NaTisha Washington has a long history of community advocacy, beginning with her position as a Junior Council Member serving the Wilkinsburg School District while a student at Wilkinsburg High School.
Washington, who is a contestant in the Tuesday, April 5 Special Election to fill the House of Representatives District 24 seat vacated when Ed Gainey was sworn in as Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, says her lifelong community advocacy is a result of her desire to make change in her community.
A graduate of Wilkinsburg High School, Washington then attended Penn State University, majoring in Landscape Contracting Design.
“Then I started working in non-profits around Pittsburgh. I started out in the Hilltop area around Beltzhoover, then had a long-term position at Operation Better Block in Homewood, doing environmental coordination projects,” Washington says. At OBB, Washington worked with their job-readiness program for teenagers, the Junior Green Corps, as well as working with local residents on environmental issues.
Her next position was her current one, as Environmental Justice Organizer at One Pennsylvania, a statewide organization which works in concert with unions, faith organizations, and student groups to campaign for issues of economic, environmental, educational and social justice.
“I always wanted to make change within my community,” Washington says. “As I made my way through non-profit work, I found ways to help solve a lot of community issues, even outside of environmental issues, especially when it came to youth,” citing her experience as an out-of-school educator.
“At OnePA, I found that policy was a thing I was really good at, and found it could be easy for me to make change within my community,” says Washington. “I started learning more about politics, and about how to make change within policy, using the knowledge I have of my community and the issues within my community.”
“A lot of people I’ve run into when advocating for policy change, a lot of people on Council, a lot of people at the County level, don’t have that experience of being within the community, don’t have that on-the-ground experience of community needs,” Washington says.”I think it’s something they’re told a lot, when they engage with the community, but there are also a lot of transparency and accountability issues within politics. So, I figured, who better to run for a political position than somebody who’s already been engaged in that work.”
Washington feels her experience as an educator is also an advantage, as one who would work to keep her district informed regarding issues that affect them.
“I understand policy, and ways to simplify it and give it back to the community so that people understand what it takes to make those changes, and what they can do with their elected officials even beyond my own position,” says Washington. “A lot of people don’t know how different positions have different levels of power. I want to be a person who educates the community as well as mobilizes changes.”
At the state level, Washington feels a lot of the issues are that elected officials, and regional and statewide organizations, “are not on the same plan. A lot of people are trying to solve the same issues, a lot of people have all these different plans, and it has been like putting a puzzle together. We have a lot of statewide issues, and we all have the same state laws we have to follow. Even in Philadelphia, even in Erie, even in the middle of our state, there are all these lead contamination problems. There is air pollution, there are fracking issues, there are lots of communities that are losing population and all of these issues we’re all dealing with, yet there is not a lot of collaboration statewide to make a big push to help all of our communities.”
Washington tends to think in terms of environmental issues thanks to her current position, saying it’s not her only focus, but that environmental justice touches on many other concerns within the district.
“There are a lot of ‘home’ issues, like utility affordability, which is considered an environmental justice issue when it comes to people even having affordable housing, vacant lots and vacant homes and the safety of that, making sure there are clean sidewalks and streets, making sure there are safe streets, these are all issues I’ve had to personally be engaged with, and have loved being engaged with,” Washington says. “Even though environmental justice issues are a passion of mine, I have not strayed away from all the injustices that happen in the communities I work in, because for me, any issue harming my community is an issue that deserves my attention.”
Washington’s interest in schools may be a result of her mother, LaTonya Washington’s long term on the Wilkinsburg School Board. She says her “family full of educators” who also are involved in community advocacy, inspired her desire to educate community members. She also credits her work with OnePA with providing insight into educational issues like school budgeting fairness.
“Not just the budget issues, but advocating for things like safe schools, making sure children including those with special educational needs are getting a quality education, I have a lot of interest in being involved with that.”
Washington is also concerned with the lack of education regarding the proposed merger of Wilkinsburg with the City of Pittsburgh. “Our residents here aren’t fully against it, it’s just there’s so much uncertainly. With us being a community that could be gentrified, we don’t want to just jump into it. A lot of residents want to know what’s going on so they can make a sound decision.”
The term Washington is seeking is to fill out the remainder of Gainey’s two-year term, for which he was re-elected in 2021. Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler scheduled the Special Election separately from the regular primary because redistricting in process complicates who might represent the district. The district Gainey was elected to represent will change composition under the presently proposed map, and Wilkinsburg will become a part of District 34, currently represented by Summer Lee, who herself is running for the United States Senate Seat being vacated by the retirement of Representative Mike Doyle. The regular Primary Election for that seat is to be held in May.
“That was something I found out about earlier this month,” Washington says. “I took a while to ponder and think about what that meant for my campaign. I live in Wilkinsburg, have lived in Wilkinsburg for the majority of my life, and have found a comfortable home here, and I don’t plan on moving. So, if it were a situation where the maps are ‘official,’ and I’m not in the 24th District anymore, I would then just unfortunately be unable to run. But if [Summer Lee’s] seat were open, I would run for that seat if I am able.”
“I’m definitely not a person to stop anything that I’m passionate about, and this is definitely something I want to make my career, it’s definitely something I passionately want to do, so I don’t want to stop a campaign I’ve been very excited about,” Washington says. “At the same time, I’ve been a person who, even with the work that I do, I’ve been able to make a lot of good change in a short amount of time, and I’ve never backed down from making things happen in a short amount of time. Sometimes you only have a year, you only have six months, to make stuff happen, and I’ve been in that environment for a long time.”
“If I was to still win this seat, I definitely would put my all into making sure that I could make as much change as possible during that year, because the community I’d be representing are communities I’ve already worked in, I’ve sat in on their plans, I’ve heard about their issues, I’ve done collaborative work in those communities. So, for me, it would just be trying to put a plan together that could put that District in a very good position even if I had to leave.”
“I’m going with ‘whatever happens,’ but, whatever happens, I’m going to put my best foot forward.”
By Nancy Hart