Meet four Pittsburgh locals who are changing the city through media, art and activism

The city of Pittsburgh has as many changemakers as it has bridges. What the next four have in common is a desire to make an impact in their city through media and broadcasting, art and literature, and social change. Comprised of Pittsburgh natives and new transplants, this short list of up-and-coming stars should have you wondering if they’ll ever appear on one of our power lists for something sensational.

A welcome change

Nationally syndicated digital advice columnist Natalie Bencivenga calls herself a “socially conscious” journalist. | Ben Petchel

Although Natalie Bencivenga is a respected advice columnist, journalist, media consultant and contributor to KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today Live morning show, a career in the media wasn’t always in her plans. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in Philosophy and Biology in 2007, she was ready to attend Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. Finding that she wasn’t ready to give up on her dream of doing something creative with her life, she put off accepting and spent a year taking a crash course in all things media.

Although this year spanned years spent building her career as a writer, Bencivenga didn’t completely give up her academic pursuits: In her spare time, she completed her master’s degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. in 2013. was a really interesting experience – working in so many Pittsburgh communities in a different way than I had ever experienced – and really understanding this community in a different context,” Bencivenga recalls. “I feel like as a journalist, having a Masters in Social Work is actually a huge advantage because it motivates you. And I see journalism as a form of social work.

His graduate work eventually led to a six-year stint overseeing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s SEEN section, covering the city’s social life. Over the years, she has also hosted BROADcast, a Golden Quill award-winning podcast, contributed to publications such as The Huffington Post, CosmoGirl, and, and consulted with nonprofits such as the Women and Girls Foundation and the Steadman Philippon Research Institute. Currently, she spends her time continuing to write her advice column Ask Natalie, contributing to Earth Day Pittsburgh, Table Magazine, Pittsburgh City Paper, working as a media consultant, and running her own production company called Benci Productions, LLC. . “Pittsburgh is an interesting place because I feel like it’s more of a big city than a small city in the sense that I think it’s a place where you can have a big impact without having to be a great person,” Bencivenga said. “And I love trying to be a tiny force for good in my own way to help achieve that goal for Pittsburgh.”

Broadcast Status

Jasiri X gained national recognition in 2006 after forming the anti-violence group 1Hood. | Emmai Alaquiva

Jasiri X did not move to the Pittsburgh area until age 14 after spending most of his childhood in Chicago, Illinois. racism in the region. But since beating physically would have angered his mother, immersing himself in activism became a lasting way to challenge the injustice he was witnessing. Since then, he’s been fighting – in a way his mother approved – participating in protests demanding justice for individuals like Michael Brown and Antwon Rose who were killed in police shootings, playing socially responsible music, campaigning for justice-oriented political candidates and taking action. as co-founder and current CEO of 1Hood. “We were young, we came from hip hop – we wanted to use the culture to start doing certain things in the community,” Jasiri X said.

Jasiri X helped start 1Hood, a collective of activists and artists dedicated to addressing communal violence, in 2006. In 2010, 1Hood Media began focusing on helping young people analyze media and using art to raise awareness for social justice. In recent years, 1Hood Media has expanded its reach through online content such as a weekly online show called “This Week in White Supremacy”. Additionally, the organization remained committed to creating accessible educational programs like “Ask A Black Doctor” and “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know” town halls, both of which were created during the pandemic. One of the organization’s most recent projects is, an online news website dedicated to telling stories of Black Pittsburghers past and present. “The work we do every day at 1Hood is what keeps me here; you know, Pittsburgh boasts of being the most livable city in America” – although, he pointed out, it is clearly not “the most livable” for black people – so our call is to make Pittsburgh livable for everyone, not just the select few.

The art of its material

Self-taught artist, Vanessa German is a visual storyteller who uses sculpture, photography and more. | Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, courtesy of Kasmin, New York

vanessa german can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t see herself first and foremost as an artist. Entirely self-taught, she says she always knew making art would be central to any path she chose to take in life – including spending 20 years in Pittsburgh. “What kept me” in the city, she explained, was the ability to buy the perfect home for her needs: “I could live and work in the same space, and I could grow,” said declared German.

German’s work, which includes sculpture and photography, often centers on topics such as gun violence, poverty, injustice, and often incorporates his poetry and personal experiences. Her work has not gone unnoticed: she has received the Jacob Lawrence Award, the Ronald H. Brown Community Leadership Award, and the Duquesne Light Leadership Award, and has been featured at the Smithsonian. Additionally, German performed his poetry at the inaugurations of former Mayor Bill Peduto and newly elected Mayor Ed Gainey last January. Although not originally from Pittsburgh, in her 20 years in the city she has created numerous exhibitions, seen her work featured in numerous collections, and directed love porch, a project that creates signs that encourage non-violence with phrases such as: “Stop Shooting: We Love You” and “No Guns: Keep Summer Fun”. And before a fire destroyed the space, German hosted the ARTHouse, which provided community studio space for children, neighbors and artists.

German currently spends most of his time traveling to host nomadic galleries across the country, but his works and contributions continue to be prominent in the city. “I found a way to make my life sustainable,” German said, “not just my life, but my soul, which was part of the arthouse because it was like, I love the ‘art. I’m just going to share what I like.

Young and restless

Critically acclaimed writer Damon Young has been featured in magazines and newspapers across the US | Popscreenshot/Wikimedia Commons

Damon Young is a born and bred Pittsburgher. He is also the co-founder and former editor of Very Smart Brothas, a popular blog that hosts columns on politics, satire, popular culture and the black experience. Young was one of the blog’s most prominent voices for more than a decade until he announced his departure in March 2021. “If I had to rely on Pittsburgh, I would have left Pittsburgh,” said said Young, who contributed to GQ, The New York. Times, Slate, Essence and The Huffington Post, explained in a 2019 Pittsburgh City Paper interview. “Since I don’t have to depend on Pittsburgh, I can stay in Pittsburgh.”

Between two articles that were hailed for being as witty as they could be poignant, Young penned ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,’ a bestselling 2019 memoir that chronicles his life and his criticisms of racism in America. through trials. In 2020, Young’s memoir received the Thurber Prize for American Humor and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and was shortlisted for the PEN America Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award. “I am not this MFA or this academic. I didn’t go through a New York Times or New Yorker pipeline or anything,” Young said, according to a 2019 Inverse interview. “I started a blog… Now I write” for publications national ones, he added, “but I was not brought up and prepared that way. Since I haven’t been there, it would be fraudulent for me to try to be less accessible just because… it’s just not me.“

Although he left Very Smart Brothas, Young doesn’t seem to have any intention of stopping sharing his opinions with the world from his hometown. Since January, he has joined the Washington Post Magazine as a columnist and announced a new socially conscious podcast examining class, gender and race titled “Stuck with Damon Young.”

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