Despite only being given 48 hours notice, leaders in Pittsburgh’s African-American community answered a call to meet with Michael Strautmanis, counselor for strategic engagement to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, on March 31. The group of local business owners, corporate representatives and nonprofit directors packed themselves into a room in the offices of River Development Corporation, a technical assistance company, as they awaited the counselor’s arrival.

MICHAEL STRAUTMANIS (Photo by Rebecca Nuttall)

Throughout his administration, President Barack Obama has kept Pittsburgh on his radar, choosing the city as the site for the international G20 conference, and naming Pittsburgh Steelers football team owner Dan Rooney as the nation’s ambassador to Ireland. With this most recent visit, Strautmanis reiterated the White House’s commitment to the region as he outlined the President’s “Winning the Future” agenda.

“I’m only in places that are priorities. We have short term work we have to do to create opportunities, but focusing on education, making sure we have positive images, and that we’re celebrating those people who are holding a job and really starting to have an impact on the culture is important,” Strautmanis said. “It’s really you all who are making an impact and having those high standards and holding us accountable.”

In the short time he had, Strautmanis, who also serves as senior advisor to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, ran through a list of White House programs addressing issues ranging from violence to minority businesses. At the end of the meeting he committed to hold a follow up conference call in the next three to five weeks.

“We will make sure there is an opportunity to have dialog,” Strautmanis said. “My belief is that no one anywhere is looking for a handout. They’re just looking for an opportunity.”

High on everyone’s list of priorities was the nation’s unemployment rate, and the undocumented rate of unemployment in the Black community. The business owners expressed a need for more opportunities and the nonprofits working in communities asked for more jobs for their constituents.

“We’re concerned about the African-American community in this district with our 56 percent unemployment rate,” said Fourth River President Cheryl McAbee.

Strautmanis told the group to utilize the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency as well as Community Development Financial Institution funds, which help promote access to capital and local economic growth in urban and rural low-income communities through monetary awards and the allocation of tax credits. Other federal programs included the Workforce Investment Act, which provides increased flexibility for state and local officials to establish broad-based labor market systems using federal job training funds for adults, dislocated workers and youth.

“The unemployment rate is concerning and we know there’s the real unemployment rate and the one that’s statistical. It’s easy to be cynical about the opportunities, but being cynical leaves you in your house,” Strautmanis said. “We just want everyone in the boat when the tide lifts. We’re aware of the statistics.”

Despite the overwhelming number of African-American business owners and others working in the corporate sector, many in attendance asked Strautmanis what was being done at the federal level to combat Black-on-Black violence.

“I lead the president’s work on fatherhood and healthy families. I also run the boys mentorship program at the White House,” Strautmanis said. “Next week the attorney general and the secretary of education are going to do a meeting on youth violence. We’re ready to expand (these efforts). We have to make an impact on this issue because we can’t just stand around and watch these children kill each other.”

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