On the third floor you find the brains behind the operations: Youth Coordinator Mrs. Joyce Baskins. The hallways are filled with pictures of her shaking hands with such political activists as Bill and Hillary Clinton and the prodigal professor of African-American studies, Cornell West. That's just the beginning.
At sixty-two years of age, Joyce Baskins comes from a prophetic family of social activists on the Northside of Pittsburgh and traces her family through ten generations of community activists in the Pittsburgh area.
"Helping kids has always been a need for me, much like food and water," she explains. "In a nation filled with greed and ignorance, I just might as well spend my time with the future generations and teach them the rights-and-wrongs of the world in order to make a positive change."
She has always wanted to be a vehicle for teenagers to have a voice and expression, primarily through the arts and writing. "Teenagers go through such transitions in their life, not only physically, but mentally, and they need a support which is rarely given to them in the inner-city."
Joyce has worked with kids all her life, but there wasn't a platform for them to show any meaning or impact on their surroundings. So she searched for it. That was the beginning of the Community Literacy Center (CLC) at the Community House.
The CLC is a grassroots initiative started over ten years ago in the Community House by Joyce and a group of doctoral professors at Carnegie Mellon University. It was funded in hope that such an atmosphere of learning and transaction, would create a small step towards social change.
"I needed the CLC to happen for me in order for me. I was seeing too many of the youth in my neighborhood destroy their lives. I remember speaking at Oliver High School at a talk on how to improve the neighborhoods. The general consensus was that there were not enough things for kids to do besides cause trouble. It was really heart-felt seeing that I've seen kids sell drugs, end up in gangs, go to jail, and even get killed. I wanted to provide a positive future impact for their lives and for the community at large."
With the combination of the community and university support, Joyce was able to create a larger arena for the children to be heard.
"At the CLC, kids learn how to communicate their feelings about their family, personal life, community, and concerns with the civil world around them. They learn about themselves, as well as their potential and influence in their environment.
For over the past ten years under Joyce's guidance, the CLC has helped teenagers from Pittsburgh's inner-city schools and their mentors build new skills in problem solving, collaboration, and strategic thinking.
It is an eight-week program where fifteen teenagers and fifteen mentors (students from CMU), get together and pick a central issue which is concerning them, and try to find solutions.
Joyce has used her position on the Pittsburgh Regional Assets Board, which makes critical funding decisions concerning cultural initiatives, to help her life-long goals out.
"It is a powerful group that makes major funding decisions and I make sure that the African-American community is represented in all aspects. By doing so, I know that money is available to help out inner-city teens. Through this position, I work with the mayor and other top-officials in Pittsburgh who come to the Community Conversation at the CLC to inform them about the needs of the inner-city children."
For Mrs. Baskins, the advantages of the CLC are shown on a more personal regard. "I remember at the very beginning of the program, there were two ten year old kids who stuck out: Terrell and Alexandra. Terrell was very boisterous and loved to talk. Alexander was a scrawny, knock-kneed white girl who was very shy and quiet.
"The two entered the program together but I never saw them communicate with one another. One day, Terrell was passing by Alexandra in the CLC and said in a polite manner, 'Hey listen. We go to the same school and are in the program together. You should talk to me.' After that, Alexandra started to open up and contributed to the CLC program with a greater enthusiasm. I liked the exchange I saw occurring that day," Joyce reminisces. "It really touched me to see how the CLC helped make those connections in changing one small girl's life."
"Three ideals I try to teach the kids on an everyday basis is the embodiments of love, justice, and mercy. All together, the three can whirl together in a circle so fast that it would blend into something beautiful. Much like how a whirlwind peaks up, the final outcome of the circle would rise in a beautiful denouement, helping them throughout their lives.
A couple of months ago, Joyce received a letter from a now grown Alexandra. As a junior in college, Alexandra owed all her thanks to Joyce and the CLC. "Without your help, I would have never gotten out of the community to show myself to the world. Thank you for the love and support," the letter read. "Tears still come to my eyes whenever I read this letter," Joyce sighs.