Award #44: Black Girls Do Bike

Lest you think that black girls can’t or don’t or won’t ride a bicycle, this project is here to educate you otherwise. Note: it helps, when pronouncing this project out loud, to stress the word “DO” because this group wants you to know that black girls and women really DO bike. Seriously.

Monica Garrison, founder of Black Girls Do Bike: Pittsburgh (BGDB) encourages all women to take up biking, but the project focuses on African-American women who are both under-represented in the larger cycling community and who are statistically more likely than their peers to be overweight and suffer from heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. BGDB also encourages women to pay it forward and bring friends, family, and coworkers along for the ride. Their mission is to foster a supportive environment for new bike riders with monthly “no drop” rides, which means that no one will get lost or drop behind on the route. The group provides constant support and encouragement to new riders, making sure that everyone gets back to the start.

Black Girls Do Bike

Ms. Garrison was born and raised in Pittsburgh, attending Schenley High School and Robert Morris University. Monica states:

“I learn, live, work, raise a family and ride my bike in Pittsburgh. I am very excited to see the positive changes happening with bike infrastructure. It is refreshing to see that Mayor Peduto, the county and Bike PGH have a clear plan to make Pittsburgh a world class bike-friendly city. We believe that it can and will happen.”

Awesome Pittsburgh Trustee Evelyn Castillo was as big supporter of this project:

“BGDB’s plan is to get more ladies on bikes, and studies show that riding bikes makes you more awesome. All kidding aside, this project creates a space for girls and women to explore, to commute, to exercise more often and to feel safe while doing so. They also provide an opportunity for newcomers to the city to join a community. BGDB: Pittsburgh is just more reason to love our city.”

BGDB is using the grant money to support supporting various biking events throughout this past biking season, which include the following: BikePGH Inaugural Cyclofemme Ride, Open Streets Pittsburgh, Bike Share Party Ride, PGH Fundamentals of Cycling Class, PedalPGH, and BikePGH’s Ladies Night at The Wheel Mill.

Award #43: Poetry Houses

Poetry Houses are bright, funky, fun, unexpected, Pittsburgh-specific, and in-your-face. Imagine as you walk through the city–on your way to work or during an evening out with friends—seeing a tiny wooden box on the sidewalk. Behind that box’s plexiglass door are four postcard-sized poems, free for the taking. Every two weeks, a brand new batch of four poems will arrive like magic.

This is the vision behind the public art project. Sarah Boyle, one of the project’s originators, explains:

The motivating factor behind Poetry Houses is to make poetry fun and accessible–both intellectually accessible and physically accessible. These days, poetry has a reputation for being impossible to understand and meaningless in everyday life. We want to show people that poems evoke everything from strange and mystifying to simple and sweet. By installing Poetry Houses alongside heavily-trafficked sidewalks, we physically make poetry a part of people’s everyday lives.

The Awesome Pittsburgh grant money covers the cost of building and maintaining two Poetry Houses. The project’s founders will use a “call for submissions” process to garner future poems, thereby engaging not only readers but writers and poets as well. The project is expressly designed to give local writers and young writers a platform, and of course there will be an online component so audiences outside of the city can access the poems.

Awesome Pittsburgh trustee Jeb Feldman loved that this project “involved people of all ages and experience levels, connected different neighborhoods by a common project, and was also able to reach a larger audience by being available online. Hopefully, this awesome idea will inspire people—who might not otherwise—write or think about poetry.”

The Pearl Club University Selected by Guest Panel at Awesome Pittsburgh’s Live Pitch Party

On a hot and muggy Monday night in June, a crowd gathered at The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company in Braddock to celebrate the awesomeness of Pittsburgh and to witness live project pitches in action. Projects were pitched to an esteemed guest panel comprised of Braddock residents Kevin Sousa, Gisele Fetterman, Phyllis Brown and Patrick Jordan. June’s winner, The Pearl Club University, was immediately selected following four outstanding presentations.

The goals of The Pearl Club are to enable and empower African-American young women toward self-sufficiency, to overcome poverty, and to foster contributing members of society via college preparation and life skills development. A real college experience is offered in collaboration with Carlow University, where high school students prepare to build their capacity to succeed, contribute to further increasing the viability of Pittsburgh, and expand the network of professional women as future mentors and contributors to the community.

Since 2013, The Pearl Club has empowered over 150 young women. With an 86% retention rate, the program has provided each participant with 80+ hours of college readiness programming and 50+ hours of gender-based mentoring. The programming teaches the definition of “college-ready” and provides oral presentation experience. Participants also learn to manage their time and develop networking skills. Founding director Tamasia Johnson explains the importance of this program:

“How can we expect students to succeed in an environment they are not prepared for? With 77% of our young women being first generation college-goers, our programming aids in solving the problem of minority young women lacking skills and preparation to overcome the challenges on a college campus.  Their aim is to graduate from a post-secondary institution, making Pittsburgh a more awesome place to build a future.”

At its core, the Pearl Club is a sisterhood based on college success. In one cohort, ten young women are given the opportunity to experience college life firsthand during a 6-day stay at Carlow University. During that week, they visualize themselves as college students. Upon hearing that her organization won, Tamasia exclaimed, “My heart was pounding and I was at a loss for words. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to share the moment with my student, Aricka. We were both super excited and emotional!”

Pearl Club

As trustee Melanie Harrington points out, “It is simply inspiring to see young people who are doing it for themselves. The Pearl Club includes young African American women who aspire to do great things and are mentoring younger African American women who are seeking guidance to successfully transition from high school to college. Now how important and awesome is that?”

The Pearl Club has a volunteer board consisting of 5 professional women from diverse disciplines. This year’s cohort experience began on June 21 and concluded on June 26 with a graduation ceremony. Learn how you can support the awesome work of The Pearl Club.

Awesome in Braddock: Our Live Pitch Night Happens June 15th!


Every month, Awesome Pittsburgh trustees award one $1,000 grant to a project that will make Pittsburgh a more awesome place. The selection process has always happened behind closed doors… until now!

Please join us for a Live Pitch event at The Brew Gentleman in Braddock on June 15th from 6:00 to 8:30 PM. Four Awesome Pittsburgh finalists will pitch their ideas to the crowd and our panel of superstar Braddock judges:

  • Phyllis Brown, lifelong Braddock resident and community advocate
  • Gisele Fetterman, founder of The Free Store in Braddock and cofounder of Food Rescue 412
  • Kevin Sousa, celebrated serial chef and founder of Superior Motors

Food and beer will be available for purchase from the PGH Taco Truck and (of course) the Brew Gentleman themselves.

Let us know you’re coming by registering here.

May 25th! Special deadline this month for upcoming Live Pitch event

new deadline

Planning to apply for an Awesome Pittsburgh grant for June? Apply by May 25 and you will be considered for a chance to pitch in front of a live audience and panel of judges at our next party on June 15th.

Award #39: Busk Street Stage

You may be hearing some soulful tunes emanating from a corner in Squirrel Hill in the near future, thanks to our latest grantwinner, Busk Street Stage. Eric Sloss is the man behind this idea; an artist, writer and creative strategist for Shift Collaborative, he started a busker advocacy program for buskers over a decade ago but is now reworking the effort to be more performance-based. Busk Street Stage is an effort of Busker Street Union, a program of Shift Collaborative.buskstreetstage

Busking, or street performing, is a centuries-old tradition of entertainers performing for tips in public areas. Buskers attract the public into an area and encourage them to browse from performer to store to restaurant and back to performer. This creates a mutually beneficial commercial environment for the stores, performers and the public. According to Sloss:

“Public performance enlivens city streets, makes urban areas safer because of the activity, and provides an alternative venue to those who traditionally perform indoors. With the wonderful support of Awesome Pittsburgh we will be able to explore new ways to support those performers who want to take to the streets and make our city neighborhoods sing.”

As a way to encourage street performance in Pittsburgh, Busk Street Stage will brand and build an outdoor area in which diverse performers will have the freedom to perform on city streets legally. They plan to work with local civic leaders, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill and NextGen:Pgh to build and promote the effort. This will offer a safe place for performers to busk and find new audiences. Awesome Pittsburgh trustee Pete Maher recaps:

“Awesome Pittsburgh is proud to support Busk Street Stage and its efforts to preserve the centuries-old tradition of street performance.  Buskers play an important role in vitalizing the streets of Pittsburgh, and we hope that our grant will help support local performers, provide a meaningful source of public entertainment, and draw audiences to local business districts.”

Money will go toward building an outdoor staging area on the corner of Murray and Forbes Avenues, with additional support going toward promotion and performer recruitment. The hope is to launch the stage by late May. Shift Collaborative also hopes to deploy stages in more area neighborhoods. Email Eric Sloss if your community is interested in hosting a street stage.

Award #37: Operation Valor Arts

OVarts at work

Monuments interpreting the experience of the American soldier and sailor are typically designed and built by professional artists with no military experience. That’s why Operation Valor Arts’ grant-winning project struck a chord with the trustees this month. Operation Valor Arts: A Veterans Initiative is a new veteran non-profit in Pittsburgh wherein public artwork is produced by veterans, for veterans. OVArts puts the creative power in the hands of the men and women who have lived as soldiers and sailors; they are being given access to design education and guidance from experts in design, fabrication, and documentation of monument construction. As a byproduct, OVArts helps veterans transition to meaningful civilian careers. Participating veterans receive hands-on training and experience, meet local professionals in the region, and are paid a training stipend.

OVArts aims to highlight the incredible skill and strength of veterans. Says Board Secretary Christina Sarson:

“I am committed to making this project succeed. There are currently no monuments dedicated to OEF/OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom] veterans. As the yellow ribbons come down and negative perceptions about veterans’ issues abound, I want to have big, elaborate public art pieces all over Pittsburgh–and eventually nationally–that scream, ‘Look at what veterans can do!’”

Christina herself is a U.S. Army veteran (OIF II and 06-07) and landscape architect (graduate of Chatham University). She and the OVArts team not only want to send a positive reminder of all veterans’ service, but also a recognition that most veterans are not broken or in need of charity. Instead, OVArts sees veterans as they are – extraordinarily motivated, capable, and creative members of the community.

OVArts is launching its pilot project in honor of Sergeant Thomas E. Vandling, Jr., who gave his life during his second tour in Iraq. Their project design team has secured a project site and plans to begin construction this summer. Awesome Pittsburgh’s grant money will pay for training stipends and office/classroom space. ALL efforts are in direct support of the pilot project for Sergeant Vandling.

Operation Valor Arts is a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to assisting Veterans with education, training, and entrepreneurship while they design and construct public art to honor those who served. OVArts was created in 2011 by a diverse group of community leaders, health scientists, and Veterans who came together to explore an innovative approach to addressing issues facing transitioning Veterans. To learn more, visit or Like us on Facebook at