Meet four Pittsburgh residents changing the city through media, art and activism
Pittsburgh natives and transplants alike are making an impact in the Steel City
The city of Pittsburgh is a place with as many change-makers as it has bridges. What the following four have in common is the desire to make an impact in their city through media and broadcasting, art and literature and social change. Composed of people who are both Pittsburgh natives and new transplants, this short list of up-and-coming rising stars should make you wonder if they’ll appear on one of our power lists one day for something sensational.
A welcome change
Even though Natalie Bencivenga is a respected advice columnist, journalist, media consultant and contributor to “Pittsburgh Today Live,” KDKA-TV’s morning show, a career in media wasn’t always in her plans. After completing her studies in philosophy and biology at the University of Pittsburgh in 2007, she was all set to attend the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. Finding that she wasn’t ready to give up her dream of doing something creative with her life, she deferred her acceptance and spent a year getting a hands-on crash course in all things media.
Even as that year stretched into years spent building her career as a writer, Bencivenga didn’t completely quit her academic pursuits: In her free time, she’d complete her master’s degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh in 2013. “That was a really interesting experience – working in so many of the communities of Pittsburgh in a different way than I’d ever experienced them – and really understanding that community in a different context,” Bencivenga recalled. “I feel like as a journalist, having a master’s in social work is actually a huge benefit because it grounds you. And I look at journalism as a form of social work.”
Her graduate work ultimately led to a six-year stint overseeing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s SEEN section, covering the city’s social life. Over the years, she’s also hosted BROADcast, a Golden Quill-winning podcast, contributed to publications like The Huffington Post, CosmoGirl, and SheKnows.com, and consulted for nonprofits such as the Women and Girls Foundation and The Steadman Philippon Research Institute. Currently, she spends her time continuing to write her advice column Ask Natalie, contributing to Earth Day Pittsburgh, Table Magazine, Pittsburgh City Paper, working as a media consultant and running her own production company called Benci Productions, LLC. “Pittsburgh is an interesting place because I feel like it’s more of a big town than a small city in the sense that I find as though it’s a place where you can make a big impact without having to be a big person,” Bencivenga said. “And I like to try to be a tiny, teeny, tiny little force for good, in my own way to help towards that goal for Pittsburgh.”
State of the dissemination
Jasiri X didn’t move to the Pittsburgh area until he was 14 years old after spending most of his childhood in Chicago, Ill. When he first arrived in Monroeville, a small borough just outside of Pittsburgh, he recalls being shocked and angered by the prevalence of racism in the area. But since physically fighting would have provoked his mother’s ire, immersing himself in activism became a sustainable way to challenge the injustice he was seeing. He’s been fighting – in a mom-approved way – ever since by participating in protests seeking justice for individuals like Michael Brown and Antwon Rose who have been killed in police shootings, releasing socially conscious music, campaigning for justice-oriented political candidates, and acting as a co-founder and current CEO of 1Hood. “We were young, we came from hip hop – we wanted to use the culture to begin to do some things in the community,” Jasiri X said.
Jasiri X helped start 1Hood, a collective of activists and artists devoted to addressing community violence, in 2006. In 2010, 1Hood Media began focusing on helping young people to analyze media and use art to raise awareness about social justice. In recent years, 1Hood Media has broadened its reach via online content such as a weekly online show titled, “This Week in White Supremacy.” Furthermore, the organization has remained committed to creating accessible educational programming like, “Ask A Black Doctor,” and the “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know” town halls, both of which were created during the pandemic. One of the organization’s newest projects is BlackPittsburgh.org, an online news website dedicated to telling stories of Black Pittsburghers of the past and present. “The work that we do every day at 1Hood is what keeps me here; you know, Pittsburgh touts itself as America’s most livable city” – even though, he stressed, it “clearly is not ‘most livable’ for Black people – so our call is to make Pittsburgh livable for everybody, not just a select few.”
The art of her matter
Vanessa German can’t remember a time in her life when she hasn’t seen herself first and foremost as an artist. Entirely self-taught, she says she has always known that making art would be a central part of whatever path she chose to take in life – including spending 20 years in Pittsburgh. “What kept me” in the city, she explained, was the ability to buy the ideal home for her needs: “I could live and work in the same space, and I could grow,” German said.
German's work, which includes sculptures and photography, frequently centers around subjects such as gun violence, poverty, injustice, and often incorporates her poetry and personal experiences. Her body of work has not gone unnoticed: she’s been honored with the Jacob Lawrence Award, Ronald H. Brown Community Leadership award and the Duquesne Light Leadership Award, and has been featured at the Smithsonian. Additionally, German has performed her poetry at the inaugurations of former Mayor Bill Peduto and the recently-elected Mayor Ed Gainey this past January. Although she isn’t a Pittsburgh native, during her 20 years in the city, she has created multiple exhibitions, has had her work featured in numerous collections and has led Love Front Porch, a project that creates signs that encourage non-violence with phrases like: “Stop Shooting: We Love You” and “No Guns: Keep Summer Fun.” And before a fire destroyed the space, German hosted the ARTHouse, which offered a community studio space for children, neighbors and artists alike.
German currently spends most of her time traveling to host nomadic galleries around the country, but her artwork and contributions continue to be prominently featured around the city. “I figured out a way to make my life sustainable,” German said, – “not only my life, but my soul, which was part of the art house because it was like, I love art. I’m going to just share what I love.”
Young and restless
Damon Young is a born-and-raised Pittsburgher. He is also the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas, a popular blog that hosts columns about politics, satire, popular culture and the Black experience. Young was one of the blog’s most prominent voices for more than a decade until he announced his departure in March 2021. “If I had to rely on Pittsburgh, I would have left Pittsburgh,” Young, who has contributed to GQ, The New York Times, Slate, Essence and The Huffington Post, explained in a Pittsburgh City Paper 2019 interview. “Since I don’t have to rely on Pittsburgh, I get to stay in Pittsburgh.”
In between writing columns that were hailed for being as witty as they could be poignant, Young penned “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” a 2019 bestselling memoir that chronicled his life and critiques of racism in America through essays. In 2020, Young’s memoir was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and was longlisted for the PEN America Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award. “I’m not this MFA or this academic. I didn’t come through a New York Times or New Yorker pipeline or whatever,” Young said, according to a 2019 Inverse interview. “I started a blog … Now I’ve written” for national publications, he added, “but I wasn’t brought up and groomed that way. Since I haven’t been, it would be fraudulent for me to try to be less accessible just because … that’s just not me.“
Despite having left Very Smart Brothas, Young appears to have no intention of ceasing sharing his views with the world from his hometown. Since January, he’s joined The Washington Post Magazine as a columnist and announced a new socially conscious podcast examining class, gender and race titled, “Stuck with Damon Young.”
NEXT STORY: A Q&A with State Rep. Summer Lee