Community leadership is not a glamorous job.
Most of the time, these leaders and activists work as unseen hands guiding Pittsburgh toward a better future. For our third Who’s Next class, we honored the top up-and-comers in this field. They’re working to ensure that the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods stay affordable; to support refugees and immigrants; to empower everyone from high school students in underserved communities to incarcerated persons looking for work; and much more.
Who’s Next is our way to honor the best and brightest under-40 professionals in different fields. (You can nominate someone for Who’s Next: Tech here.) These honorees were selected by The Incline’s editorial staff from a field of dozens of nominees.
Later this month, we’ll celebrate this Who’s Next class at a party, sponsored by S&T Bank, held in their honor at Alloy 26 — and you’re invited! Food and beverage will be provided by Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, DR Distillery, Market St. Grocery and more. You can RSVP here to meet the community leaders and activists of tomorrow working to make Pittsburgh great today.
Your ticket includes complimentary food and beverages from local favorites and a chance to meet The Incline's Who's Next: Community Leaders and Activists. These young leaders are being recognized for the difference they're making in Pittsburgh.Food and beverages will be provided by Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, DR Distillery, Market St. Grocery and more. Special thanks to bank event sponsor S&T Bank.
Where: Alloy 26 at 100 South Commons; Suite 102 (Allegheny Center)
When: February 22, 2017 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How much: $20 for public | Free for Who's Next: Community Leaders and Activists honorees
Through multiple organizations and roles, Jenna Baron is helping young people, especially those who are immigrants and refugees. She’s the executive director of Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education and works with students and school staff and does community outreach, works on partnership and grant opportunities and fundraising. She co-founded the Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment Academy, a free summer program for ESL students in sixth to 12th grades. Baron also works for the United Way of Southwestern PA and works on two programs there — the Be There Campaign, which focuses on school attendance, and Be a Middle School Mentor. She was a a 2016 fellow for the New Leaders Council Pittsburgh and continues to work with the organization. In January, she won the Get Involved! Inc. Western Pa Rising Star Award. After college, Baron received a Fulbright Research Scholarship and went to Nairobi, Kenya. There, she documented the experiences of activists, teachers, students and volunteers in the disability rights movement. She’s a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Bloomfield.
Julius Boatwright wanted to make mental health resources more accessible. He founded Steel Smiling in December 2015 as an online resources, but a few months later, the organization transitioned into one that goes out into African-American communities to share mental and behavioral health services. As the founder, Boatwright works to create the plans and activities for Steel Smiling and leads the fundraising and partnerships with other organizations. Boatwright is also the executive director of the Will Allen Foundation, which works in the community in a variety of ways from working with high school students, to football programs and holiday giving. Boatwright is also a community-based therapist for Pressley Ridge, where he works with families who have children in child protective services or who are at-risk. He’s a mentor at Brashear High School through the “We Promise” program and volunteers with the Education Partnership. Boatwright said one of the most important things he learned last year was that life is “about relentlessly serving the needs of others.” He is a graduate of University of Pittsburgh and lives in Beechview.
Dedicated to helping immigrants, Betty Cruz launched Change Agency in August. The daughter of Cuban refugees, Cruz created the agency to help immigrants in Allegheny County integrate into the community, independent of local government. The agency’s flagship project is a community blueprint that builds on existing efforts to welcome and support immigrants. She was previously the Deputy Chief of Special Initiatives for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto from 2014 to 2016. In that role, she led development of Welcoming Pittsburgh, a plan to help the city’s immigrant community and Live Well, a health and wellness agenda for children. Cruz was recently selected as one 40 attendees to the Next City’s 2017 Vanguard conference in Montreal and was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 to serve on the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs. She’s a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh and lives in Highland Park with her husband Paul Perowicz and cats Lola and Harry.
As program director for property stabilization and land use at the Hilltop Alliance, Timothy J. Dolan does a variety of things from working on potential projects, managing vacant property portfolios and overseeing the program. The program works to connect residents to resources and people who can help them to avoid inspection citations and housing court fines. He also helped the Allentown Community Development Corporation and South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association navigate the necessary process to create the Knoxville Incline Greenway on the Allentown-South Side Slopes border. It was officially designated in the summer 2016. He previously worked as a collections assistant at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a data technician at the Community Technical Assistance Center. Dolan volunteers with the South Side Soup Contest. He’s a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and lives in the South Side Flats.
Johnnie Geathers uses his skills as a therapist to help men and women of all ages. Through the Community Empowerment Association, he leads group and individual therapy for kids, creating treatment goals for those ages 6 to 13. He also networks with area schools and provides mental health and academic resources for students. Last year, he started “Let the Healing Begin: Where Does Black Pain Go,” a monthly series for the African-American community on a variety of topics from grief and loss to healthy living. In addition to his work at CEA, he is an outpatient therapist for the Community Psychiatric Centers and works with families and individuals of all ages in their homes and at school. Geathers volunteers with his fraternity, Iota Phi Theta, Fraternity, Inc. and the Beautify our Burgh campaign. Geathers is a graduate of Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Monroeville.
Megan Good started MG Consulting and Training, LLC in August as a way to help organizations succeed by promoting equity in workplaces and communities. Her business provides help with strategic planning, needs assessments, trainings and more. Good is also a member of Mayor Bill Peduto’s LGBTQIA Advisory Council. She previously worked at Great Lakes Behavioral Research Institute in the Allegheny County Department and Human Services. In multiple roles there, she worked in data, helping train others and also to secure grant funds to address workplace issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. She was the LGBTQ Affairs Manager and worked to improve staff and provider knowledge about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. “This leadership is an excellent example of how Megan focuses on the broader community, not just those who look, think or act like her,” her nominator wrote. Good is a graduate of The College of William & Mary and Bucknell University and lives on the South Side.
Kristen Maser Michaels leads the Congress of Neighboring Communities or CONNECT at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The organization works with the city of Pittsburgh and the 39 municipalities that create the urban core of Allegheny County to find ways they can work together across political boundaries to develop solutions related to infrastructure, fighting the opioid epidemic and more, according to its website. Through CONNECT, Maser Michaels also helped develop a community paramedic program to identify and help patients who frequently call 911. She is also the co-founder of the Free Store Wilkinsburg and a committee member for JCC Big Night and Wilkinsburg Community Conversations. According to her nominator, Maser Michaels “does the nuts-and-bolts work to lay the groundwork for critical inter-government cooperation that often goes below the radar.” She’s a graduate of of Miami of Ohio and lives in Edgewood.
La'Tasha D. Mayes is the founder and executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a multi-state organization based in Pittsburgh. Since Mayes started New Voices in 2004, the organization, dedicated to the health of black women and girls, women of color and LGBTQ people of color, has advocated at the local, state and national levels for reproductive justice. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Governor's Advisory Commission on African American Affairs. Mayes recently finished the Rockwood Leadership Institute's Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice Fellowship. She is also the past National Board Chair of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Mayes is a graduate of University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Morningside.
Updated: 3:19 p.m.
As the director of PittServes at the University of Pittsburgh, Misti McKeehen oversees a department focused on student volunteerism, leading to more than 400,000 service hours per year with more than 300 community partners. She also helps with strategic planning for the Pitt Pantry, the student-run campus thrift store, the Student Office of Sustainability, Pitt Make A Difference Day, International Alternative Break Service and other programming. McKeehen also is the staff advisor to the National Society for Leadership & Success, Strong Women Strong Girls-Pitt, Alpha Phi Omega and Trash Talk. She is a member of the Clean Pittsburgh Commission, on the board of advisors for Collegiate YMCA and on the millennial steering committee of United Way of Allegheny County. McKeehen previously worked as site director for Public Allies Pittsburgh and at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. McKeehen is a graduate of University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Carlow University. She lives on the South Side.
Molly Nichols first started volunteering with Pittsburghers for Public Transit in 2012. Two years later, she joined the staff and became its director in May 2015. Nichols has led four community transit campaigns that led to bus service being restored. As director, Nichols works for equitable development, so there is affordable housing near transit service. She also has been involved in campaigns for housing, economic and social justice and volunteers with Homes for All Pittsburgh. Previously, she taught high school in Colorado before moving to Pittsburgh in 2006 and then started as a founding staff member for Public Allies Pittsburgh, an AmeriCorps nonprofit leadership development program. Nichols is a graduate of Columbia University and University of Pittsburgh. While attending college in New York, the subway train was one of her favorite places, she said. She now lives in Regent Square.
Ed Nusser’s work is based in one of Pittsburgh’s most rapidly growing neighborhoods, and his job centers on keeping it available to everyone. As the real estate and planning manager for the Lawrenceville Corporation, Nusser is overseeing the creation of Pittsburgh’s first Community Land Trust, where community groups buy land to keep the housing on it affordable. The Lawrenceville Corporation’s CLT will serve as the “hub” for a future network of trusts in Pittsburgh, Nusser told NextCity. He also serves as president of the Board of Directors for Common Ground: The Pittsburgh Regional Community Land Trust. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Nusser previously worked as the land use policy coordinator for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “Ed is a brilliant, hardworking guy who cares a lot about housing in his city,” wrote a person who nominated him. A native Pittsburgher, Nusser lives in Brighton Heights with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Junia.
Nila Payton walked off the job for the first time in 2016. It was April, and Payton was striking as part of the Fight for $15 movement. As a receptionist at UPMC Presbyterian, she makes $15 an hour, but she's still fighting with other healthcare workers to form a union as part of Service Employees International Union's Hospital Workers Rising campaign. "A natural leader, Nila channels her experiences at UPMC and in her community to organize her co-workers so that service workers throughout the city can have a voice and put Pittsburgh on a strong path to better jobs and quality care for all," wrote the person who nominated her. "Over the last two years, Nila has grown not only as a leader among UPMC workers but also into a voice advocating for Pittsburgh’s progress and continued revitalization." She's been invited to speak at several events including on a Fight for $15 panel for United Students Against Sweatshops and at an SEIU convention. She lives in East Liberty with her husband and two sons.
Whether working for the mayor’s office or the Bloomfield Development Corporation, Joshua Rolón’s work has focused on making sure the community is engaged. Since July 2016, he’s worked as the community coordinator for the Bloomfield Development Corporation. As part of that group’s efforts to improve the streetscapes in the neighborhood, Rolón engaged with 1,000 stakeholders; he also "spearheaded a community data gathering campaign for parcel-level housing information to better understand the housing conditions in Bloomfield," according to a person who nominated him. Rolón’s job is focused on conducting outreach to residents, both in person and online. Before that, he worked as the veterans engagement associate in the mayor’s office. There, he developed Homefront Pittsburgh, an initiative that connects constituents who served in the military to resources. As the civic engagement associate, he managed the Civic Leadership Academy, a free 10-week course for residents who want to learn more about city government. He's currently on the Transportation Committee for Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh. Born and raised in Orlando, Fla., Rolón is a graduate of Cornell University and currently lives in Bloomfield.
Jessica Ruffin is the first person to serve as director of Carlow University’s Social Justice Institutes, which “aims to facilitate systemic change by informing practice and educating for social justice.” Before that, she was chief operating officer of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership and director of Public Allies. “In each of these roles, Jessica brings awareness to the importance of inclusivity, equity, and accountability in community work,” wrote a person who nominated her. “I have been nothing short of inspired by her tireless dedication to educating, challenging, and mentoring the next generation of community leaders as well as her peers.” In addition to her professional work, Ruffin is a school-based mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 Program. She is on the board of the Hilltop Alliance and on the capital campaign committee for her church, St. Paul AME Church in Knoxville. A native of Pittsburgh who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham, Ruffin lives in Beltzhoover with her son, Xavier.
Tom Samilson has worked for Community Kitchen Pittsburgh since November 2014, first as the education and outreach manager and now as director of programs. The nonprofit provides job training to people with barriers to employment, including currently and formerly incarcerated persons and people transitioning out of homelessness. In his role, Samilson also developed Project Lunch Tray, which allows students in Allegheny County to design better school lunches. “Tom approaches his job with a humility and empathy that I rarely see in people twice his age. He cares so deeply for our clients and about what happens to them long after they graduate our program and are out in the world,” wrote the person who nominated him. Before coming to CKP, he worked at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. He's part of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and serves on the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council as co-chair of the Food and Health Equity working group. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Samilson lives in Upper Lawrenceville.
A commitment to children is the through line in Jamie Seabrook’s work. Since August, she’s been the community-based program director for Big Brother Big Sister of Greater Pittsburgh, where she promotes long-lasting mentoring relationships to benefit kids facing adversity. Before that, she ran her own consulting firm, was a program specialist for Battelle for Kids at Pittsburgh Public Schools and was a Pittsburgh Girls Study researcher for UPMC. “I have known Jamie since my time working for the City of Pittsburgh and her commitment to helping kids in need and their families has been just one of the things about her that makes me proud to call her a friend and a leader,” wrote a person who nominated her. Another said, “I have personally seen her work ethic and willingness to go above and beyond for families attempting to navigate complex systems.” She is a graduate of Duquesne and CMU, where she received the Otto A. Davis Award for showing a “commitment to racial and social justice.” Seabrook came from New York for college and married a lifelong Pittsburgher. They live in Lincoln Place.
Jessica Semler began with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania as the campus organizer and now serves as director of public affairs, where she communicates with the media, works with community partners and lobbies elected officials on behalf of her nonprofit. She’s been organizing since college on issues including sexual violence but reproductive rights is her biggest passion. “Jessica is heavily involved in progressive organizing in Pittsburgh. As a result, she strikes the perfect balance between authentic and knowledgeable as a spokeswoman,” a person who nominated her wrote. “After this election season, some people would be burned out, but Jessica's work is just beginning.” A graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Semler lives in Etna.
Tara Sherry-Torres moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh for graduate school in 2008. Six years later, in 2014, she founded Café Con Leche, a production and media company dedicated to promoting Puerto Rican food, art and culture in Pittsburgh. The company has partnered with Most Wanted Fine Art gallery to create a Latino Resident Artist program and recently launched a magazine, ¡Azúcar! “I wanted to showcase the complexities of the Latinx community in Pittsburgh at what were Café Con Leche’s first four events,” Sherry-Torres wrote in the inaugural issue. “The public’s response to those first events confirmed to me that I was not the only one in need of Latin-inspired spaces in Pittsburgh.” Before founding Café Con Leche, she was a community organizer with the Oakland Planning & Development Corporation. Sherry-Torres is a board member of the Pittsburgh Land Bank, a member of the Pittsburgh Equity Working Group and the winner of several honors including the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s Creator of the Year. A graduate of Brooklyn College of New York and the University of Pittsburgh, she resides in Bloomfield.
Victoria Snyder is the executive vice president of Ya Momz House, Inc., a multimedia facility that has worked with artists like Wiz Khalifa and is part of Northside Narratives, a project that empowers high school students to become entrepreneurs in their community. She’s also the director of programming for Hip-Hop on L.O.C.K., an education and mentoring program, and the founder and owner of consulting and management company Diversity Partners. Previously, she was director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services at Robert Morris University. Her community involvement experience is robust, from serving on the board of Cultivating Resilient Youth, on the accessibility advisory committee for Bricolage and on two advisory boards for YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh (Young Leaders and Gender and Race Committee). “Victoria is the true definition of a servant-leader,” a person who nominated her wrote. “She serves both youth and adults throughout the greater Pittsburgh area on a daily basis and her work ethic is unmatched.” A graduate of University of Mount Union, University of Akron and Duquesne, Snyder lives in Aliquippa.
At Amachi Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that serves children with incarcerated parents, Devon L. Taliaferro is responsible for planning events for participants and volunteers. As the program assistant, she also oversees Amachi’s social media accounts and represents the nonprofit at community events to build partnerships. She’s also a mentor with Amachi Pittsburgh and serves on the board of Get Involved!, Inc. “When I first met Devon Taliaferro a year ago, I knew instantly that she was going to leave an impact on the world in some fashion. Her passion for helping raise up her community and the people around her is leading her on a journey of world changing efforts,” one person who nominated her wrote, while another added, “Devon has truly devoted herself to using her love of event planning to help better the lives of the clients that we serve at Amachi Pittsburgh.” Taliaferro was a member of Public Allies Pittsburgh's 2015-2016 cohort and lives in Deutschtown.