Believing in the “Genius Inherent in Our Urban Communities”

Issue Date: 
April 7, 2014

H. Richard Milner IV has a strong vision for making the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education an essential resource for Pitt and urban communities.

Milner became the center’s director in August 2013 and also holds the Helen Faison Chair in Urban Education in Pitt’s School of Education. His goal is to work with faculty and staff to make the center the go-to organization for urban education issues—as well as a nexus of outreach for students, teachers, and communities.

“In a lot of ways, this work is personal to me,” Milner said about his academic concentration in urban education. Reflecting upon his own upbringing in a rural community, Milner lauded the example set by his hard-working, supportive parents. He is quick to add, however, that not everyone grows up in a nurturing and positive environment—and in those cases, the lack of career and life success may have “nothing to do with the amount of effort that they put forth. There are structural and systemic inequities that placed them in the positions where they are.”

It is these people, and their children, whom Milner is dedicated to helping. “My work really is about trying to shed light on why things are as they are and help influence effective, positive change,” he said.

Milner arrived at Pitt from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Within a few months, the center opened new offices on Posvar Hall’s fourth floor and launched a speakers series, beginning with a lecture by Pedro Noguera, an esteemed New York University sociologist and professor of education. Milner plans to bring one internationally prominent social scientist to Pitt each semester. Milner’s outward focus and emphasis on connecting with students in the community are evident during a quick tour of the center, which has a wall adorned with several colorful drawings by students at the Hill District’s Pittsburgh Milliones 6–12 school. The children had been asked to reflect on the questions “What inspires you?” and “What does education mean to you?” They responded with smiling stick figures, vibrantly colored geometric shapes, and squiggling lines.

Beneath each drawing hangs a young artist’s statement. “Education means that you need to get somewhere in life,” reads one.

Milner and center Interim Associate Director Erika Gold Kestenberg are active outside the center’s walls as well. Milner is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Urban Education. And he, along with Kofi Lomotey of Western Carolina University, recently edited the Handbook of Urban Education (Routledge, 2013), one of the first and most comprehensive handbooks in the field.

“Kofi and I really wanted to offer a deeply comprehensive account of the knowledge available in urban education, while helping to chart a course for future research, theory, policy, and practice in the field, and beyond,” Milner said of the Handbook.

Part of Milner and Lomotey’s ambition in editing the handbook was to offer a more precise definition of “urban education.”

“In the field of urban education, we haven’t had a very clear, precise definition of what we mean by ‘urban.’ And I don’t think this lack of clarity is specific to education,” Milner said. He and Lomotey studied the literature on urban education, focusing on three recurring themes to form their working definition of the term. “Based on our review for the handbook, when those in education focus on ‘urban,’ they tend to focus on the size of the place—typically large, metropolitan, densely populated places—the resources available or not available in those spaces, and the people in them—typically highly diverse populations in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, and language.”

Milner’s contributions as an education scholar and to the broader public discourse were recently recognized by his inclusion on Education Week’s 2014 Rick Hess Straight Up Edu-Scholar Public Influence list, a respected annual ranking that gauges the public influence of education scholars. This is the second consecutive time that Milner was included among the top 100 names. The rankings recognize university faculty in the U.S. for their contributions to the public debate about education.

“I’m honored to have been included on the list. Hopefully my work continues to impact the public—especially practices in real schools, in real classrooms,” Milner said.

Despite his successes at Vanderbilt and its highly regarded school of education, Milner was drawn to Pitt’s Center for Urban Education and its close connection with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The opportunity here offered him the chance to make an even bigger difference in the lives of students and teachers.

“This is the next phase of what I was called to do professionally,” Milner said.

Among Milner’s key approaches in addressing the challenges of urban education is his emphasis on the assets of neighborhoods rather than on those things that communities lack.

“I do this work with my head and my heart, and I really believe in the expertise, capacities, and genius inherent in urban communities, and I want to shed a light on these assets,” Milner said.

Among the exciting projects that lie ahead for the Center for Urban Education are a mentoring and tutorial project, concentrated in math and English Language Arts, that will pair middle- and high-school students with Pitt undergraduates; and a college-level certification program, in partnership with Pitt’s School of Social Work, focused on urban communities. Milner is also excited about a visit by the internationally renowned scholar, author, and activist, Gloria Ladson-Billings, who will deliver the Center for Urban Education’s spring lecture on April 17 from 4-5:30 p.m. at the University Club, Ballroom A.  

“I am honored to be able to do the work of the Center,” Milner said. “This work is really about reaching students, reaching teachers, and helping them see possibilities beyond their current situation.”