Global nonprofit builds bridges over changing tides

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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Pitt grads Laura Amster and Nathan Darity park their car across the street from the gray, squat Global Switchboard building in Lawrenceville — a place they’ve come to call home.

They spent the ride down 34th Street dancing to Justin Bieber in their seats, maintaining an energetic vibe while navigating recent, significant changes to the nonprofit they’ve helped run.

Global Solutions Pittsburgh, a 501(c) dedicated to providing an international education regionally through community discussions and classes, was originally called the Pittsburgh chapter of Citizens for Global Solutions in 1947. Since then, Pitt alums like Amster and Darity have headed the organization, battling the hardships of maintaining an international nonprofit in a city that’s only recently started adopting its own global focus.

At the end of 2015, former Executive Director Daniel Giovannelli announced that he was leaving and Amster would take his place in the interim.  In early January, Giovanelli said in a press release that the center would undergo a “strategic transition.” GSP will now operate under a partner organization, The Global Switchboard, and Amster will officially hand the director position over to Darity.

“[The strategic transition] envisions a future in which Global Solutions Pittsburgh has a noteworthy voice in global issues and is at the forefront of setting an agenda of global engagement in western Pennsylvania,” Giovannelli said in a press release. “It will be a big change, and change can be difficult, but change is necessary.”

Darity, who received a dual master’s degree in public health and international development from Pitt in 2008, was the project manager of The Global Switchboard project when another nonprofit, called Amizade, housed it.

The transition that brought Darity into his new role is not merely a name change — it indicates a subtle but significant shift in the organization’s mission.

Darity anticipates that this mission — facilitating diversity in Pittsburgh — will bring its own set of difficulties.

“It’s easy to be well-intentioned,” Darity said, “but it’s quite difficult to tell the establishment, or the rank and file of a place, that it needs to change in order to be a city that continues to evolve and develop and grow.”

Darity’s ideas for the future of The Global Switchboard include starting a study abroad program and a network of family dinners with immigrant families or families from diverse cultural backgrounds. Darity said the dinners would help residents embrace change and build friendships.

“The message of being welcoming isn’t very sweet to some people. It actually means their sense of their place has changed, their notion of their city’s identity is changing,” Darity said.

Pittsburgh’s identity has changed significantly over the past 10 years. Mayor Bill Peduto’s Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative, a citywide attempt to bring in more immigration and promote acceptance, includes efforts like expanding housing and offering educational programs to make the city more supportive of immigrants.

Darity said the key to the success of plans such as Welcoming Pittsburgh lies in building relationships between people.

“In the dark place of the unknown, fears can really fester. And they’re not best [dissuaded] by telling someone to stop being afraid,” Darity said. “Fears are more effectively flipped by creating environments that are safe to try things that are new.”

Darity and Amster said The Global Switchboard will continue to host community discussions, which often feature Pitt professors, and plans to hold the first 2016 discussion in February.

Other events GSP previously hosted, like the Global Switchboard Service Academy, a two-day program that taught high school and college-aged students how to design community service programs, might not make it on the agenda.

The Global Switchboard’s new mission focuses on building bridges between the global community and the local community of Pittsburgh.

“Global engagement is one of those words that everyone throws around and doesn’t actually know what it means, but we are trying to at least start the conversation to define [not only] what that means [but also] what we want that to mean,” Amster said.

Amster started at Global Solutions as an intern in 2012. GSP’s efforts inspired her to stay in the humanitarian sector. 

Brianna Duhaime, a second-year student in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a second-semester intern at GSP, said the organization is vital in a thriving city.

“[GSP] does a lot of important things for education and human rights,” Duhaime said. “You need nonprofits like that in a city as big as Pittsburgh.”

Despite all the transitions and changes, what hasn’t changed is the daily grind —Amster and Darity still uphold some of the same routines on an everyday basis.

They pass by the contemporary gray couches in the lobby. They drink Nicaraguan fair trade coffee and discuss whether or not to buy another space heater to keep the senior recreation room warm.

They’re ready to move with the changes in Pittsburgh — and abroad — as they happen.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity to not say, ‘What do we want our next 200 years to look like?’” Darity said. “We’re selecting ‘bridges’ as a theme, bridges to the past. We [also] need bridges to the future.”

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