In the early 2000s, a pair of new college graduates lived in Highland Park, just across the street from a crumbling old church. It hadn't been used recently, and the arts grads dreamed of buying the property and turning it into a community asset where artists and the arts could flourish.
Fifteen years later, the Union Project is still going strong with its mission of connecting community members via the arts. For the past eight years, it’s been led by Jeffrey Dorsey.
“It’s been awesome," Dorsey said. "Union Project is a really great fit for my values and how I believe that the arts can play a role in building more empathetic communities, and this is a time in the world that we need that as much, or more, than ever.”
Ceramics is the central program for the Union Project: not only does the co-op run a full-scale ceramics studio, but its members also volunteer to plan and teach about 70 community ceramics classes each year.
“Over the years, we’ve adjusted that model to be more of a community studio that is kind of what we call ‘zero to maker,’ or a ladder that allows anybody, at any skill level, at any age, to participate with us and work their way up all the way to professional artist,” Dorsey said.
But, under Dorsey, the Union Project has been just as focused on community outreach as it has been on the arts.
“So, even though we’ve put more of a focus on the arts as a strategy for how we build community, we are community-builders at our core,” Dorsey said.
To that end, after realizing that East End residents needed a place to just sit down and talk, Dorsey started a monthly program called Creative Conversations two years ago.
“The community members who attend kind of steer this thing. They give their input," Dorsey said. "We get into really difficult issues sometimes, about race and class and politics – obviously, with this political year, that has come up a lot. We’ve had issues come up around police shootings, and we’ve made art together.”
Dorsey said the Union Project builds much of its programming around which activities are in demand in the East End, and also which ones local residents can offer to lead. That can be anything from free health and wellness services given by local professionals -- to a long-running hula-hooping class given by Erica Johnson, who lives down the street.
Johnson said she was a new resident to Highland Park when she wandered into the Union Project with two hula-hoops on her shoulder. Within an hour, Dorsey was asking her to teach a class.
“And I still marvel that he took that time out of his day to just talk to this neighbor and hula-hoop, and gave me that opportunity to do that thing that changed my life and brought this really fun thing to the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who’s now the interim office manager at the Union Project, said Dorsey is a community leader.
“He doesn’t ever take credit for what goes on here," Johnson said, "but the rest of us have to acknowledge that, without leadership like his -- that is vulnerable, and open, and questioning, and willing to be changed -- that this place wouldn’t have the welcoming atmosphere that it has, and wouldn’t have the impact in the community.”
For his part, Dorsey said he’s looking forward to preparing the Union Project as one of several Pittsburgh locations hosting events for the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts in March.