John Wallace to ‘elevate and celebrate’ CRSP as new interim director


Hannah Wilson | For The Pitt News

John Wallace began as the interim director of the Center on Race and Social Problems in July.

By Alexandra Ross, For The Pitt News

The new interim director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems has a somewhat unconventional goal — he wants to find someone who will take away his job.

John Wallace stepped into the new role in July. Wallace became the CRSP’s senior fellow for research and community engagement in 2019 after working with the Center since 2004. Wallace said besides finding a permanent director, he’s also planning to honor the legacy of Larry Davis — the CRSP’s former director and founder — who passed away last year.

“If I can pull those two things off over the next year, I feel that I would have been successful,” Wallace said. “Identify an excellent, top-notch leader for the Center, and then elevate and celebrate the tremendous work of Larry Davis and the work of the Center over its 20 years of existence.”

When it comes to finding his replacement, Wallace said he’s looking for someone who is committed to conducting and using research in a way that positively impacts African American individuals, families and communities in Pittsburgh.

“The research tells us that Pittsburgh is one of the most challenging cities for African Americans and other people of color,” Wallace said. “We have a very important role — to leverage the experience, expertise and resources of the University as an anchor institution, as a leading research institution, to help and partner with our communities to develop solutions.”

According to Wallace, filling the permanent director position hasn’t been a quick or easy task. Wallace said the most qualified candidates across the country — many of whom are in senior leadership positions and are deeply engaged in their work — often haven’t considered relocating to a new city. 

Aliya Durham, faculty affiliate at the CRSP and longtime colleague of Wallace, said the CRSP is determined to find the best candidate for the job, regardless of how long it takes. 

“It’s not just looking for an administrator that is going to be focused on the nuts and bolts of running a center,” Durham said. “A lot of the conversation really was around finding someone that will take the great work that Dean Larry Davis invested in the Center, and that Dr. James Huguley continued to nurture in his role as interim, and really figure out what’s next.”

The CRSP named James Huguley interim director when Davis retired in fall 2019, and he served in the role for almost two years. Huguley stepped down earlier this year to focus on his research and faculty position in the School of Social Work.

Huguley said he feels confident that Wallace’s leadership and experience will make him a strong interim director.

“In the current political and social climate, the CRSP director is a local and national leader in steering and informing our conversations and practices toward racial justice,” Huguley said. “VP Wallace has been doing that for decades, and is well positioned to take CRSP to the next level.”

Besides serving as interim director, Wallace is also vice provost for faculty diversity and development, the David E. Epperson Endowed chair and a professor with appointments at the School of Social Work, the Katz Graduate School of Business and the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Huguley said he believes Wallace’s work as vice provost may help to expand the Center’s influence on campus.

“Given his work in the provost’s office, I imagine CRSP will be more closely tied to the rest of the University schools, centers, and scholars doing race research,” Huguley said. “Historically CRSP has been more externally focused, but I think Dr. Wallace will be able to leverage CRSP to impact and support the campus community as well.”

The CRSP focuses its work around the City, with projects such as the Just Discipline Project, Pitt-Assisted Communities and Schools and the SPIN Project.

According to his profile, Wallace did a multitude of research and outreach over the last 17 years, working with both the School of Social Work and the CRSP. He is the principal investigator on the Center’s Comm-Univer-City of Pittsburgh Project, which weaves together research, education and service to tackle social problems that impact economically disadvantaged families and communities.

Much of Wallace’s current work centers on expanding ESTEAM — entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics — education for young people, according to his profile. In doing so, Wallace said he hopes to improve the overall wellbeing of these young people and their communities.

“Education is really the foundation for health, mental health, psychological well-being, relationship quality and any other number of important life outcomes,” Wallace said. “So the sooner we can positively impact young people’s education on a considerable level, it improves other outcomes as well.”

Many professional journals, such as the Journal of Health Psychology, the Journal of Community Practice and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine have published Wallace’s research on social work, social psychology and community health. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh Foundation and more have funded his research. 

Research on Social Work Practice ranked Wallace No. 5 for scholarly productivity among African American faculty at the top 25 schools of social work in 2017. He won numerous awards, including the Martin Luther King Distinguished Individual Leadership Award from Coro Pittsburgh in 2017. Wallace also became a fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare in 2018.

Wallace’s extensive experiences and accolades in race-related social work are not lost on those who work with him at the CRSP. Durham said she hopes Wallace will bring greater exposure to the search for a new director.

“He also — as an academic — has been widely recognized for his work,” Durham said. “So I think he brings a level of visibility to the Center as well, that will aid in the national search to find the permanent full-time director for the Center.”

Durham said she and Wallace have a long history of social justice work together in Pittsburgh. They started working together in the early 2000s, and co-founded the Homewood Children’s Village in 2008, of which Wallace is the board’s president and Durham is the vice president.

Wallace said launching the Homewood Children’s Village was one of the proudest accomplishments of his career. Most of his work — prior to his current position — is focused on Homewood, where he was born and raised.

Wallace has also led the Bible Center Church in Homewood as its senior pastor for the past 17 years. He founded the Oasis Project, the church’s outreach program that aims to promote community and economic development in Homewood through education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Durham said the past two decades of social justice work that she has done with Wallace are proof that the Center is in good hands.

“He, for nearly 20 years, has continued to be an incredible mentor and friend and colleague of mine,” Durham said. “I’m just really excited that his vision and leadership and his stability for the Center is being leveraged while the school searches for a permanent director. I think that he will do an amazing job in this interim space for however long it is.”