Illustration by Sonia Pulido
Across Highland Avenue from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary sits the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, a public school with some 600 students in grades 6-12. Formerly named the Peabody High School, it predates the seminary and has long been an anchor of the neighborhood.
I first discovered the Obama Academy in 2021 as I prepared to visit the campus prior to starting my new position. Google Earth allowed me a view of the neighborhood’s rooftops, including a large industrial-looking structure across the street from the campus. With Street View, I was able to see the proximity of the school to the seminary campus. In short, it was evident that we were neighbors.
One of my first acts as president of Pittsburgh Seminary was to cross the street and meet with the principal, Yolanda Colbert, and her staff. While I was excited to meet the team, they seemed overjoyed to host me as the first president of the seminary to meet with them. Just as a new neighbor is greeted with cookies or a cake, my engagement of our neighbors at Obama was an opportunity to shape a shared vision of success in the community and ways that we could be good neighbors.
Like any relationship, we simply want to be available ... to help our neighbors in times of need and beyond.
On the surface, the idea of a Protestant seminary partnering with a public school seems odd and off message. But the more we talked, the more we found opportunities for neighborliness. We might be two educational institutions serving two different constituencies, but the fundamental tie is our neighborhood – and the capacity to serve each other as neighbors.
Our relationship began with simple gestures, such as buying lunch for the staff. We then moved deeper by offering mindfulness training for many of the teachers stressed by the extraordinary uncertainty in the profession. We have since begun exploring the post-Covid possibility of having high school juniors and seniors serve as docents for seminary events – a way for them to earn community service hours. Like any relationship, we simply want to be available, to assist from our strengths, to help our neighbors in times of need and beyond.
In so doing, we expand the reach of the seminary into new places and spaces and, in a small way, make a difference for our neighborhood. The relationship with Obama Academy has allowed the seminary to speak to new potential partners, potential students, and other community leaders who share in the idea – and ideals – of good neighbors.