Want a Better Pennsylvania? Listen to Black Pennsylvanians

African AmericanImage by Adeboro Odunlami
Op-Ed by State Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia)

Seeking a better Pennsylvania for all of the commonwealth’s residents is what public service is all about for me. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life seeking ‘what is better’ for my community in many different capacities. And after serving a term as the chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus (PLBC), here is what I know: listening to and investing in Black Pennsylvanians will pay major dividends- boosting both the commonwealth’s economy and social justice efforts.

In August, the PLBC took to the road – to the city of Erie – to attend a series of conversations, policy hearings and listening sessions with Black business owners, clergy, elected officials and community leaders. It was meaningful to both the legislators and Black residents of Erie.

A little history. In 2017, Erie was named the worst city in the country for Black Americans to live. 47% of the Black population lived in poverty, and there were other health and socioeconomic disparities. There was outcry from Erie’s Black community. For some, the report only confirmed what they already knew.

Fast forward to September 2021, Erie County declared racism a public health crisis and established the Erie County Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission. Now known as Diverse Erie, the commission has been working to advance homeownership, entrepreneurship, and more among Erie’s Black residents. They are recruiting Black educators and investing in Black businesses. Erie’s NAACP chapter, its Black clergy and the Erie Black Democratic Caucus are also working to improve the quality of life for Black residents. In November 2021, Erie moved from number 1 to number 15 on the list of the 20 worst cities for Black people. Progress? Yes. But let’s get Erie off the list altogether.

To do that, we need to listen to Black residents. When we do, they will tell what their families, small businesses and communities need to succeed. That visit to Erie is much like the conversations the PLBC has had with Black-led advocacy groups, business owners, clergy, and residents from across the Commonwealth. For years, we’ve met them in their neighborhoods, in Harrisburg and virtually. We’ve held roundtables and listening sessions. We’ve listened to their concerns. But we need others to listen too.

What is even more critical is the need for our colleagues in Harrisburg to listen to Black and other marginalized Pennsylvanians. Then after listening, we need them to do something with the information they’ve heard and include Black residents in the solutions. While the PLBC is already doing that, we need to bring everyone along in order to make true change.

Erie County took one step toward addressing the racial disparities and empowered its Black residents. There’s more heavy lifting to do in Erie and across the Commonwealth. In 2019, Pittsburgh was named the worst city for Black women to live. Philadelphia, a majority-minority city, remains the poorest big city in the country. During the pandemic, Pennsylvania had the highest state Black unemployment rate.

Erie’s early signs of success demonstrate that we can have a more equitable and prosperous Pennsylvania for all of its residents, especially its Black residents- if only we just listened to them.

State Rep. Donna Bullock represents the 195th Legislative District in Philadelphia. She currently serves as the chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in the state House.

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