [a person’s] experience as a person of color in America and in Pittsburgh in particular could be very powerful for our city- if that person is true to self and has the courage to lead out of that experience. Being centered in courage and justice can be a very scary thing for elected officials, and for those who are from vulnerable communities like black communities, it can be particularly challenging because Pittsburgh has a very challenged black community when it comes to wealth. In some cities where you have a very strong, affluent class of black folks, you have the financial support that you need to sustain your career, even when you take on controversial and difficult issues. These are the issues that black candidates really have to grapple with: this is who I’m going to be when I’m in office, this is what I value. And if that is not representative of the city, and they can’t cast a vision that’s powerful and compelling enough to earn the vote of a disparate group of folks, perhaps it isn’t the office for them. Because now is the time for bold leadership. But I think we’re long overdue for a black mayor in Pittsburgh.

SB: What would you say the proudest accomplishment of your career has been?

I think I’ve yet to behold my proudest accomplishment. I really do. I think it is in the future. It’s hard for me to say, “that was a proud moment” because I’m a very aspirational person. There have been specific projects where I’ve been like, “Man, that was awesome,” but I think that accomplishment for me rests in the whole.

SB: Do you have any sense of what that accomplishment might look like? As in, in an ideal world, you’re looking back on your career, you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, this is the biggest thing I ever did.”

I don’t know that  know what the biggest thing I’ll ever do is yet. I’m curious about what that might be. I really am. But I know that this is pretty important to me, the New Granada Square is important to me. I would say that if we are able to fulfill the community’s long-held vision of rebuilding the Hill District in a way that lifts up the African-American cultural legacy, yet attracts folks from all over to celebrate it, I think that would be amazing for Pittsburgh. And I think Pittsburgh desperately needs it.

DM: In a decade, what do you want the Hill to look like? What do you want the Hill to be?

I generally speak about this in the form of experiences. So I can envision going to a show at the New Granada. Perhaps I run into a friend who’s renting an apartment on one of the top floors, or in one of the buildings that was rehabbed. Perhaps I’m at a fantastic event overlooking one of the rivers in an amazing home someone built in the Hill District when they realized, “I don’t want to talk about this, I want to realize this.” I see not just a culture of advocacy and protection for those who are most vulnerable, but also that they are economically independent. I see children who can find a neighborhood based school in the Hill District that affords them a quality education that teaches them not just about academic success but helps them to understand their identity, and what their responsibility is civically to this community, to our city, to our nation, and to our world. I see faith based organizations active and stable and vibrant. I see succession in leadership, where people who are active now have cultivated the next generation of leaders in a responsible way, and those [new] leaders were patient enough to wait to get the lessons so they could  have the full confidence of that generation that’s handing the work that they’ve done for the past twenty years to them. Maybe that’s more of a fifteen year vision, but that’s certainly the aspiration that’s in there.

SB: How has your faith influenced your work?

I attend Macedonia Baptist Church in the Hill District. I have, essentially, for my whole life, but I would say my faith is less religious and more spiritual for me. It is truly my anchor, in the sense that you can’t do this kind of work without strong faith. You cannot. It’s difficult every day. There’s not a day where you come into the office and everything goes exactly as you planned. There are days where you get news about something that you don’t think is in the best interests of your city or your neighborhood, and it’s moving forward anyway. There are days where you hear about legislation thats going to impact the entire area, something that’s going to put a quarter of your residents into very unfortunate circumstances. There are days when you find out that a project that was supposed to happen, the developer changed their mind and they’re no longer interested. So faith allows me to be steady in my work and to focus in on solving the problems without losing the vision. It’s really an anchor for me in that regard.

SB: Do you have any advice for aspiring female leaders?

I would say the first thing is, “You can do it.” You don’t have to have all of the answer to get started. It’s okay to take a step towards what you think you know; that’s all any of us are really doing. For everything we do know, there’s a lifetime ahead of us of things we don’t know. Don’ be afraid to make a move because you don’t know the final destination. I would say focus on who wants to support you, irrespective of their gender, because you will find friends in every race, every gender, every creed, and it is important, because we do live in a patriarchal society, to get help where you can. I would say you are beautiful, and that the more you embrace who you are, the more beautiful you will become, and that it’s okay to define beauty however you’re comfortable defining it. If that means you’re a girly-girl and you like to paint your nails and do your hair and do lipstick and then get down to business and be serious about it, that’s great. If you’re like, “Eh, not so much. I kind of  just want to throw on a blazer and some jeans and some sneakers and push my hair up,” that’s cool too. The important thing is that you are comfortable in your own skin, because  confidence, in part, comes from being comfortable, both from being physically comfortable and also knowing that you don’t have to have all of the answers. Let me say one more thing. Don’t ever make yourself smaller to make someone else feel bigger, but also leave room for other people in the room. You don’t have to occupy all the space to be seen. You can be powerful, but not all consuming. and that’s important, because some women are powerful, and then they shrink themselves, and some women are powerful, and they don’t know how to allow space in the room. I think both are important.

DM: What do you think are the most important things the City of Pittsburgh can learn from the Hill District of the past, of today, and of the future?

I would say that the most important thing that the city can learn from the Hill District in the past is that they didn’t listen to the residents, and they messed up. Like, they really messed up badly, and we’re still trying to recover from those errors, decades later. And that the sooner you accept how badly you messed up, and the sooner that you adopt the attitude that you ought to make something right that you’ve messed up, you ought to do it. And you ought to bring the same level of energy and resources that were put into messing it up. So that would be the lesson from the past. I think the present is, “look at what you have.” You have a community that has a group of citizens that most communities would die to have in terms of their level of activism and activity and engagement. You have  people come from France to study jazz in the Hill District. Architects come and marvel at the landscape and the topography of the neighborhood, the historic architecture that still exists. I would say that a huge lesson for the city is to cherish this moment where you have community leadership and community plans that are truly representative of the desire of the neighborhood, and for all intents and purposes, you have aligned leadership on most of elected bodies. That’s rare, and it ought to be capitalized upon. I would also say in the present before I jump to tomorrow: make it right. The things that were done to this community that were unjust, this community is still trying to heal from. Make it right. Don’t keep making the same mistakes. The county just located the new public health STD clinic here in the Hill District, with very little community engagement. There are three drug and alcohol treatment centers on our business corridor, and now they just approved a fourth. That is not making it right. That is perpetuating and continuing to abuse a community that has time and time again tried to put itself back together. It is the city’s responsibility to be a phenomenal partner, and a part of that is saying not just, “I want to help, but I’m going to help by investing and doing whatever I can to bring the resources necessary.” And I think in the future it’s really just our opportunity to lose. The way I look at the future, all I see in the future is that we’re either going to win or we’re going to lose. I’ve shared with you what I think a win looks like. I think a loss looks like any other neighborhood. I think a loss turns out to be no interest, no unique identity, just another place in Pittsburgh that you might go to to grab a bite. It’s not that place where you’re like, “I’m going to the Hill because I know something is going to be happening in the Hill in which I’m gonna have a great experience.” So that’s what I think of in the future. I don’t know if that’s futuristic, but that’s what I see.

DM: Thank you very much for letting us take up so much of your time. 

SB: Thank you. 

Of course.

As we were getting ready to finish up, Ms. Milliones had one more message for us about making our visions and ideas for change a reality, “Take advantage of the energy of your youth and couple that with the wisdom of elders. Because you won’t always have the same energy. You’ll get smarter and wiser, but you won’t have the energy to carry out all of your visions and dreams. Young people now need to decide what kind of country, what kind of city, and what kind of neighborhood they want the places they live to be. It is an every-day grind.”