An Interview with Matthew Mehalik

The following is a transcript of an interview with Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director of The Breathe Project, a clearinghouse of information, research and empowerment for the residents of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania to work towards improving air quality within the region.

SP: Sai Prateek

MM: Matthew Mehalik

SP: So, among the questions I have, one was, is there, among the various participants of The Breathe Project, is there a distribution of power within them? And if so, how is it distributed? Is there a governing body, does it change at a particular interval?

MM: So yes, Sai, thanks for asking about that and thanks for setting up time to talk today. So, The Breathe Project, we’re a very unique situation. At one level, we’re almost like a startup, because we’ve only been a publicly facing organization since March of this year. But, a lot of the social capital and initial relationship building has been ongoing for almost 10 years. And what has been the organizing focal point has been campaigns. So if you were to look as far as organizational structure and governance structure and decision making, it really revolves around specific campaigns.

And, there is not a board, there is not a higher level of governance or entity. It really is, there are three staff people: myself, and I started two years ago. Then Debra Smit, our communications manager, she started about 18 months ago, and then Michele, as of July, started working as a program manager. So, we’re still sorting out a lot of the issues of organizational structure. What has been a driving factor, has been that there are clear air quality-related issues in Pittsburgh and a lot of it has stemmed from misunderstanding of facts. So, we’ve had groups cluster on that aspect, and that gives birth to the reports and scientific database. Then there’s another organizing cluster that we call Leadership Accountability, so that is focusing on governmental institutions who hold the responsibility to address air quality issues, but because of various issues of the past and present, they are not performing at levels that they could be. And then there is another cluster on just community voice – trying to build up community groups so that they can weigh in and actively participate.

So really, if there is a governing structure, it talks to when we set up campaign activities set up to those themes, it’s who the groups are that have the expertise, skills and social capital that can be brought to bear. And then we’re the sort of functional organization that is set up to ascertain that. So that’s really it at this point. Now, going forward, as these campaigns become more long term, and as our program continues to build out and some public voice weighs in as The Breathe Project, up until 6 months ago, really it was the other member groups that were the voice. But now, we’re creating our own voices.

We’re going to have to address some of the governance issues going forward. And we don’t really know at this point, what that’s going to look like. It’s an ongoing discussion, and that’s one reason why your maps (flowcharts) are beneficial is because it helps structure some of the things we do and can be useful in dialogue.

SP: Thank you. To what extent is there involvement from local and state government in functioning or funding for The Breathe Project?

MM: So, there’s no funding from state funds, no public sources of funding. As far as functioning, we don’t have formal governmental entities as participating members. However, at the community level, we have just added our first community development entity – the northside leadership conference, its mainly a local community group, but it does have a relationship with city governance through local city council people. We don’t have anything like that at the state level. Although, some institutions like University of Pittsburgh, which is a semi private university, the School of Public Health, has some public dimensions to how it operates, but its not a full blown governmental organization.

SP: Okay. Is there a level of transparency or cooperation between the various participants of The Breathe Project?

MM: Yes, absolutely. Again, it zeroes in on the campaign aspects.Not every BP organization is on every campaign. And by the way, I should just point out that individuals are not members of The Breathe Project, its only organizations that are members. So when there is agreement among a cluster of BP groups on a priority for a campaign objective, we organize a cluster around that, they have communication tools to facilitate discussions within the collaborative about those campaigns.

SP: Alright. Are there any citizens or individuals that responded positively to The Breathe Project so I could talk to them and see what their opinions are and see how successful they have been at helping improve air quality?

MM: Yes, I can put you in touch with individuals but they will be answering in terms of the group. So yes, there are multiple groups. One that would be particularly beneficial would be members of Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), they’re a good grassroots group to speak with. You can basically pick any of the other nonprofit organizations that do environmental policy and advocacy, so another group worth talking to could be Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, or PennFuture – any of them would be good to speak with.

SP: I think I recently read about someone called Summer Lee, a state representative, and I read that she is very involved in environmental justice. Do you plan on involving her as well?

MM: Yeah, Summer Lee! I already had a discussion with her Chief of Staff. She’s just building up relationships right now, but she’s certainly someone with whom – particular because we have campaign work in Mon Valley communities, Clairton and Braddock in particular – and we want to enhance our engagement on the Braddock community. This raises a very interesting dynamic that is important for The Breathe Project, and that is allowing communities to develop their own agenda and plan, so that they begin with a plan on “this is what the community needs” and helping that conversation in a way so that there is at least an awareness of how air pollution and air quality are part of those community’s priority. So we’re trying to help with that. That doesn’t work if you come in and you say “your community is polluted, here are all the problems with that” – that tends to demobilize people. So it’s all about figuring out how that conversation can be structured so that it begins internally, and then people are open to working with a group like us. Then, what we would want to do is form a true partnership so that a citizens group in Braddock feels a part of The Breathe Project, so that’s how we’re going with that.

SP: Okay, so the last thing I guess is, understanding that The Breathe Project is now going through restructuring, is there anything you think The Breathe Project should prioritize to help achieve its goals more effectively, in terms of strategy?

MM: Yeah, so the conversation about Braddock, is also relevant to Clairton as well, Homewood as well. Traditionally, environmental nonprofits have not been particularly diverse, so there is a long history, even if you look at The Breathe Collaborative groups, we tend to not be as diverse as what the community is and needs, so that’s emerged as probably our highest priority this year. And that’s why conversations with someone like Summer Lee is so vital, because really, we’re not looking to just provide things for Braddock, we’re looking at Summer Lee and members of Braddock to help us transform The Breathe Project so that it is more reflective of what the community needs and wants.

SP: That’s perfect. That’s all I have. I also have a list of people to interview – Albert Presto of The Breathe Mobile. And maybe Joel Tarr as well.

MM: That’s good, Albert would be really good to talk to. There is a communications person in the Environmental Integrity Project that would be good to speak with, her name is Lisa Graves-Marcucci. She would be a good person to speak with.

I’m not sure how connected Joel Tarr is to the everyday of The Breathe Project, but there is a much longer history of Pittsburgh air pollution, and leadership coming together only started in the 40s with David Lawrence. The Breathe Project exists because some of the work that the Allegheny Conference, basically a group of CEOs at a round table, was launched to address air quality issues in the 1940s. The Council still exists, but their model has evolved to be less concerned about environmental issues. And so, The Breathe Project was re-launched because that is something that has fallen off the corporate and government leadership’s eyes, and so we’re picking that back up again. It really is a long term goal to get that woven back in again so that the governmental and corporate leadership again address air quality as a high priority. The bottom line is, our air quality is really bad here, we’re in the 6th percentile of counties nationwide for bad air pollution, so it’s a high priority.

SP: Thank you, I think I have all I need. I’ll scan the diagrams and send them to you.

MM: Thank you, thank you! It’s just great, and we’ll give you credit for making that. I just think it would be great to have that so that we can share it with people. Thank you for doing this, good work! And if you need any more information to follow up, do not hesitate to reach out. Last week, there was a pipe blowout in Center Township, so we were very much involved in the response to that, with our oil and gas campaign stuff. All those things have been popping up a lot lately, and when those happen I have to devote my time to that. That being said, the educational support is vital, so don’t hesitate to reach out. Thank you.

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