Interview by Thomas Agnew
Photography by Sarah Bader
Our 8th “On A Mission” feature is entrepreneur, business owner, and now Mayor of Wilkinsburg, PA, Marita Garrett. It’s important to have individuals who are willing to utilize their time to give attention and fulfill the needs of others while being able to achieve ambitions of their own. Being a servant of the people and a leader that gets results is a characteristic Marita Garrett exhibits that many are appreciative of. Marita spoke with us about her early outreach work, utilizing her consultant skill set to build her businesses, and answering the call that put her on path to become Mayor.
You’re someone who is very thoughtful and full of energy when it comes to helping communities. Can you think of anything early in your life that sparked these types of progressive actions?
So early in my life, back in Ohio, my mom would always take me inside the polls to vote. I remember there was a candidate that she wanted to vote for at the time. He was Republican, Bill Clinton was in office and Republicans were giving Clinton a hard time with passing laws and policies. So she got to this race and wanted to go with him but again mentioned how they were giving the Administration problems. So, I just pressed the pen on the candidate she wanted to vote for. She said “What? What did you do?!” I said “well you said vote for the right candidate, it doesn’t matter which side he’s on.” So that’s how I govern. I don’t look at things in a party light. I don’t look at things as who did this and who did that. I really look at whats right and whats wrong, what is actually fact based, and that’s what guides what I consider progressive. Progressive is more so about change and it having a positive impact in the community.
What was the first move in being able to strengthen your outreach leadership?
I would have to say it was my first real job out of college. I worked at the Alzheimer Disease Research Center at PITT and they started a new outreach initiative where we would go out to the senior black community in Allegheny County. Realizing how much of a disconnect and communication wasn’t getting out to seniors about what’s normal aging, what’s Alzheimer disease, and there were a lot of myths out there. You know something people are scared of but weren’t willing to understand the information to address that. I realized the need and importance to get out to the community. Meeting community members where they’re at. Not making everyone come to you. You have to go to them. That’s what guided the transition into me for me getting into counsel. I pretty much say local government politics is like outreach on steroids. Instead of one issue, you’re trying to get out information about all these different issues. People need to understand about school, taxes, community development projects, meetings, etc etc. That’s what strengthened my outreach experience.
What groups did you align yourself with, did you start to realize that you wanted to create, and then manifest with your own management/administration experience?
Realizing your worth. Anytime you work for someone else you’re always going to be limited to their pay scale or what they’re able to pay you. You’re essentially working on someone else’s dream. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a 9 to 5. Some people are best suited for corporate jobs, everyone has a role to play. I realized other universities and non profit community organizations saw the successes we had with recruitment and retention at PITT while I was outreach coordinator. Then they were reaching out to me to consult with them. When you consult you set your own rate so when you see what you determine your worth to be and you see what this other entity what your worth to be, it kind of forces you to be like we need to re-evaluate and no one is going to go as hard for me than myself. That’s what led to starting ADMINTRINSIC was just about first of all getting paid what I’m owed, what I’m worth, and understanding that I had that entrepreneur mindset. I like to work with others, but being told what to do is different.
How early did you start to think about solidifying a spot in Pittsburgh’s government system?
It didn’t start until I actually ran for council in 2013. The school district was on a financial watch list, we also had the highest school taxes in Allegheny, and we were the second highest in the state, and there were a lot of things that weren’t adding up. A neighborhood organization reached out to community members saying “hey, we need everyone on deck, it’s a pivotal election year, and whether you run or not or help someone else on their campaign we absolutely need your hands on there.” So I responded to the call at the very least I could help someone’s campaign and then all eyes were on me because no one else was running against the person in my ward. An actual career in politics came second year on council. It was never this long vision plan until second year and then I realized not only realized I found my calling and I was in the zone. So, you add that with the lack of representation of anything black or any minority in this region. First of all there’s never been a black congresswoman in this area, there hasn’t been a black state representative in this area, Wilkinsburg has never had a black female mayor, Pittsburgh hasn’t even had a black mayor. Like everyone says “if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”
Why Wilkinsburg and what developments were happening or the lack thereof that you felt you needed to step up and be the voice and a force to get the needs taken cared of?
Wilkinsburg was struggling. It all comes back to 2013. The students didn’t even have textbooks but school administration staff members were going to resorts. Bogus consultants were being paid half a million dollars. Money we don’t have and money that we did have should have been going into the schools. They had received multiple funding schools to renovate the schools but nothing had been renovated. The school district at a minimum was very corrupt and fiscally irresponsible. On the borough side of things it was just stagnant. Couldn’t tell if people were coming or going. I went to a couple of council meetings and they didn’t know what was going on. Wilkinsburg needed a lot. It needed some love and attention. It needed representatives that cared about it so I just stepped up. I listened to the community. Really the community really told me what needed to be done. The community said we don’t have any programming to learn how to purchase property, information for council meetings, we don’t talk about issues going on. So, any initiative that I’ve done or try to be apart of was because community members and residents told me it was an issue. Wilkinsburg community conversations, the Free Store Wilkinsburg, starting a Facebook page because we didn’t have a presence. All of these things come from what the community told me.
As Pittsburgh as a whole with the work you’re doing, what do you hope to accomplish and bring more wide awareness of to the city to pay attention to?
What I hope to accomplish, which I’m seeing a lot this year, is people NOT waiting their turn. Whether its running for office, step up to leadership in an organization, or owning their own business. This whole thing of waiting for someone to pass the torch to you or knights you with the wand has been a big thing here. There’s people literally dying in their positions and I want people to know don’t wait your turn. If you are confident in yourself and you see needs that should be fulfilled step up and do it. Be confident in that. I’ll specifically speak on Wilkinsburg, we are, actually compared to the make up of this county, are pretty diverse. Not just in terms of black and white, we have a high LGBTQ population, we have older and younger people mingled together, we’re all intermingled with one another. I truly believe our diversity is our biggest asset. Wilkinsburg can be a model for initiatives that need to occur in this region. As far as residents being social change agents, as far as welcoming true inclusive community development. Borough council holds people to task. If new developers want to come in or someone is purchasing property, we tell them you need to come to council, you need to have a public hearing and talk to these people. We canvass, we do direct mailing, you can be at a meeting every day because they’re mostly open to the community with the exception of personnel committee. If anything, I think people could look at the model we use with the form of transparency that we have with our residents and stop always trying to import new people to the community. You can welcome new people because that’s how communities grow, but make sure you understand the treasure that your long-term and current residents hold within that place.
For more information on Marita Garrett visit her website at https://www.maritagarrett.com/