Leon Ford makes ‘A Seat at the Table’ for community


Maggie Young | For The Pitt News

Leon Ford (left) speaks with East Liberty community members at his campaign’s “A Seat at the Table” event Wednesday evening. Ford plans to run for the Pittsburgh city council’s ninth district seat on platform centered around community engagement.

By Maggie Young, For The Pitt News

Rather than speaking to a crowd from a pulpit, Leon Ford prefers to engage with his community by sitting among them to hear what they have to say.

Ford sat in a circle of chairs with his French Bulldog, Minnie, on his lap Tuesday night. More than 30 people gathered at the Kingsley Association in East Liberty for the first stop of Ford’s campaign listening tour, “A Seat at the Table.” The conversation focused on gentrification and public safety, but Ford didn’t do most of the talking.

“A lot of people think a leader is all about having a voice,” Ford said. “I’m that voice. I will stand up and speak for the people, but they forget that great leaders are better listeners. We have to use our voices and speak to people who are going to listen.”

Ford’s long road to politics began in 2012, when he was shot five times in an altercation with Pittsburgh police detective David Derbish. The 19-year-old Ford was left paralyzed and won $5.5 million in a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh this year.

Now that Ford is running for city council in Pittsburgh’s ninth district, he wants to engage with his community in a way that others have not done before, he said. According to Ford, he chose to run because he’s tired of the distance between elected officials and the people they serve.

He’s made eliminating that distance an objective central to his platform. At the Kingsley Association, Ford mostly stayed silent while community members engaged in a discussion, bouncing between each other’s ideas and personal experiences.

“A lot of leaders talk at people and they talk for people instead of talking with people,” Mel Packer, a Point Breeze resident, said. “Leon’s indicating he wants to talk with people and to find out what the community concerns are instead of deciding what the community concerns should be.”

Participants in the discussion, including Zinna Scott of Homewood, spoke about how expensive rentals and the lack of affordable housing have affected their communities.

“Everything going on here is important,” Scott said. “Affordable housing, rebuilding the communities, any houses shouldn’t have to be torn down. We need to get more homeownership in the community. The more homeownership you have, the more reliable the people are in living there and keeping that piece of property.”

“We’re constantly seeing big, wealthy developers getting subsidies to build 300 units to tell us that 20 of them are going to be affordable,” Packer said during the discussion. “The truth is that nobody should be paying more than 30 percent of their income [for housing].”

The discussion shifted to public safety, where it was mostly led by Pepsi Farrow of Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar. As a Little League baseball coach, Farrow is concerned for the safety of children in an area like Homewood, where he said there is a history of violent events.

“How can we create legislation to make sure that somewhere where there’s 20 kids or above, the radius is protected?” Farrow said. “That’s what public safety is. I want to know how we can protect that.”

Other participants expressed concern for the safety of their children in this district under its current leadership and said they hope Ford can give parents security.

Ford’s take on leadership and community engagement adds to his appeal for certain community members. Farrow is interested in Ford’s story and what he has to say, and said the platform he created for his community in this round table allowed people to listen to others and be heard themselves.

“It gets the candidate in front of the people. You rarely see people running for office listening to the people, they’re always talking to them. He gave a platform to listen and I thought that was dope,” Farrow said. “I think his story resonates beyond Pittsburgh. I think he’s the person we need in this area for right now.”

Scott said she was disappointed more people didn’t come to the event, considering how well he advertised it on Facebook. Regardless, she was happy Ford provided a platform for people to share ideas in a way that other politicians have not, allowing people to listen even if they aren’t speaking up themselves.

“I would like [politicians] to speak about what they’re going to be working towards and I want to see us, as a community, hold them accountable,” Scott said. “I want to see whoever’s elected represent what the people want, not what’s good for their pockets.”

Ford’s main goal with the listening tour is to create a conversation that involves the community, he said.

“It’s interesting to step into the political arena to learn about all these different things we weren’t exposed to,” Ford said. “For a long time, all these different things going on in the community were kind of like rumors and we weren’t engaged in the process. I understand the importance of having the entire community at the table.”