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Pitt will pay tribute to 7 community leaders on Feb. 24

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus

Seven members of the Pitt community — a few with familiar names, others not so well-known — will be recognized for their volunteerism and commitment to equality and justice during the University’s annual K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month celebration on Feb. 26.

“Last year during Black History Month, we welcomed family and friends of award winners to campus to celebrate with our honorees, and it was a very memorable evening. We think this year’s event will be a very special one as well,” said Chance M. Wideman, director of equity and inclusion programs for Pitt’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Senior University leaders are scheduled to attend, and Chancellor Joan Gabel will congratulate the winners via video.

The theme for Black History Month 2024, as selected by a national committee of historians, is “African Americans and the Arts.” Wideman said each of this year’s honorees are being recognized not just for their commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, but also for distinguishing themselves as artists, writers, performers, educators and champions of the arts.

Six of the honorees were nominated by members of the Pitt community, with their names being selected from more than 50 entries, according to Wideman.

Also being honored is Larry Glasco, associate professor of history and a chronicler of Black history, race and ethnicity in American life. He has authored four books and appeared in multiple documentaries about the history of Pittsburgh and jazz, along with serving as a board member for the Senator John Heinz History Center and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Glasco recently completed biographies of K. Leroy Irvis and August Wilson, and is a passionate advocate for documenting and preserving the history of Black neighborhoods near the University’s campus in Oakland.

The public is invited to the award presentation at 6 p.m. in the Connolly Ballroom of Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, 15260. The event is free, and light refreshments will be served.

RVSP online

The University of Pittsburgh’s annual celebration of Black History Month is named for K. Leroy Irvis (LAW ’54), a legendary crusader for civil rights and former assistant district attorney who was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1960. During his 28-year career as a legislator, Irvis sponsored more than 875 bills supporting issues in education, civil rights, human services and more. In 1977, he was elected by his peers to serve as Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives — the first Black speaker of the body — and served in that role until his 1988 retirement.

The honorees, and the categories for which they are nominated, are:

Medina Jackson, “Social Justice Advocate”

Medina Jackson (SOC WK ’03G) is director of engagement for Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) in Pitt’s Office of Child Development. Her peers say that Jackson has consistently advanced the efforts of teaching artists by engaging them in work with children, in particular during P.R.I.D.E.’s Pop-Up Mini Art Festivals. She also brings Black artists to community programs to increase their visibility and expose them to art experiences that support the positive development of young people. Jackson plays a leading role in similar work with the Black Transformative Arts Network, which links local teaching artists with nonprofit organizations and provides resources to both artists and programs.

James T. Johnson Jr., “Creative Changemaker”

James T. Johnson Jr. — better known as Dr. J — has promoted and supported Black and African American music initiatives in Pittsburgh for more than 40 years. Classically trained as a violinist, Johnson was teaching at Grambling State University when Nathan Davis, founder of the University’s Jazz Studies Program, recruited him in 1977. In 1982, Johnson and his wife, Pamela, founded the African American Music Institute (AAMI) in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. Since then, AAMI has provided workshops, lessons and public performances for approximately 300 young people every year. Johnson has maintained his connection to Pitt as well, teaching a popular course in the Department of Music’s titled African American Music. Dr. J also mentors graduate students, many of whom have become workshop leaders and event participants at AAMI.

Ian Kehinde, “Campus Leader”

Ian Kehinde, a junior in the Swanson School of Engineering, exemplifies the best of the University, according to those who nominated him. He is the host of “Let’s Talk Social Innovation,” a weekly podcast that features unsung social innovators in our community. Kehinde, with support from the David C. Frederick Honors College and Center on Race and Social Problems, uses the show to shine a light on diverse changemakers. Although his guests differ in race, religion, ability and sexuality, love for their communities bonds them, and advocates say that “Ian is the glue that holds it all together.”

[This Pitt junior’s podcast is transforming communities through conversation]

Curtiss Porter, “Unsung Hero”

Curtiss Porter (A&S ’69, EDUC ’84G) was instrumental in organizing students at Pitt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including through the development of what later came to be known as the Black Action Society. Along with August Wilson and Rob Penny, Porter was part of the Black Horizon Theater and helped write one of its first productions, “Evolution to Revolution.” During a long and successful career that included leadership roles at the University of Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University, Porter advocated for arts education and the preservation of Black history. In recent years, he has helped to perpetuate Wilson’s legacy and contributed to a documentary about the playwright’s life and work.

Luana Reis, “Inspiring Leadership”

Luana Reis, who is pursuing a PhD in Hispanic languages and literatures in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, is dedicated to empowering Pitt and the Pittsburgh community by bringing together diverse groups of people through poetry. In 2017, she created AddVerse, a space where people of all ages, races, ethnicities and identities gather to share the spoken and written word. Reis has helped Pittsburghers and members of the Pitt community connect with the international creative community across languages and social barriers. Her own poetry, scholarship and translations have been published internationally and recognized locally as part of the Envisioning a Just Pittsburgh project. She is also a resident artist with the Pittsburgh Latinx Artist Residency.

Jamie Upshaw, “Aspiring Ally”

Jamie Upshaw is the executive director and founder of Autism Urban Connections Inc., which meets each month at Pitt’s Community Engagement Center in the Hill District. She first established a support group in 2015 after learning that resources for family members of people with autism were absent or severely lacking in minority and economically disadvantaged communities. In 2018, the support group became a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, and it is the only autism organization in Pennsylvania focused on supporting Black and African American families. Its mission is to provide education, support, advocacy and empowerment, with an emphasis on self-care, to families of those diagnosed with autism.


— Jason Togyer, photography by Tom Altany