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Diamonte Walker named CEO of ‘Pittsburgh Scholar House’

New non-profit aimed at helping single parents attain a college degree

Too often, there is a parent, usually a mother, who is pursuing that elusive four-year college degree, when things start to happen — not enough money for child care; the car breaks down; the house bills need to be paid, but so does tuition…

That’s where the newly-formed Pittsburgh Scholar House wants to step in.

And stepping in as the CEO of the non-profit is a person who’s no stranger to rebuilding communities — Diamonte Walker, Ed.D., the former deputy executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA). Her first day as CEO was April 18.

“The URA does a lot of work around the built environment, which is very important, but I think it’s also equally important that we build people up while we’re rebuilding our communities,” Dr. Walker told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, April 25. “So the call to come and lead the Pittsburgh Scholar House presents an opportunity for me to do that in order to start addressing what I think is a pervasive issue here in Pittsburgh; economic stagnation within a lot of our vulnerable population.”

Diamonte Walker, ED.D. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Scholar House will operate in alignment with its parent organization, Family Scholar House, and its strategic goal of helping participants complete their post-secondary education and enter high-growth careers to enable economic mobility and sustain a better quality of life for them and their children. In a release, the Pittsburgh Scholar House said this goal is achieved through “outreach and expansion by providing resources that include innovative and ethical best-practices for data collection and data-informed services for this subset of the academic community.”

The Pittsburgh Scholar House is being incubated by the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, a network of 11 colleges and universities in Allegheny County, until a board of directors is established and a 501(c)(3) status is secured. Three years ago, The Heinz Endowments, Henry L. Hillman Foundation and PNC Foundation partnered with the PCHE to begin the process of bringing the Family Scholar House model, based in Louisville, to Pittsburgh.

“The decision to establish the Pittsburgh Scholar House stemmed from a visit by leaders from several of Pittsburgh’s leading foundations to the five Family Scholar House campuses in Louisville,” said Dr. David Finegold, Chatham University President and PCHE Chairman, in a release. “They were very impressed by Family Scholar House’s results and the comprehensive wraparound services offered to single-parents and their children that helped them achieve college graduation rates of over 90 percent.”

For Dr. Walker, it’s all about “holistic, wraparound care, treating the family as though they are a student, a participant in academia facing unique challenges and barriers that other students may not face as adult learners. Our goal is to tap into the existing supports that are available within our community and connect those and coalesce those around these student learners so that they are not only getting their education but their children are also getting access to high-quality early childhood education, because that is what the data indicates will turn the tide around some of these pervasive issues that we see that are exacerbated by multi-generational poverty.”

Similar to a sports team hiring an established coach, Dr. Walker was chosen to lead the Pittsburgh Scholar House with a documented, established resume. At the URA, she was instrumental in the agency purchasing the Centre-Heldman Plaza for $1.6 million in 2019 after the Hill House dissolved, assuring the plaza wouldn’t turn into a location of businesses that didn’t serve the Hill District’s many African American residents. Dr. Walker also spearheaded the “Avenues of Hope” initiative, which invests in seven major business corridors in areas like the Hill, Homewood, Larimer, Perrysville Ave. (North Side), Chartiers Ave. (Sheraden), Warrington Ave. (Knoxville/Beltzhoover) and Hazelwood. “Avenues of Hope,” for the URA, focuses on housing investment, workforce connectivity and other small business supports for minorities.

In a March 25 release from the URA announcing her departure, the URA pointed out other achievements of Dr. Walker in her five years at the agency: Increased access to business opportunities and lending support for small and minority and women-owned businesses through the development of programs such as the Micro-Loan Program and Catapult: Startup to Storefront; Helped to establish the Housing Opportunity Fund to increase and preserve affordable, safe housing for Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable residents; and provided strategic oversight of programs to assist struggling residents and small businesses and position Pittsburgh for long-term economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

“Dr. Walker will be profoundly missed in her role as Deputy Executive Director of the URA,” Mayor Ed Gainey remarked in the March 25 release. “Her vision helped reshape the URA and helped to transform it into an organization that puts the residents of our great city first. I want to thank her for her leadership.”

In 2019, the City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission released a report that revealed Pittsburgh was the worst place for Black women to live in for nearly every indicator of livability. It was a report that shocked those across the country, but it wasn’t particularly surprising to Pittsburgh’s Black residents. For Dr. Walker, a Pittsburgh-born, Hill District-raised Black woman, she told the Courier she felt the “reality of that data on a visceral level, and I feel a responsibility to work in a way that starts to address and chip away at that data so we don’t spend another decade diagnosing the problem without a real effective remedy.”

The Pittsburgh Scholar House’s programs are for women and men, and for any ethnicity in the region. However, Dr. Walker said that “we know the protracted issue exists particularly around Black, single female head-of-households, and unless we start to really address and focus on the social determinants of health and how that contributes to the success of mothers and children, we’re not going to see those statistics (from the Gender Equity Commission report) improve in any measurable way.”

Dr. Walker said attaining that four-year college degree “is one of the deciding factors in whether or not poverty persists from one generation to the next,” and that focus on education is the primary goal for the Pittsburgh Scholar House.

“My mother and my community instilled in me the importance and value of education despite any hardships you might face. It was very difficult and very challenging,” added Dr. Walker, a Brashear High School graduate. Dr. Walker then attended CCAC where she earned an associate’s degree, followed by a bachelor’s from Capella University, two master’s degrees from Western Governors University, and a doctorate in education and leadership from Point Park University. She said the Pittsburgh Scholar House’s programs, which are forthcoming, “presents an opportunity to make that path a lot easier for other people growing up in some of Pittsburgh’s disinvested neighborhoods. It doesn’t have to be difficult.”