Podcast

Grant Oliphant smiling in conversation, seated behind a microphone. Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments and host of We Can Be,. Photo by Joshua Franzos

Give your life a healthy dose of inspiration by listening or subscribing to The Heinz Endowments’ new weekly podcast “We Can Be.” Hosted by Endowments’ President Grant Oliphant, the podcast brings listeners thoughtful and informed discussions on local, national and global challenges, and showcases the work of nonprofits and regional institutions. The 20-episode season features leaders as they share the often moving, sometimes funny and always inspiring accounts of how they came to believe that together we can be a healthier, smarter, and more creative and just community.

"We Can Be" is produced by the Endowments and Treehouse Media. Theme music is composed by John Dziuban, with incidental music by Josh Slifkin. 

How to listen:
Visit this webpage each Wednesday for a new episode.

Visit iTunes, Podbean, Google Play, Stitcher or other major podcast sites to download an episode, or subscribe so new episodes are automatically in your feed each week. Use search term: heinz we can be.

Season 1, Episode 20
Season 1, Episode 20 Rev. Tim Smith, CEO of Center of Life, and Pastor, Keystone Church of Hazelwood
Lifting the arc: Hazelwood’s Tim Smith and the grassroots energy bringing a new future to this riverfront community

The story of Hazelwood is a familiar one: A vibrant riverfront community with an industrial past flourished until the late 1980s when the steel industry bottomed out, leaving longtime residents with a decimated economy. 

But this archetypal American story is different, too, and the Rev. Tim Smith is a big reason why. As CEO of Center of Life and pastor of Keystone Church of Hazelwood, Tim has a daily insight into the struggles, hope and beauty of those who are determined to keep the soul of their Pittsburgh neighborhood alive and thriving. 

Tim sees the intricate interweaving of these individual lives — both their hard times and soaring happiness — blend together to form the fabric of a community he clearly loves.  

He talks about the single thing that most impacts kids’ lives today, the realization about his own life’s direction that “went all through” him, and why art and music may be key to tipping the scale of his community’s youth toward the good. 

“If you want to stir up a community,” says Tim, “you have to be willing to be stirred by that community first.”

Be stirred by Tim’s steady passion and hear how the residents of his neighborhood are lifting the arc of their American story to new heights on this episode of “We Can Be.”



Season 1, Episode 19
Season 1, Episode 19 Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor, San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on speaking truth to power, green energy & her grandmother’s enduring impact.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is the star of a grainy 8mm home movie that shows her as a toddler in her mother’s arms. Off-screen, her father asks what she wants to be when she grows up. 

Her answer: “Alcalde de San Juan” – the mayor of San Juan.

She did indeed grow up to be the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and that certainty she exuded as a small child flourished into a strong, confident voice. 

Yulín showed the world that voice – and came to international prominence - as a tenacious advocate for her city when the government’s relief efforts during the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria proved devastatingly lacking.

Yulín is not afraid to use her voice to call out injustice when she sees it. “That is what power is about,” she says. “It is about ensuring that we all have access to the things that can help us transform our lives.”

She uses her position and power to speak out when the vulnerable are in need, and is making strides as a proponent of green energy policy that just might make Puerto Rico an example of equitable sustainability for the United States and the world. 

Hear her story and experience the refreshing honesty that is Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on this episode of “We Can Be.”



Season 1, Episode 18
Season 1, Episode 18 Jasiri X, Hip-Hop Activist and Co-founder, 1Hood Media
Truthful Art: Jasiri X on Trayvon Martin, Antwon Rose Jr. and the cross-section of unity that gives him hope.

Jasiri Oronde Smith’s mom knew what she was doing when she chose the first name for her baby boy, the Swahili word for “brave.”  

That baby grew up to be lauded hip-hop artist and activist Jasiri X

As a co-founder of 1Hood Media, a collective of socially conscious activists who utilize art to raise awareness about social justice matters, Jasiri X is fostering a new generation of artists and media professionals who use their voices to challenge inequity and unify humanity. 

He has raised his own voice by writing and performing songs like “The Whitest House,” “Strange Fruit” and “Song for Trayvon,” and is never afraid to speak truth to the most pressing social issues of our time. For his artistic activism, Jasiri X was awarded a prestigious 2016 Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the Chicago Theological Society, the same institution from which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received an honorary doctorate nearly 60 years prior. 

Jasiri X has been part of recent movements in support of union rights, humane treatment of immigrants and their families, and justice for Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American youth who was shot to death in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Most recently, Jasiri X has emerged as a passionate leader in an ongoing series of protests in response to the shooting of unarmed black teenager Antwon Rose Jr. by a white officer in East Pittsburgh, a suburb of the City of Pittsburgh. 

“Tragedy is bringing together communities from a cross-section of collective unity like we’ve never seen before,” says Jasiri X, “and that is a hopeful sign.”

Hear how Jasiri X is opening eyes and changing minds one rhyme at a time on this episode of “We Can Be.”



Season 1, Episode 17
Season 1, Episode 17 Lois Gibbs, Love Canal Environmental Activist, Center for Health, Environment & Justice
Love Canal’s accidental environmentalist Lois Gibbs describes the movement she sparked and what today’s activists need to know to save our world

In 1978, Lois Gibbs was a young mother with a child in a school that was found to be built over a toxic chemical waste dump site. Lois gained international attention and incredible momentum in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as she led the fight for environmental justice for children and families affected by the environmental disaster identified with the neighborhood where it occurred, Love Canal.

“I was waiting on someone to knock on my door and tell me what to do, to explain how I could help,” says Lois of the early days of revelations about the infamous Love Canal dump.

“But no one ever came to my door. So I did something on my own.”

Her persistent activism led to passage of the “Superfund” toxic waste site cleanup legislation.

Lois went on to found the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which has helped more than 10,000 grassroots organizations with technical, organizational or environmental education. She 

appears in the 2018 HBO movie Atomic Homeland and was named a “top environmentalist of the past century” by Newsweek magazine. She also has been honored with a Heinz Award and the Goldman Prize for her groundbreaking environmental work. 

On this 40th anniversary of the Love Canal tragedy, Lois shares how she dealt with being called “a hysterical mother with a sickly child.” She explains the moment she most clearly saw democracy at its best, and the key to success for today’s environmental activists. 

"Average people and the average community can change the world,” Lois says. 

Hear how she did it, and how you can, too, on this episode of “We Can Be.”



Season 1, Episode 16
Season 1, Episode 16 Mona Hanna-Attisha, Pediatrician and Flint lead water crisis public health advocate
What the Eyes Don’t See: Mona Hanna-Attisha and Flint’s lead water crisis

“Flint is a story about what happens when the very people that are charged with keeping us safe care more about money or power than they do about you or your children,” says Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. 

Known as “Dr. Mona,” the pediatrician came to national prominence for exposing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., caused by high lead levels, and standing up to government officials who tried to downplay the seriousness of the contamination. In the aftermath, she become a passionate voice for speaking out against what she – and many others – have accurately termed “environmental racism.” 

“We know what lead does to our kids,” she says, “and it affects our most vulnerable children, be it in Flint, or Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philly or Baltimore or Chicago.”

Rachel Maddow has called Dr. Mona a “badass” for her unwavering commitment to the people of Flint, and she is the recipient a Heinz Award for her work in public policy. The author of “What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” she was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”

In this episode of “We Can Be,” Dr. Mona shares her journey as the child of Iraqi scientists and dissidents who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, and describes the moment the magnitude of Flint’s water crisis fully hit her and why speaking up was “a choice-less choice.”

Hear the story behind one of the most passionate public health advocates of our time, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, on this episode of “We Can Be.”

Season 1, Episode 15
Season 1, Episode 15 Maxwell King, President & CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation
The 45 Words that Define Us: Max King on a First Amendment under fire, why we let rights slip away and how we can save them

One of the most fundamentally important sentences for the United States of America is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

A single sentence. A mere 45 words. 

Those 45 words are the entirety of the First Amendment found in our Bill of Rights, and they have been a powerful cornerstone of our identity and our democracy. 

“We Can Be” guest Max King has earned his spot as a nationally respected voice on First Amendment issues, which first drew his interest in the pre-social media days of the late ‘70s to late ‘90s when he was a reporter and eventually the editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Years later, his tenure as head of The Heinz Endowments and his current position as president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation gave Max keen insight as to how challenges to First Amendment rights play out in the real lives of individuals. 

“To me, freedom of the press, of speech and assembly, and all of the rest of the rights of the First Amendment are the lynch pin for all of our other freedoms,” says Max. “Today so many individuals question if they have a meaningful stake in our society that they are willing to trade to away freedoms in order to feel agency.” 

Daily scans of news headlines make clear that the First Amendment issues Max speaks of are undeniably threatened in today’s political climate. From misinformed complaints about NFL protests meant to draw attention police brutality against black Americans to relentless attacks on a free press by those occupying the White House, First Amendment concerns are ever-present in our lives. 

In this episode of “We Can Be,” Max talks with Heinz Endowments president and podcast host Grant Oliphant about what he believes to be the underlying cause of the deep divisions that fuel these threats, the reason the First Amendment matters in our everyday lives, and the role we each have in keeping this backbone of our democracy alive and well. 

Season 1, Episode 14
Season 1, Episode 14 Mustafa Santiago Ali, Senior Vice President, Hip Hop Caucus
Environmental justice superstar: Mustafa Santiago Ali and the Hip Hop Caucus are shifting minds and votes one community at a time.

It is no understatement to say that Mustafa Santiago Ali is a superstar in the environmental justice world. He earned his stripes serving in the Environmental Protection Agency for more than two decades, becoming a founding member of the Office of Environmental Justice and most recently, serving as senior advisor for Environmental Justice and, Community Revitalization.

As winter 2017 lingered on, Mustafa resigned from the EPA when deep cuts in budget and staff were being proposed. He cited concerns about the dedication of the agency’s new leadership to environmental justice in poor and minority communities. “The shielding of vulnerable communities and minority neighborhoods from the effects of pollution is a crucial function of the EPA,” Mustafa wrote in his resignation letter.  

Mustafa’s exuberance for environmental justice has not ceased, however; it is simply redirected in a powerful new way. He’s now a senior vice president with the Hip Hop Caucus, a national, nonprofit and non-partisan organization that connects the hip-hop community to the civic process. He leads the organization’s Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization programs with unrelenting positivity, style and focused energy. 

In this episode of “We Can Be,” Mustafa speaks with particular passion about the Hip Hop Caucus’ “Respect My Vote” campaign and explains why it’s critical that environmental issues be approached holistically. 

“Environmental issues are also transportation issues - and housing issues, health issues and workforce issues,” he says.

While at the EPA, Mustafa worked with more than 500 domestic and international communities in his efforts to improve people’s lives by addressing environmental, health, and economic justice issues. Today, using a digital platform, he’s reaching countless more through the Hip Hop Caucus. 

Two decades of indefatigable environmental justice work? 

No problem. Mustafa is just getting started. 

Don’t miss Mustafa Santiago Ali on a spirited episode of “We Can Be.”



Season 1, Episode 13
Season 1, Episode 13 Angela Blanchard, President Emerita at BakerRipley and Taubman Fellow and Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Brown University
Born for Storms: Angela Blanchard was a rock during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, and now she’s out to change the world for good

The late-summer evening of Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, is forever etched in Angela Blanchard’s mind. National Weather Service maps showed increasingly ominous swirls of blue, green, yellow and red hovering over the Gulf of Mexico as the force of Hurricane Harvey amped to a top speed of 132 miles an hour. 

The Category 4 storm wreaked havoc on Louisiana, Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize, saving its most brutal impact for Houston, Texas. The number who died reached 107, and the storm caused an astounding $125 billion in damage, affecting13 million people in Texas and the other southern Gulf States. At one point during the aftermath, one third of Houston was underwater.

As response efforts for the hurricane reached a crisis point, Angela was asked to step in – and did so to universal acclaim. In under 24 hours, she arranged shelter for 10,000, including in the plan a cohort of interpreters in 24 languages to ensure that all would be welcomed and assisted. 

“I always have to break the news to people that this ain’t heaven. This is earth,” she says of the inevitable and inescapable rough times that life brings. “And when Harvey happened, we really, really needed each other.”

Thankfully, connecting those in need with those who can help is Angela’s thing.  

Angela has been a longtime storm-force gale of positivity in Houston, spending more than two decades leading BakerRipley, which provides $250 million annually toward services that make life better for residents of the Texas Gulf Coast. The 108-year old nonprofit, formerly known as Neighborhood Centers, serves half a million individuals annually in 70 sites across Houston and beyond. Angela served as Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Brown University’s Swearer Center in spring 2018, and was honored as the recipient of the 22nd Heinz Award in the Human Condition category in 2017. 

Angela’s dedication comes from a deep well of personal history, and she remembers those who tried to shame her family for being poor when she was a kid.  The experience gave her an intense belief that there is always more to the story, and all deserve respect and a chance to achieve the life they imagine. 

Named one of Fast Company magazine’s 1,000 most creative people in business, Angela is compassionate, smart, funny — and has one of the sharpest twitter feeds around. Hear her story on this engaging, moving episode of “We Can Be.”

Season 1, Episode 12
Season 1, Episode 12 Henry Timms, Executive Director, 92nd Street Y and Co-author, "New Power"
New Power: Author Henry Timms explains what it is, how to get it and why it’s changing our hyper-connected world.

For most of recorded history, the rules of power were clear: Power was something to be seized and then guarded at any cost. This "old power" was owned by a tiny fraction of humankind, and beyond reach for the vast majority of people. 

But the ubiquitous connectivity of our world today is allowing something altogether new to occur, and makes possible an extraordinarily different kind of power: people-centric, participatory-focused and spreading with lightning-fast speed. 

“If you are able to harness this new power, you are likely to come out on top,” says Henry Timms, co-author of “New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World — and How to Make It Work for You.” 

As executive director of the historic 92nd Street Y cultural and community center in New York City, Henry is a passionate believer in the new power distribution that technology allows. The 92nd Street Y serves 300,000 visitors each year, and garners millions of online interactions. Partnering with the United Nations Foundation in 2012, Henry founded #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving fueled by social media and collaboration. To date, it has raised more than $300 million for organizations, charities and events, and made nearly 22 billion online impressions.

“We Can Be” host Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, asks in this episode what old power — large institutions, bureaucracies and top-down structures — gets wrong, and if it can peacefully co-exist with the new power paradigm that Henry espouses. 

Henry’s answers may surprise you, and he is crystal-clear on what’s really at stake: “New power is becoming the essential skill of the 21st century,” he says. “Those that can harness the energy of the connected crowd and create opportunities for people to engage on their own terms will win.”

Henry dives into how the Parkland survivors, the Me Too movement, Local Motors and Black Lives Matter have gotten it right, and why our most challenging task may be figuring out how — or if — we can ensure this new power is used for good. “Those on the side of the angels need to get mobilized,” Henry says. “And I mean quickly.” 

On this episode of “We Can Be,” learn about this new power: how to get it, why it’s changing our hyper-connected world and why we should be hopeful about what it can do.



Season 1, Episode 11
Season 1, Episode 11 Steve Shelton, Founder & Executive Director, Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (Photo by Joshua Franzos)
Brick by Brick: Steve Shelton got his second chance and now he makes certain others have a shot at their own redemption - and a living wage.

In the summer of 1972, The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” was a No. 1 hit, the Watergate scandal was in the news, and “The Godfather” was the top movie. Steve Shelton has his own vivid memory of that time: He was 12 years old, riding in the back of a pickup truck with a cast of characters from around his neighborhood on the way to bricklaying jobs. 

And he loved it. 

That camaraderie etched into his mind, and it is part of what guided him to found a building trades program that trains men and women — many of whom have been incarcerated — in fields that enable them to make a living wage while resetting their lives. His own journey to leadership included some bricks in the road — some boulders, really — and he repays the second chance that he got by making sure others can start again, too.

Steve founded the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh in 2009, and in this episode of “We Can Be,” he shares his story of what came before, and what ingrained the deep sense of empathy and toughness within him that infuses all he does as TIP’s executive director. While there is an emotional and very human side to his work, there are also impressive cut-and-dry numbers: TIP has saved taxpayers an estimated $10 million dollars by reducing recidivism, has a 94 percent program graduation rate, and has placed more than 300 individuals in jobs at or above a living wage. 

Steve also draws on memories of his own personal battles in the mid-1990s that changed him forever. “Those times imprinted on my mind the importance of second chances,” he says. 

Because he prevailed and launched TIP, a few years ago he found himself leading a crew working on the restoration of August Wilson’s childhood home. That he and his team were playing a role in preserving the history of the man who so eloquently wrote about the lives, challenges and triumphs of working people was not lost on them. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone's disbelief,” the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright once said. 

Steve found that earth-shifting belief in himself, and has dedicated his life to making certain others can, too. 

Season 1, Episode 10
Season 1, Episode 10 Rabbi Ron Symons, Senior Director of Jewish Life, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
Spinning our moral compass: Rabbi Ron Symons on why centuries-old traditions may be the secret to navigating race, wage & immigrant issues.

Rabbi Ron Symons grew up a few train stops away from vibrant, multi-cultural Manhattan in New York City. He now shares his world view of accepting everyone as part of his leadership role at the Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, an initiative of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

His journey has taken some eye-opening turns — including a 2014 arrest for standing up for living wages — as he has become an outspoken voice on social justice issues, including race relations, gun violence, and immigrant and refugee causes. 

Rabbi Symons believes we imperil our future if we igore our past, and points to a 225-year-old speech by a U.S. Founding Father that he feels speaks to today’s “two Americas.” “We have a responsibility to listen to each other,” he says. “Just because we differ, it doesn’t mean we have to demonize the opposition.”

He also describes to “We Can Be” host and Endowments President Grant Oliphant why it’s critical that we keep learning at all ages, how a childhood event sparked empathy in him, and why in today’s political atmosphere we must be consciously vigilant in ensuring that our moral compasses are not spinning out of control. 

Rabbi Symons is clear in his belief that we have more similarities than we have differences, and therein may lie the secret to advancing a more equitable society. Life “is a people-to-people experiment,” he says. “We share the same stories, but with different scripts.” 

Hear Rabbi Ron Symon’s story of hope and the world-altering power of community — plus a “Game of Thrones” tale that brings a new perspective to our fascination with walls — on this episode of “We Can Be.”

Season 1, Episode 9
Season 1, Episode 9 Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics and Director of the CREATE Lab, Carnegie Mellon University
R2-D2, Illah & Ethics: How robotics and AI genius Illah Nourbakhsh was inspired to use his superpowers for good

Illah Nourbakhsh’s journey began with his birth in Iran, and has since taken him around the world as a leader in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. The Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor and director of the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab stands out among roboticists for the projects he works on — most notably not Department of Defense programs — and for his commitment to never losing sight of the humans who interact with his creations. 

“What I do is fundamentally about empowerment,” says Illah, “and I believe technology should always be used for good.” 

Robotics and artificial intelligence have enormous capacity for adversely affecting our humanity — the “echo chamber” of internet searches and robotic weapons come to mind — but Illah is an unwavering force in advancing technology that makes our world healthier, safer and more equitable.  

A celebrated author — “Robot Futures” and “Parenting for Technology Futures” are his most recent books — and captivating speaker, Illah is candid about the role international politics has played in his life, most notably the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, and how it formed his deep sense of empathy. He also describes the moving way a family in Uganda tried to repay him and the CREATE Lab team for improving their home’s air quality. 

Along the way, Illah shares why a simple question about a Frisbee can reveal the limitations of Siri, what he believes is the most important thing humans should strive to preserve, and how a childhood decision between “Herbie the Love Bug” and “Star Wars” triggered his galactically cool career path.

Illah is brilliant, funny and kind – and he is using his superpowers for the betterment of humanity.



Season 1, Episode 8
Season 1, Episode 8 Tammy Thompson, Executive Director, Greater Pittsburgh Circles
Circles of love: Tammy Thompson draws on her own remarkable journey in her work to break poverty trauma cycles

Tammy Thompson was nine when she and her family left a West Virginia coal mining town for the promise of a good-paying job and a new life in Pittsburgh. They shot through the Fort Pitt tunnels, where on the other end the golden bridges and sparkling lights of the city and its rivers burst into dazzling view. Then it all went wrong.

As a third-grader, Tammy saw her family’s high hopes and financial stability crumble in ways that still affect them today. But she now heads an arm of the national anti-poverty group Circles and is the producer of the documentary film We Wear the Mask: the Hidden Faces of Women in Poverty. She is an undeniable success story, and she spreads hope and love to everyone with whom she comes in contact.

The trauma of poverty — and the strength from rising out of it — informs all that Tammy does. Her story is very much an American story. It’s a story of loading into the family car and chasing after the promise of a better life only to find it is just the beginning of an even rougher road. And then, against unfathomable odds, overcoming the difficult circumstances.

Tammy is upbeat, smart and brings energy and empathy to all who come into her own circle. Don’t miss the story of her journey, her perhaps surprising thoughts on gentrification, and her belief that going “beyond survival into ‘thrival’ ” should — and must — be our goal.

Season 1, Episode 7
Season 1, Episode 7 Hamza Perez, Founder of YA-NE at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and Co-founder of the Light of the Age Mosque
Humor, Rap, Poetry and the New Muslim Cool of Hamza Perez

“God writes straight with crooked lines” is a popular adage that has been used to describe the journey of Hamza Perez, and he good-naturedly agrees. With a life story that is movie script-worthy, Hamza has walked his path with humor, humility, music and openness. He is founder of the YA-NE (Youth Alliance of Networking and Empowerment) at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, co-founder of the Light of the Age Mosque, and a spiritual advisor for communities in Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass. He is smart, funny and hopeful — and he’s making a difference in how many perceive Muslims in the world today.

From his Catholic upbringing in Brooklyn to his present-day youth leadership in Pittsburgh’s Muslim community — with stops along the way as a drug dealer with his own apartment by age 18 and a member of the rap duo M-Team with brother Suliman — Hamza has made defying perceptions his life’s work. His route from a Puerto Rican Catholic to a Muslim leader in the Mid-Atlantic has been one with many turns, and that is just what makes him and his work so engaging. His life thus far has been about overcoming perceptions — regarding what he could become, where he could go, what he should believe — of family, friends and in some instances a suspicious and hostile world. The subject of a PBS film “New Muslim Cool,” Hamza strives to be a positive and hopeful force in our world.



Season 1, Episode 6
Season 1, Episode 6 Janis Burley Wilson, President and CEO, The August Wilson Center for African American Culture
A Story of Two Wilsons: As a child, Janis Burley Wilson loved reading August Wilson’s plays; now she leads his namesake center for African American culture.

Two Wilsons – August Wilson and Janis Burley Wilson – have intersected in ways both meaningful and magical. The first Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and the second now leads the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. Growing up in August Wilson’s hometown, Janis loved reading his plays, and recognized the locales he wrote about as places where her extended family lived and thrived. That she grew up in Pittsburgh and now leads his namesake center here is “fascinating and amazing,” she says.

The building itself – a soaring, modern-yet-accessible structure resembling a ship with its sail rising skyward from the street – has a history with as many twists, turns, and emotional peaks and valleys as one of August Wilson’s plays. After opening to grand acclaim in 2009, it was nearly lost to developers five years later due to severe financial difficulties. Now on steady ground, the center is poised to fulfill its promise as an internationally prominent venue for African American arts.

This episode of “We Can Be” blends Janis’ words, August Wilson’s lyrical text, and the sentiments of those experiencing the spectacular architecture of the August Wilson Center. Included is Janis’ recollection of a childhood memory that nearly all of us share: hearing music through the walls and down the hall after we’ve gone to bed at night. For Janis, though, that music helped set her inner compass on a path that led her to a life’s work dedicated to ensuring that future generations know the depth and richness of African American culture. 

Season 1, Episode 5
Betty Cruz, with long brown hair, leaning against a white concrete block wall. Betty Cruz, Founder and Director, Change Agency
From Miami to the Midwest: Change Agency’s Betty Cruz describes her life’s work as making her city a welcoming place for immigrants.

Like most Midwestern cities that grew out of the industrial age, Pittsburgh was founded on the strength of immigrants who provided power to steel mills, erected majestic buildings, and infused life into its streets and neighborhoods.

While today’s immigrants encounter many of the same biases and obstacles that their predecessors faced, they have a champion in Change Agency Director Betty Cruz. Betty joins The Heinz Endowments’ Grant Oliphant on “We Can Be” for a conversation about what it means to truly be a nation — and a community — of “we.”

Our country, our cities, our neighborhoods were founded and fueled by the minds, dreams, art and hard work of immigrants. Yet, the climate for immigrants today is perhaps the most challenging it has been for decades. 

It was because of this atmosphere — and a belief in the value and agency of every human being — that Change Agency was born. Betty shares why she finds hope in challenging times, how she’s been touched by the stories of Pittsburgh’s modern day immigrants, and what she’s learned about herself through her own journey from Miami to the Midwest.

“We Can Be” is hosted by The Heinz Endowments’ Grant Oliphant and produced by the Endowments and Treehouse Media. Theme music is composed by John Dziuban, with incidental music by Josh Slifkin.



Season 1, Episode 4
Smiling profile image of Veronica Coptis Veronica Coptis, Executive Director, Center for Coalfield Justice
Center for Coalfield Justice’s Veronica Coptis fights for environmental justice in one rural American county.

Those living in rural towns where coal has long been the backbone of their economy and culture are often doubly hit with the realities of the shrinking industry: Jobs are disappearing while the environmental and health aftereffects adversely affect their mortality. 

In this episode of "We Can Be," Veronica Coptis tells her story of being born in Pittsburgh, moving to rural Greene County in the southwestern-most corner of Pennsylvania when she was in third grade, and finding a love of the outdoors that to this day fuels her passion for her work as executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice. 

As a regional environmental leader, Veronica has gained national attention, including a profile in The New Yorker magazine, "The Future of Coal Country," and speaking engagements at major events such as the Pittsburgh-based p4 2018  sustainability conference. Still, she is dedicated first and foremost to her beloved Greene County.

Veronica knows environmental protection and conservation can be a tough sell. But her family raised her to be strong and thoughtful, and with a deep respect for her community, she makes a compelling case for holding coal companies accountable.  

Season 1, Episode 3
Smiling profile photo of David Conrad David Conrad, Actor and writer
Actor/writer David Conrad's long journey home, identity of place, and the key role artists play in shaping our future

Actor/writer David Conrad discusses why the most striking sound in an industrial town is silence, where his own creative plans will take him next and the integral role the arts play in the future of our communities and nation.

Actor (Wedding Crashers, Ghost Whisperer, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and writer (Pittsburgh Magazine columnist) David Conrad splits his time among a diverse slate of places - Los Angeles, New York City, London and Braddock, Pa., and talks about what made him realize his place, how the identity of a place can change and why knowing a place’s history is the key to its future.

Through his travels David has seen firsthand how the identity of a place – a town, city, state or country – is affected by the culture and history of its people. He shares how that identity can affect how we see ourselves, each other and the world, and its role in forming our politics.



Season 1, Episode 2
Season 1, Episode 2 Mila Sanina, Executive Director of PublicSource. Photo by Joshua Franzos
Kazakhstan candy, a Wisconsin dairy farm, PBS and innovative investigative news: the fantastic journey of PublicSource Exec. Director Mila Sanina

Born in the Soviet Union and raised in Kazakhstan – with a stops at a Wisconsin dairy farm and CNN and PBS News Hour along the way - Mila Sanina’s journey to leadership in the investigative news field is extraordinary.

As Executive Director of PublicSource, Mila believes in the power of ideas, words and stories to change our brain chemistry and the character of our interactions with each other and the world.

Hear her stories of childhood entrepreneurship selling candy on the street in Kazakhstan, the threats against her family during her first reporting job, and how her belief in giving the power of voice to those most affected by a divisive public dialogue keeps her energized.

PublicSource is a non-partisan, nonprofit, digital-first media organization founded in 2011 and dedicated to public service journalism.

Season 1, Episode 1
headshot of Nick Grimes Nick Grimes, Director of Veterans Breakfast Club Post-9/11 Veterans Storytelling Project
Nick Grimes and an America for All Americans

The role post-9/11 vets can play in bridging racial and cultural divides comes to light as Veterans' Breakfast Club's Nick Grimes talks about his journey with The Heinz Endowments' Grant Oliphant in the inaugural episode of We Can Be.

Learn about the misconceptions that post-9/11 veterans face, the culture shock they experience when returning home and why saying "thank you for your service" can be discomforting for them. Grimes details his evolution from being a young evangelical conservative from Mobile, Ala., to the open-minded director of The Veterans Breakfast Club's Post-9/11 Veterans Storytelling Project and an advocate for continuing to strive for a "more perfect union."

The Veterans Breakfast Club has gained national attention for its work in creating communities of listening around veterans and their stories to ensure their living history will never be forgotten.