Building on Assets in Urban Communities

by Rich Milner, Erika Gold Kestenberg, & Alan Lesgold

Rich Milner (center, holding plaque) and Erika Gold Kestenberg (far left) stand with students and teachers from Propel School, following a School of Education lecture by Gloria Ladson-Billings, a celebrated researcher in areas of culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory.

How might we—those of us who work, live, and learn in urban education and communities as well as those who care about it—shift our gaze away from focusing on deficits to recognizing and building upon assets? Many people’s conceptions, paradigms, and worldviews are saturated with what is “wrong” in urban communities rather than on the many strengths that exist there. Through the School of Education Center for Urban Education, we want to encourage educators to reflect on the way they see, what they believe, and what they do regarding urban schools and communities.

We have had the privilege to work with and mentor many teachers and students whose commitments are in urban education and communities; we also have partnered with community organizations and worked with parents and community members determined to fight against injustice and demand equity in policy and practice. Our general impression is that urban communities and schools are responsible for some of the most genuine, intelligent, creative, and skillful students in the United States and beyond. Urban communities are spaces rich with human capital and potential.

Consider Pittsburgh carefully from this viewpoint. What assets are already present that people may not consider in talking about and improving communities and schools? How can we know more about these assets and build on them to address challenges? This approach, of focusing on the capital that is already present and then enhancing and spreading it to other aspects of the environment (classrooms, community organizations, neighborhoods), is what we believe to be essential in improving urban communities and schools. Moreover, we want to suggest that additional assets are already present in Pittsburgh from which we might learn and transfer:

  • Education and Health Institutions: Pedro Noguera, during the Center for Urban Education’s inaugural lecture, stressed that Pittsburgh is a “hub” for educational excellence, health literacy, and development. Working collaboratively, these institutions can enhance urban schools and communities.
  • Philanthropy: several philanthropic organizations are committed to supporting and improving urban education and communities. This commitment can and does help cultivate innovation.
  • Community Organizations: numerous nonprofit organizations throughout Pittsburgh understand the history of the city and the needs of the people, many of whom already partner with urban communities and schools to support and advance their agendas.
  • Committed and Dedicated Educators: many hard working and dedicated educators (including teachers, counselors, principals, and deans) work tirelessly to ensure educational excellence and to improve students’ educational experiences.
  • Students and Families: smart, resilient, creative students and their caring, committed families fill our schools and communities. Hearing their voices and partnering with them can positively impact the educational experience for all.
  • Environment of Faith and Caring: A set of faith-based communities and a Pittsburgh spirit of caring exist that can be organized and focused to improve the environment outside of school and provide insight about how to support people inside of schools.

As we build the Center for Urban Education and help establish infrastructures to support others in designing and enacting work that makes a difference, we challenge readers to be doers and to look at urban communities, schools, and students for what they already possess and have the potential to have rather than focusing on what they do not. Moreover, we challenge others to do their work in urban education with a positive spirit through their hearts, minds, and hands.

H. Richard Milner IV is director of the School of Education Center for Urban Education. Erika Gold Kestenberg is associate director of community partnerships and practice in the School of Education Center for Urban Education. Alan Lesgold is dean of the School of Education.