Q&A with Pam Harbin, Candidate for Pittsburgh Public School Board District 4

We are revisiting our Political Q&A series for the upcoming elections of 2019. We’ve reached out to candidates who are pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ, asking them a series of questions about their campaigns. We’ve sent out about a dozen Q&A’s to folks who agreed to participate. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.

Our next respondent is Pam Harbin. She is seeing election to the open seat in District 4 of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

In addition to Pam’s Q&A, I’ve published a Q&A with Liv Bennett, Deb Gross and Anna Batista. I’ve sent Q&A’s at their request to Kenneth Wolfe, Bethany Hallam, Judith K. Ginyard, Kierran C. Young, and Jessica Rothchild (open lesbian running for Scranton Council), Bobby Wilson and Bruce Kraus and will publish when they submit it. Allegheny County Council Candidate Christine Allen has declined to participate and I’ve sent the information about the Q&A to other regional candidates, inviting them to request a Q&A.

I realize it takes times to complete this Q&A, but it also takes times to create it (see our new Flip the Script series for more on that.) And I think the LGBTQ community deserves every moment of that time.


Your Name: Pam Harbin

PPS District 4

Your Pronouns: She, her, hers

The Office You Seek: Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Education, District 4

How do you describe your identity? White cisgender heterosexual female

Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life. The first gay friend I met was in elementary school. He told me that he liked boys, just like me. We had a common interest. The first LGBTQ person who impacted my life I met later at my first job in the aerospace industry. My co-worker friend confided in me that he lied about being gay in order to get this job because it required a government security clearance. At that time, they wouldn’t give security clearances to gay people, he explained, because it was something he could be blackmailed over. The idea that someone could not be who they truly are in the workplace struck me as being unjust and not fair. I knew then that I wanted to stand up for my friend, and fight to change laws to protect him and others.

Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district, the public schools, and the region. I’m keenly aware of what it means to be LGBTQ in Pittsburgh and be at risk of losing a job or losing your housing if an employer or landlord finds out that someone is transitioning, or identifies as gay or transgender. also know that my LGBTQ neighbors are more likely to be homeless, to experience mental and physical trauma, and to be at-risk for suicide. In addition, the threat of losing protected rights must be a lot to bear.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh Public Schools has a thorough and thoughtful policy around non-discrimination – particularly when it comes to the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming students. In 2016, a policy was passed that has allowed for students to not only feel safe, secure, and heard, but that also has allowed for the expansion of Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSA) across the district. The best thing about this policy is that the students were the ones who helped to write and craft the language and expectations in the policy – giving them true input into the legislation that affects them most.

Though PPS has policy protections for LGBTQ students, we certainly have a long way to go. As a board member, I will continue to fight to protect the civil and human rights of our students, families, and teachers.

Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the School Board? How will you respond to those priorities? Ensuring that schools are a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for LGBTQ students is a shared responsibility that requires a multifaceted strategy consisting of policy, properly implemented training and education, and visibility of District-wide inclusive language and practices.

The PPS Board of Education recently voted to approve policies that advance trans student rights in schools, and require training across the District for administration, teachers, social workers and counselors, nurses, security, health & physical education teachers. The policies to protect rights of trans students was a grassroots effort led by Brashear High School and championed by School Board Director Moira Kaleida. What I have heard consistently from students is that training and implementation is inconsistent across schools and there’s currently no training for new teachers.

As a School Board member, I will make it a priority for administration to carry out the successful implementation of policies at each school making sure that staff members can ask questions, get training, and feel supported as they work to prioritize a hate-free and welcoming school environment.

LGBTQ history is not visible in PPS curruculum even though LGBTQ history is American history. Recently, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that requires New Jersey school districts to teach about the contributions and accomplishments of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities. I was happy to see that this year, PPS hosted a GSA summit which helped to bring together students from all different schools to talk about their struggles and successes. I’d support or introduce policy to celebrate and end the erasure of marginalized communities in PPS curriculum.

How does intersectionality inform your work? As the co-founder of the Education Rights Network, and as an educational advocate and community organizer for the last 12 years, my work is rooted in intersectionality. Fighting to protect our most marginalized and oppressed students is a priority that I take very seriously. My work to end the school to prison pipeline and to stop the criminalization of students, has often brought me to the corner where race/class/ability/gender/language all come together. I will continue to advocate using an intersectional lens as a PPS School Board member.

The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. How does the School Board navigate this equivalency of personal religious freedom with systemic oppression and control of underserved people? Because PPS has focused on passing non-discrimination laws and has put protections in place, religious liberty cannot be used as an excuse to allow for discrimination and oppression. When religion is used as a facade for stripping someone of their rights, we need to stay vigilant in affirming that policies do not allow such discrimination.

One challenge in PPS is the uneven investment of schools in resources like GSAs which can often be overly identified with the assigned staff support. I hear from GSA sponsors who need to take a break, but feel tremendous guilt and anxiety because the district has no one to step in. How can the District support faculty advisors doing this important, but intense work, and assure a continuity of supports for students who depend upon GSAs? As mentioned above, I believe that our teachers need support from central administration, outside partners, and experts in the field, in order to be fully prepared to take on the task of being a GSA advisor. Prioritizing a line item in the budget for Student Support Services to provide equitable funding to GSAs would be a good start. Continuing education and the creation of a pipeline of educators and administrators willing to lead on this issue would also be beneficial to PPS and our students. I’ve maintained an open line of communication between myself and students and staff to help me to gain a deeper understanding of the needs within the LGBTQ community, and I vow to continue to listen to concerns and take action.

Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters. I have received 10 endorsements from member organizations – 9 local and one national. I am proud to have the support of so many people on the ground who value my years of education advocacy work and know the commitment I have to creating the schools our children deserve. My endorsements are as follows:

Allegheny County Democratic Committee Young Democrats of Allegheny County Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Steel City Stonewall Democrats 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club Women for the Future of Pittsburgh Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh (co-endorsement) One Pennsylvania UNITE! NPE Action (Network for Public Education)

Is there anything you’d like to add? I believe strongly in listening to our students and the amplification of student voice. Students should have access to their board members and the opportunity to be heard by the full board and the superintendent. With that in mind, I will propose the idea of school-based public hearings, bringing the board to the students and eliminating barriers to access. If we listen to our students, they will guide us on the right path. Always.

Where can readers find you on social media? Website: https://www.pamharbin.com/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PamHarbinPGH/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/pamelaharbin

Thank you, Pam.


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