On a recent Saturday morning, the stately Anderson Manor mansion in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood was abuzz with the animated chatter of around 30 kids. 

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On the ground floor, around a dozen students stood around the kitchen as chef Jolando Hinton gave instructions on how to prepare the day’s culinary masterpiece: chicken alfredo. A week before, the students had prepared loaded potatoes and chili. 

“Let me cook!” a student said, grabbing the spatula from Hinton’s hands and taking over the alfredo sauce. Other students were engrossed in their own duties, chopping parsley, or keeping an eye on the chicken. 

Upstairs, other groups occupied three rooms, each a space for a different course: playwriting, visual arts and video production. 

The students were part of the Cross-Culture Program, a joint initiative by Beechview-based Casa San José and Manchester’s Iota Phi Foundation. The program, now in its second year, is an effort to bring together the African American and Latino communities that the organizations each predominantly serve. This year’s cohort comprises groups of 20 Latino and 20 African American students aged 12 to 17 years. 

Two people preparing food in a kitchen.
Chef Jolando Hinton gives instructions on how to prepare chicken alfredo at the Anderson Manor mansion in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood on November 11, 2023. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

The programs run for 8 to 12 weeks during the fall. Students immerse themselves in a hands-on learning experience within their chosen course for the initial weeks. 

Most importantly, they get to know each other in ways that might not otherwise occur. 

“Some of our kids immigrated from a different country. Some of them were born here to immigrant parents,” said Lizbeth Garcia, lead youth coordinator at Casa San José. “So part of that is what we want to achieve is for them to understand their own culture and how they are implementing it living here in America.” 

Building bridges between communities

Tyanne Torbert, a 15-year-old who goes to Montour High School, joined the program as a volunteer, and initially didn’t know anyone. Once there, she met Nia Hart, another volunteer who attends Plum Senior High School. Torbert and Hart became best friends and hope to remain in touch long after the program ends. 

Two young women laughing in a room.
Nia Hart and Tyanne Torbert laugh during a conversation in the Cross-Culture Program event at the Anderson Manor mansion in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood on November 11. Torbert and Hart met through the program and became best friends. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

“I just think it’s really fun. You make a lot of friends, you learn a lot of new stuff,” Torbert said.  

Rahmon Hart, CEO of the Iota Phi Foundation, conceptualized the program with Monica Ruiz, the executive director of Casa San José, as a way to bridge gaps between the two communities. 

“​​It’s well documented that the City of Pittsburgh isn’t the most diverse city in the country,” said Hart. “​​Our young people don’t necessarily have a lot of natural ways to meet different people and to safely explore otherness or difference.”

A man standing at a table.
Raymon Hart, CEO of Iota Phi Foundation, initiates a conversation about Thanksgiving traditions in the Anderson Manor mansion dining room on November 11. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

Students gather at Anderson Manor every other weekend for their instructional classes. The sessions begin with a round of icebreakers and group activities aimed at exploring the commonalities and differences between the two communities. 

Hinton’s goal is to bring his students together through different foods. He teaches them how cultures unite by having different names for the same types of food. 

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“Food is a very sacred ritual,” Hinton said. “You always want to break bread with your friend.” 

In the kitchen, Hinton said, students come feeling hesitant. Once they start preparing their food, students bond over their likes and dislikes and start to relax. 

Jos Johnson, 17, has been involved with the Iota Phi Foundation for about three years. This year, he joined the program as a volunteer. When the program started, he said he noticed, “a clear division between the two cultures.” 

A young man standing in front of a window.
Jos Johnson in the sunroom at the Anderson Manor mansion on November 11. When the program started, he said he noticed, “a clear division between the two cultures.” (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

As students began participating in activities, he said, the line that divided them began blurring and the two groups started socializing — and creating. 

Discovering similarities, breaking stereotypes

Emma Ibarra-Romano, a 15-year-old Dormont resident, is in the program’s playwriting class. Over four sessions, her group developed a play in which two celebrities, one African American and one Latino, crossed paths.

While brainstorming ideas for their play, Ibarra-Romano said she learned more about African American culture and how welcoming the people in that community are. She feels the same sentiment is echoed in her own culture. 

“Hispanics, they’re really like welcoming people. We love talking to people,” she said. 

Ibarra-Romano feels that her community is misjudged and labeled as “mean. … I feel like that’s not fair. Especially when the person doesn’t know about their culture or anything,” she said. 

Dayron Cohetero, 13, has often heard the people in his community being stereotyped as “border-hoppers,” and hopes that people could have a better understanding of their culture.

The program has helped Torbert break some stereotypes about her Latino peers. “I’m sure there’s a deep stereotype that they might have about us that was just broken whenever we all just came together and just spent time with each other,” said Torbert. 

A group of people sitting around a table eating food. Lizbeth Garcia gives a young man a high five.
Lizbeth García, right, interacts with the Cross-Culture Program participants as they gather in the Anderson Manor mansion dining room for tamales on Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

Johnson’s favorite part about his culture is the kindness he sees in people. But often, he said, people think that African American people cannot succeed on their own.

Johnson hopes to break that stereotype and believes that learning about other people’s way of life is the way to achieve that. 

“In order to understand other people, you need to understand how they live and what their life is like,” said Johnson. “It helps you feel for them. You feel empathy for them.” 

Going forward

As the last instructional day drew to an end, students gathered around the common room with chicken alfredo piled up on their plates. That day, they were also served tamales. Later, students took turns sharing anecdotes about Thanksgiving traditions at their homes. 

In the second phase of the program, students will visit Chicago and tour the National Museum of Mexican Art and the DuSable Black History Museum. 

A group of people posing for a picture in a dining room.
The Cross-Culture Program kids gather for a photo in the Anderson Manor mansion dining room. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

Garcia said they hope to expand the program by involving the city’s Nepalese community in the next year. 

Hart hopes that students will leave the program as future community leaders who can champion being comfortable in exploring and learning about different people. 

“We want people to judge and treat people based on the relationships they have with people, not with preconceived notions of them being different,” said Hart.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia. 

Translation by Zulma Michaca, a bilingual professional living in Riverside County, Calif., with family ties in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at z.michaca123@gmail.com.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...