Looking at memorabilia assembled in his conference room at the Community Empowerment Association (CEA) on Kelly St. in Homewood—photos and news articles of him with Jesse Jackson, brokering a gang ceasefire with Khalid Raheem and Richard Garland, protesting the lack of Black workers on the state Veterans Hospital project, or even a trip to Texas to help with hurricane relief—founder Rashad Byrdsong is momentarily taken aback.
“When I look at this stuff, it amazes me, that a 40-something-year-old Nam vet and ex-felon, starting with nothing, could build this,” he told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “But history will tell the true impact CEA has had on Pittsburgh.”
Byrdsong created the Community Empowerment Association in 1993, initially as a vehicle to keep Homewood youth off the streets and out of the cycle of violence. Its first funded initiative was an “exit strategy” program working to intervene with gang members recovering from gunshot wounds in UPMC trauma units, in hopes of getting them to give up the street life.
“That was funded by Jewish Charities,” Byrdsong recalled. “Then the (Allegheny County) Department of Human Services gave us funding for an afterschool program. And after Valerie McDonald (Roberts), who was on city council at the time, gave us $250,000 to clear vacant lots in Homewood, East Hills and Garfield—that led to us getting a contract from the (Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh) to clear the lots where the Steelers’ practice facility is now on the South Side.”
That, Byrdsong said, allowed him to form Ma’at Construction, a for-profit spinoff that could train youth in basic tradecraft—painting, drywall, rough framing, etc. that eventually led some to high-paying union jobs. It also allowed Byrdsong to form relationships with major contractors like Mascaro, Massaro, Turner, P.J. Dick and Mistick.
“When Baker was doing the Lexington Industrial Park, their painters quit. I put one union guy and six kids from Youthbuild on that job,” he said. “That led to us getting painting and sealing contracts at the old county jail when they turned it into family court.”
But Byrdsong said his organization’s growth to include myriad youth, adult and family services, and his holistic approach to education, mentoring, activism, and job readiness training to help the entire community become self-reliant would not have been possible without two “awakenings” that he experienced.
The first, he said, occurred in 1968, when he was drinking beer in a Vietnamese hut with some fellow Black soldiers from his 25th infantry squad.
“So, we’re drinking and Papa-san, there, he shows me these newspapers, and they were all about the King assassination—I’d heard nothing about it,” he said.
“And then he looked at me and said, ‘Same, same.’ And from that point on I quit fighting, I quit participating in the war against these people—because he was right, it was the same. I was discharged in 1969 in Washington state, and I joined the Black Panther Party.”
That experience with the Panthers on the west coast—helping to create and operate the first free breakfast program for needy Black kids in the country (later picked up and funded by the state of Washington), a sickle cell testing program, and a prison visitation service that drove poor families to penitentiaries to visit jailed fathers, brothers, mothers and sons—proved invaluable for Byrdsong later on.
“That’s where I got my organizational skills,” he said. “Then around 1974, I went down to Los Angeles and started working on youth gang intervention in Watts and Compton.”
But by then, the Panthers had lost several leaders—some shot by police, others incarcerated—and had begun to split into factions, others more interested in full-on revolution than in peaceful social justice campaigns.
Then in 1984, Byrdsong had his second awakening—in a California state penitentiary.
“I had taken part in ‘liberating some currency’ from an oppressive bank,” he said. “That’s what we called it, the state calling it something else, and I was in there until 1992. But that’s when I became a Muslim and dedicated my life to service.”
Upon his release he returned to Pittsburgh and began working with groups like Black Action Pittsburgh and the Urban Peace Council, doing whatever he could to improve situations and opportunities for Pittsburgh’s African Americans. At the time, both AIDS and crack cocaine were taking a toll on the community.
“I was driving around in a truck doing AIDS intervention, handing out condoms, talking about safe sex,” he said. “But that gave me the intro to start doing gang intervention. I knew the kids and the gangs—the Crips, Bloods, and the LAW gang.”
In 1994, Byrdsong, Garland and Raheem organized a gang summit. At the time the city was experiencing its highest homicide level ever. Organized under the banner of Raheem’s National Council on Urban Peace and Justice, the group had the support of the foundation community, and then-U.S. Attorney Fred Thieman, they brokered a gang truce that garnered national attention form news media and praise from leaders like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.
By this time, Byrdsong had already established CEA in a small building on Fleury Way in Homewood. And while he had established several youth programs addressing education, social and personal responsibility, anti-violence, he wanted to get people’s attention.
“That’s when we created the Brother-to-Brother Day of Black Male Solidarity,” he said. “We had marches with 400, 500 people. One year we had over 1,000.”
He said it is also gratifying to see government agencies, funders and healthcare professionals beginning to accept the idea that Byrdsong and Dr. Cyril Wecht proposed years ago that gun violence, its causes, and particularly its aftermath, should be addressed as a public health issue akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not just for families involved but for the whole community.
But the biggest milestone in CEA’s 25 years, he said, was the move to its current location in the former Holy Rosary Catholic School on Kelly St. after the diocese closed it in 2010. Byrdsong finalized the purchase and opened the new 35,000 square-foot facility in June 2014.
“If it wasn’t for Father David Taylor (Priest for St, Charles Lwanga Parish, which included the school) we wouldn’t be here,” said Byrdsong. “He knew our work and what we were trying to do and helped sell the idea to the diocese. We can do all our programming here. We have classrooms, meeting rooms, a gym, a cafeteria. We can hold political meetings, community meetings, even graduations.”
It also gives him space for his annual Kwanzaa celebrations, which he started in his living room, and his Black Family Reunion and Cultural Arts Weekend, the 15th annual version of which begins Saturday, Aug. 11 with “an unfiltered conversation” on the State of Black Life and multiple workshops at 11 a.m.; a spoken word, hip-hop and poetry forum at 7 p.m., and continues Sunday, Aug. 12 with a day of music at the Schenley Park oval from 1 to 7 p.m. and features Zapp, Tom Browne, The Bill Henry Band and Flo Wilson & the Old School Band.
Though he admits at 69, he has to start thinking about succession planning, overall, Byrdsong is pleased with what the organization has accomplished in 25 years. Still, it’s never enough.
“We have succeeded in everything we’ve tried. It’s just trying to do it bigger because there are so many kids out there to reach,” he said. “And I put that success down to my faith: ‘By the token of time, through the ages, verily man is at a loss, except those who stand on faith, practice righteous deeds and share mutual consultation.’”
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