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Jessica Z. Wolfe is a social worker, and plans to continue on that path even if she successfully wins her challenge against incumbent State Representative Jake Wheatley to represent the 19th District of Pennsylvania.
“Being a social worker, I am an organizer, a community person, and I just want to generally bring people together,” Wolfe says. “The reason I chose social work as a profession is that I want to make the world a better place, and it was a mechanism by which I could do that. I have been able to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives, but I have been left wanting because there are larger, systematic problems at hand that can’t be resolved by me going and sitting in someone’s living room, that we just can’t talk our way through.”
“I don’t see this as a change in course. I see it as the next evolutionary step in being able to help those people, is to be able to work on the larger, more systematic things,” Wolfe says. “Social work works on things on the micro level, the meso level and the macro level, the larger, societal kind of issues.”
“I am not trying to take over and be ‘the voice.’ I want to be the megaphone to amplify the voice,” Wolfe says. “That’s what elected officials are supposed to be. When we look to one person, or a couple of different people, to fix everything or lead us out of these problems, we lose a huge opportunity to use our own knowledge and ability to make our own block, each one of our little houses, a point of positivity. I want to reverse that trend, and empower everybody to be the leader. That’s the way social workers roll.”
Wolfe, a Cumberland, Maryland native who earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Frostburg University and a Master of Social Work from Salisbury University in that state. She requested to come to Pittsburgh to work on the Obama campaign in 2008, and “fell in love with the city. I even fell in love with one of [Pittsburgh’s] native sons, Kenneth Wolfe,” with whom she resides in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh has always been my ‘spiritual home,’ as the closest large city to my hometown,” Wolfe says. “We never went to Baltimore for shopping or art or concerts. We would always come to Pittsburgh. Being such a part of the Pittsburgh media market, we were never Redskins or Ravens fans. My grandfather worked for the railroad union, and he actually had an office in Pittsburgh. I’ve got lots of ties here, even though I didn’t grow up here.”
Wolfe says she decided to begin her political career at the state level because, “of all of the offices that could be held, the state Legislature is the one that has the most effect on my life. Everything I do and have ever done is controlled either by funding or by policy and regulation by the state Legislature. If I ran for City Council, that wouldn’t be the stage I’m trying to reach or the things I am trying to influence. This is the venue and the mechanism by which I could make changes I need to see, which are to the programs which affect the lives of people I see every day,” including positions working with the physically disabled, as a crisis counselor for a mental health organization and as a child abuse investigator.
Ken Wolfe worked with her opponent previously “for about two years, and left the office about three years ago,” Wolfe says, but denies that her candidacy is a “vendetta,” as some have said.
“But it was part of my everyday dinner conversation with my husband about the work he was doing. I know what the State Representative does, and I know how Jake approaches his job, and I know where I would do things differently,” Wolfe says. “I know his perceivable shortcomings.”
“My husband left on fine terms with Jake. There was no controversy, there was no major incident that would need to be ‘avenged,’ but, for reasons of my husband’s having worked there, I have been paying close attention to that office,” says Wolfe. “There is a narrative there, though, as far as Jake and most of his ex-employees, people who worked with him, know his dealings and know him best. Most who have left have not been supporters afterward, and they seem to think he is not the leader the community needs at this point.”
Wolfe counts a number of those former employees as supporters, including Aerion Abney, who dropped his own primary bid to oppose Wheatley.
“What I would do that I don’t really see Jake doing, is be in every part of the District. I have seen where the struggles are the same at times, but the strategies are a little bit different,” Wolfe says. “We are spending a whole lot of money and effort trying to solve basically the same sets of problems throughout the District, but we are all doing things differently and kind of in the dark.”
“That makes sense, because why would somebody from the North Side go to a meeting in Hazelwood to address issues in the North Side,” Wolf asks. “As the person who has that kind of bird’s-eye view of the District and everything that’s going on, I want to be able to say, ‘hey, did you know that over on the North Side the Buhl Foundation is doing this kind of programming, and it seems to be working very well on this issue you are saying is also a problem in Beltzhoover?’ and ‘did you know that over in Hazelwood they are doing this project that has this kind of result?’ I think if we were all looking to each other, and looking around to see what each other were doing, we would get more effect with less effort because we would learn from each other’s successes and failures instead of having to learn everything for ourselves.”
“Some parts of the District have gotten further in some types of programming than others, and they can say, ‘hey, we tried this,’” Wolfe says. “I think that is a type of innovation that Jake and his staff have never looked to, and I think neither he nor his staff are out there personally in the communities seeing what is going on. You can’t be addressing needs if you don’t know where the needs are.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to unite a state Legislative District because it straddles different municipalities, different communities, sometimes different counties,” Wolfe says. “This District is all within the City. I appreciate all the different neighborhoods, and all of the diversity, the different ‘feels’ and different identities of all the neighborhoods, but we are all still Pittsburghers. We all live in the same City, we all have access to the same kinds of amenities, we all have access to the same water authority and the same URA, we are all still dealing with the same taxing authority, the same County.”
“But there is an opportunity, because of our similarity, to use that as a resource, and I don’t think that has been tapped into,” says Wolfe. “I don’t think there has been a rallying around a particular place or a particular activity, and I hope to bring that kind of connectivity.”
The challenges facing the neighborhoods of the District, which includes the Hill District, Downtown, the North Side, California-Kirkbride, Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Allentown, Manchester, Knoxville, Perry North and South, the South Side, Uptown, Marshall-Shadeland and Oakland are very different, Wolfe says, but, “the combined powers of us all working together are going to bring a greater result than trying to run in all different directions. That applies to quality of life issues and other issues. There is no part of this District that is not touched by crime in some way. There is no part of this District that is not touched by poverty in some way. There are seniors who live in every single part of the District. There are people living with disabilities in every part of the District, there are children living in every part of the District, there are taxpayers in every part of the District.”
“There are more things in common than separate us, even though we have unique issues in each of the neighborhoods,” Wolfe says. “I don’t think those issues outweigh the things we have in common as Pittsburghers, as Pennsylvanians, as human beings.”
Wolfe says she would invite people from throughout the District to come together and meet each other.
“I don’t see that there is that kind of mechanism which would bring a cross-section of people from across the City together to learn from each other, to talk with each other, to socialize with each other and build relationships with each other,” says Wolfe. “I hope it would be a much more organic thing that that I have to say, ‘Hey, Bob, this is Bill,’ but if you invite people together to discuss their issues, they will find their common ground themselves.”
But, Wolfe says that if personal introductions are required, “I can do that too,” as a result of her campaign efforts to visit every part of the District.
While work in Harrisburg might limit her ability to continue her personal contact with the voters in District 19, Wolfe says, “I can at least have some sort of emissary there, and will have people in my office working who I can make sure will be there. I can have people [on staff] who are also good at making the connections. It’s not just about me, but who I would surround myself with to be able to do the things I have to do.”
Wolfe sees poverty as “the root of a lot of other problems. There is a mix of [incomes], but I think that when they put the District together, there were a lot of criteria that they had to meet, and they also put a lot of poverty together in one District. Downtown is the center of the wheel, but all the spokes out into the community, whether it be the North Side, the Hilltop, Hazelwood, the Hill District — a significant amount of our population is below the poverty level, and that has a lot of ramifications, whether it be the issues of crime, issues of gun violence, issues of drug addiction, issues with property values, education. They all stem from, or are at least compounded by, poverty,” says Wolfe.
“There is a lot that can be done,” she says. “There are strategies to deal with poverty that the state can help put in place, as far as economic development, community stabilization, addiction treatment, mental health treatment. If I thought we were doing everything we could and were still losing, it would be different, but we have waiting lists to get into treatment for addiction, we have a crippled budget for mental health treatment in general, we struggle to fund education, we don’t have the kinds of job readiness and job preparedness programs we need to have. We never put back the strong, good-paying jobs we lost from manufacturing, and if we don’t want to pay a livable minimum wage to people who work in the service industry but want to be a service-heavy economy, you have a huge gap.”
“I think we have a lot of work that can be done and a lot of ground that can be gained in the war on poverty that we are not working on,” Wolfe says. “We have a lot in common with more rural areas who are also struggling with poverty and crime and addiction.”
“We have more in common than we even realize.”
By Nancy Hart