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Valerie Dixon

Peter Drucker once said, "Leaders don't inflict pain, they bear pain." If that's true, then Valerie Dixon is truly a great leader. She turned her own personal pain of losing a son to street violence into a campaign to relieve the pain of others and, hopefully in the process relieved some of her own. Valerie is a true testimony to the fact that you don't have to do dramatic things to make a difference, and her simple but effective plan has heightened awareness both to our community's problems and our ability to solve them. I asked Valerie a few questions and she took it from there, but what she had to say is sad, gripping and full of grace.

JS: Today we have an Urban Hero who was nominated by one of our board members, Jay Gilmer, and her name is Valerie Dixon. Valerie, welcome to the Urban Heroes program.

VD: Well thank you so much. It’s an honor.

JS: It’s an honor to have you. And Jay [Gilmer] nominated you, and the committee looked at it and said, by all means, this is just who we’re looking for. But I understand you’re a little under the weather right now. Tell us about that.

VD: Yeah I just came from surgery; I had surgery last week. I am recovering from that, but I’ll be off work for a little while as I do that. But I held out long enough, so it was due.

JS: Sounds good. Now tell us a little about Valerie; where you were born, about your family, and your upbringing.

VD: Well, I’m basically born and bred here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I started out as a youngin’ and lived in the Hill District until I was 12 years old. My mom raised me and my brother and at that point we moved back out to the East Liberty area where my grandmother was. And we’ve been out in the East Liberty area ever since. And we’ve been a small family, but a close-knit family. And right now, it’s just myself and my brother and my mother and my niece and my great niece. And I have an auntie left, and quite a few cousins. So we’re all Pittsburgh bred.

JS: So tell me about growing up in Pittsburgh in the Hill District.

VD: As a child, I loved it. It was good times to me. I know there were other adult things going on, during that era. But that was pretty much an era where there was plenty and you didn’t-knowyou- were-poor, type of days. And you didn’t know you were in an impoverished community and things like that, because we had opportunities from all levels. And our mothers always kept us involved. My cousins and aunties kept us involved in various organizations that were either government funded or state-run or whatever. It kept us occupied daily, and kept us engaged.

JS: What did your mom do?

VD: Well my mom, she actually ended up working at the USX Building, and she became an administrative assistant there. But she worked a lot, mostly at Pressley Ridge, and she worked with youth there at Pressley Ridge, and that was one of her favorite jobs.

JS: And church involvement when you were growing up?

VD: Yes. I grew up Baptist; it was a journey! I grew up through a Baptist church and a Baptist lifestyle with my family. As I got older, and I decided I was grown and wanted to spread my wings a bit and kind of broke away from the church. But as I looked for a new church family, I went to several different churches and several different [denominations] and cultures and ended up settling at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and I’ve been there for probably the past maybe 30 years or so. Became a deacon there as well, and done a lot of things in that church. It’s definitely my church family.

JS: So you really are an East Liberty girl. You do everything in that part of town!

VD: Yes, I am! I am fine tuned into the East Liberty area.

JS: Now when you got away from the church, that’s a pretty standard story for many that were raised in the church. What brought you back? What did you miss?

VD: When I left, I was really kind of in my late teens. I had just had my son. I was a senior in high school and got pregnant and continued through, graduated and everything, and had my son. As I started to wander out in the world and find my space, various little jobs here and there, I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled in other ways and in other areas. And so, when I started going back to church, feeling that pull back in, because it was embedded in me.

And I think that’s a lot of what’s missing in our youth today is that they weren’t brought up with any type of religion or culture or anything like that, or spirituality, that they have something to pull back onto or pull them back that they don’t get lost out there.

And so, as I started to go back to different churches to see what I wanted, where I wanted to be, where I felt comfortable, I hit on a few churches. And some of them, I didn’t feel, and I don’t want to say the spirit, or the pastor wasn’t delivering well or anything like that. It just seemed to also be like that Sunday show. That we were all going to on Sunday. Everybody come and look real nice and catch up and say what’s wonderful in your life and go on back to your world and then see you again on Sunday.

And so, the first day that I walked into East Liberty Presbyterian Church, it just felt like home, because it was so many different cultures embedded in that church. And I just saw a variety of flavors, so to speak, that it was a comfort level from the beginning. And just different opportunities that you have to be involved in the church. It was very open, and you didn’t have to be pretentious and you didn’t have to dress up extraordinarily just because it was Sunday.

And even on Easter Sunday, you know, if you want to dress up you can, and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But people were there for other reasons [than those] and I really felt a genuine spirit there. And that’s where I stayed and I was planted. And I raised my son through that church as well.

JS: Yeah, it’s funny. God wants you to know where He wants you to be. So you feel the peace when you get there.

VD: Yeah you definitely do.

JS: So now, so you’re a teenager, you graduate high school. What happens then? You go off to school?

VD: Well, no, I didn’t go off to school. I graduated and had a baby. So I stayed home for about three or four months with the baby, and decided, I better get a job. I went out and had a few little odds and ends jobs. I worked at Rax Roast Beef, if anyone remembers Rax. I worked there starting out. And I had a couple other odds and ends jobs, but I ended up working at Giant Eagle, and while I was at Giant Eagle, and was there for a couple of years. And there didn’t really seem like there was room for promotion. It just seemed that they don’t really do it like they did before. Right now you could go right in and be on the register or move to different areas of the organization. But then, it was you started out a bagger and you worked your way up. And I was a bagger for two years, and that was enough for me. I never got a chance to tap my fingers on the register, so I said, you know what, I better find something that’s going to provide an income for me and my family.

And so, at the time, it was pretty much the Carter-era, and there were a lot of programs out. And they had a program called the OIC: Operation Industrial Center. And with the OIC, they would teach you all the various trades that were all the union trades. Through the whole year, you learned various trades, and at the end of the year, they applied for apprenticeships for you. And I actually went through that program and at the end of the year, I applied for an apprenticeships. And I applied, I believe it was for painters, electricians, carpenters, heavy equipment operator and plumber. I went for those, and then the applications came back, and four out of those came back and they accepted me, and I just plucked plumber out of the bunch. And I said, I don’t know any female plumbers, so I’ll take the plumber thing.

JS: Paved the way! You’re a pioneer!

VD: Pretty much! And so, I was accepted, and I went through the Plumbers Local 27 Apprenticeship in ’84 and came out in ’88 and graduated as a journeyman plumber and did my plumbing for several years, until I was on a few jobs that were quite a bit dangerous. And kind of looked deeper into my future to things, and I wondered, if I’m 40 or 50, will I be able to carry that galvanized steel pipe, ten foot lift, at that age. I better find a different career, as a backup, so to speak.

And so I kind of went into the health field. I had a friend that was working with an organization called Automated Health Systems. And basically was an organization that setup prescreening physicals for young people that are medical assistants throughout the state of Pennsylvania. And each of us would have our various counties throughout Pennsylvania that we worked with. And we’d contact families and let them know that their pre-screenings are due for their children and set up their appointments for them, and make sure that they get to the doctor’s office and things like that.

I did that for a while, and that job led me to UPMC. At the time before UPMC became involved with insurance, it was just health care. And there was a little health organization that came out of Philadelphia. They came and took a spot in downtown Pittsburgh at the Marriott, had a couple floors there, and we sold healthcare to Medicaid recipients. Then UPMC came in and they wanted to get into the field of health insurance. And they came in on educational angle, to see how it all works, and eventually it was 10% UPMC and then it was 25%, then it was 50%, and the next thing we knew, we were called UPMC.

And that’s where I was until the tragedy that happened to my family; losing my son to violence out here in the streets of Pittsburgh. Which eventually led me to work with the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, where I am still today after 12 years.

JS: 12 years. Can you talk about the circumstances that surrounded your son’s passing?

VD: Yeah. Well…my son Robert James Houston Dixon, he was born in ’79. He was my baby that I had when I graduated from high school. So I always remember, what year I graduated. He was, the light of our lives. Like I said, we had a small family and my mother only had two kids. And so I had a son and my brother had a daughter, Jennifer. They were actually due the same month, but as women are so eager to get out and get going, my niece came early and she was born in March and my son was born in May. And they grew up like brothers and sisters all their life.

And my son was really a popular young man. And he just had that personality. I recall walking past Peabody High School and we saw the Kingsley Association football team out there playing. And he was 7, and he ran over to the fences and said, “Mom! What are they doing?!” And I said, they’re playing football. And he said, “Wow! Football! That’s nice! I wanna play! I wanna play!”

And I said, well I have to sign you up. And he was just, let’s go, let’s go! And he was just so eager. And I went over and asked what the qualifications. And they said he had to be eight to start on the little league, and things like that. So as we were leaving, he said, “Mom, why aren’t I playing football??” And I said, well, you have to be eight years old to play, and you’re only 7.5 right now, so you can’t play right now.

We went home and he cried for two weeks. So, I took him back, and I said, he’s eight. And, he played football ever since, from day one when he would hit the field, he was a star player. And it just came naturally to him. And he went through Kingsley, and played in each league, through Kingsley. He went to Westinghouse High School, and he was the star player at Westinghouse High School, and he helped win them the last three city league championships that they ever won.

JS: Yeah. It was a powerhouse. They won every year.

VD: Yes they did. Yes they did. He was pretty much a superstar there. He didn’t have a good grade point average, but he was a good football player. At the time, we never had a family member that graduated and went to college and things like that. So he was the one that was highlighted every week on tv. Fox 53 used to have Fox Jocks, and he would always be on there. And he’d have all kinds of scouts at the school all the time.

And the coaches, this is one we’re not going to let slip through the cracks. We’re going to make sure he makes it through this that and the other. We had all the promises that were set out to my family about it, so I pretty much thought things were going to be taken care of. And then it came time for him to graduate and we were like, “What’s going on, and what do we have here?” And, didn’t see a lot of the support.

I saw a lot of the support when he was making touchdowns in high school, but when it was time for him move further, I didn’t see a lot of the support. So at the last minute, my family struggled to try to get him into school because it was last minute. And we eventually got him into Mercea College in Mercea, California. We sent him down there. He’d never been away from home ever, from Pittsburgh. Being that it was a time restraint too, we had to send him out by train, we couldn’t get the plane ticket and things.

So he finally got down there. He played, but he hated it. He wanted to be home. He called every day. I had to get him his own 1-800 number to call home. Eventually I brought him back, but I set him up with appointments with Joe Walton and Walt Harris of Pitt and Robert Morris. And they really liked him and heard about him, but I guess they didn’t want to take a gamble on him, because he had a couple of incidents in Shuman, and being around guys who were in possession of marijuana and things like that. No serious crimes or anything.

Like I always told him, “You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s just God telling you this is not for you. You’re the one that always gets caught. These guys, it’s just their lifestyle. This is what they want to do and this is what they’re going to get caught up in. But the reason you get caught, or the one that you’re picked up, even though you didn’t do anything, because something is telling you this is not where you belong.” I used to always share that with him.

So, the last time that he ended up getting in trouble, he was on probation, and he was an adult at the time. It was an incident that happened in Pittsburgh. A police officer was dragged by a car. They were trying to pull somebody over and a police officer was hanging on the car and the police officer ended up having to shoot into a car. And he killed a couple of kids that were in the car, and things like that.

So about two months later, my son ended up hitching a ride with somebody to go up the Hill, but he had not known that the police were following this car at the time, and it was pulled over. And so, by the time got in the car, the police had pulled in front of the car, just so it wouldn’t go anywhere, to let the guy know that he’s being pulled over and the police want to talk to him, the driver.

So the driver wouldn’t turn off the car as the police officer asked him. And he ended up putting the car in reverse and speeding backwards and running into a pole. So by the time all the stars were lifted from everybody’s head, the police surrounded the car, and everybody was taken to jail, and I got a call at work that my son was in jail.

So I wanted him to sit there for a minute, so he could understand the gravity of it all. But when I eventually went down there, and they were having hearings for these other two guys. The police were following them because they knew they were involved in some criminal activity. The police officer actually vouched that my son was not who they were looking for at the hearing and said, he just got in the car at the time. They had already picked this car out for the day they were going to pick these guys up.

So with the police officer vouching for him, and with me as a mom going to court and knowing once they become an adult, you’re really a spectator for your child in the criminal court system. When they’re in juvenile court, there’s a few things you can say to the judge, and say, “Judge, I’ll take this night-time job and I’ll be home during the day, and this, that, and the other.” But once it gets to criminal court, you’re really a spectator.

But what I did do, I went to support my son at the hearing. And the judge actually gave me an opportunity to speak, which I was surprised, because usually they don’t; because he’s already an adult. All I had was 62 letters from colleges from across the country that had sent letters to him during his reign playing football. And I just wanted to hand that to the judge and let him know that this is really not my son; this is not who he is.

And the judge looked at about six of the letters, and he looked at my son. And he really told him that, you know, these men here want you to be down with them, and you know what being down is? Being down in the county or down in the state penitentiary. That’s what being down is. You have the opportunity to take yourself somewhere farther than you ever thought you could be.

And he said, I’m going to give you the opportunity, but I’m going to give you one year on probation. And if you ever small a court room, you’re going to be doing state time. And my son really came back from that, learned a lot, changed his life around, and changed quite a few of his friends around, and had a friend that he played little league with for a long time that ended up down in Atlanta, who had been showing off his football skills a bit.

Bishop Eddie Long knew that the Atlanta Falcons had a little buddy-buddy program that they allow people to bring two guys on during the summer camp and get a little feel for things and see how they look and what they’ve got. And Bishop Eddie Long asked his friend Jerome, if he knew anybody that he could come down with and go to the summer camp with. And he mentioned my son.

So they sent up for some footage for my son from high school here in Pittsburgh, and his year down at Mercea College. And they said bring him on down here; we want him down here. So at the time, my son was on probation and he had only a couple weeks left before he was off. And he explained that to them, and they said, okay, that’d be fine; perfect timing.

So his friend from Atlanta came up to visit family and they were going to go back together. Well in the interim, there was a kid who lived in my community who just hated on my son. My son was popular, and he was a jokester. He’d rip on people, and he’d rip on you, and you’d laugh, because it was all in fun. But he just had something against him. And he was still a kid who was in that mentality that “I’m from Larimer” or “I’m from Wilkinsburg.” “And these Lincoln dudes or these Homewood dudes;” he was one of those guys in those types of mindsets.

And so, him and my son had a few words in January 2001 and ended with a little push and shove; not much. People said it wasn’t really even anything and they didn’t pay much attention. It was done and over; a little push and shove, and they went on about their way. And we’d still see each other every day, because the kid lived at the end of our street.

But unbeknownst to us, he was just fuming about it. And he let that anger continue to build and build until one day he just decided that he was going to kill my son. So, when June 25th came about, he asked some guy in the street, he asked if he could get him a gun. And the guys asked him what’s it to him, to get him a gun.

And I guess he showed him, the story came out at trial, he showed him two rocks, which is two pieces of cocaine or something like that. And the guy said, “Oh, okay, I’ll be right back”. And so the guy came back in about two hours and he had a mint condition 357 Magnum.

And he gave it to him and the story is, which is what came out in court, he actually was in an older man’s house that lived a block away from us that he used to sell his drugs in. And there were people in the house, so he called everybody to the back just to show them the gun. Everybody was in awe of this gun. And there was an older guy asking if he could touch it and feel it and shoot one off. And the district attorney asked, “Why did you want to shoot one off?” And he said because he had never shot a gun before and just wanted to feel what it felt like. Now this is a 30-something year old man. And he asked, once he gave the gun back, what he was going to do with the gun, the kid that killed my son. And he said he just put it in a Giant Eagle bag and rolled it up and put it under the steps.

My son, during the day, was getting phone calls from a friend of his that he grew up with in the community, because this boy that wanted to kill him said, “Call your boy around here, because I’ve got something real important to tell him.” And so this kid, I still have hesitation to believe that he didn’t know. But this kid kept trying to call my son. And my son was ignoring his calls most of the day.

And near the end of the day, when he was getting ready to come back to his house with his girlfriend. He said, “Well let me go around the corner and see what Lance wants. He’s been calling me all day.” So, after that last call, then my son went around the corner and the guy who testified in the house, the older guy who had touched the gun earlier, he asked if he had seen the boy that was going to kill him say, “Okay, let’s go do this.”

And then he walked out the front door, and as the guy was walking behind him to lock the door, he seen him shoot my son in his chest. So my son had just gotten around the corner and he just came out the door and shot him in his chest.

And then he ran another direction. And then during the trial time, two other young ladies were at a bus stop, and they saw the other two shots. He leaned over my son who was on the ground, and he put the gun to his temple, and shot him again, and shot both of his eyes out. And then he stood up over him and shot him twice again.

He ran around the corner, threw the gun in the sewer, and eventually, during the shooting those that saw it ran, and those that heard it started to come to the area where they heard it and saw my son there still gasping for air and they were trying to help him out until paramedics got there. And, unbeknownst to anyone about who did it, this kid actually came back around the corner and stood there with everybody else the whole time until the coroners came and picked my son’s body up.

And there never was a reason or an explanation. And I recall in court when he had his opportunity to say anything after the victim impact statement, when my family gets to say something. And the judge asked if there was anything he had to say, and he just hunched his shoulders up like a three-year old. And that was pretty much it. And the devastation of that was just so horrendous, that you just don’t know where to go. You’re just in a paranormal state. But, I knew at the time my son was killed that I knew an arrest was important and all that.

But I knew that our fate was already sealed. My son was dead. And nothing changed that. Finding the killer and going to court and trial. So in my mind, I had to focus on how I was going to live the rest of my life without my child. How does anyone do that? How do you survive doing that?

And I focused on that, mostly, before anything else. And everybody else gets tied up in finding the person that did this, and this, that, and the other. I didn’t do that. I knew we had to, and I did that along the way. But I worked on my, for lack of a better word, healing. Because there’s no healing in that. And I worked on how I was going to deal with this daily.

As I was kind of forced to go back to work. And I sat there comatose, literally. And during that time, actually before I went to work, one of my son’s friends had called to tell me he needed to tell me something. And we hadn’t even buried my son yet. And we told him to meet us at the funeral home. And the kid never got a chance to meet us at the funeral home.

Four days later he was shot and killed. And while he was dying, he mentioned who killed him to whoever was around him, and four hours later that young man was killed. And then five weeks after that, the first call that I got that said Miss Val, they killed Rob, the night my son got killed, the young man that called me with that phone call, he and his sister were murdered. So, I knew it was bigger than just the death of my son.

And I’d heard of the deaths prior to my son, of course. And, I just felt nobody cared. Nobody cared about our kids and our community, just because of where we’re at, or what we have or don’t have. I just refused to let mine be swept under the rug. And even though we had a swift arrest, and prosecution, I know there are many families that don’t get that and don’t have that, and I never experienced that. But I have experienced the grief and the loss, so in a lot of ways, I felt that there was a way to try to help other people find some type of, another word I don’t like to use is, closure. At least, knowing who did it, and why it was done.

And so, when I went back to work, I started tinkering a bit on the computer and creating different fliers and I called different organizations, like the gang task force, witness protection program, and things like that, and asked if I could put their numbers on fliers; I’m going to community meetings in regards to violence and seeing what’s going on in my community, and they said, fine. So I accumulated a few numbers, and I felt that this was not enough as I was going to these meetings. It needs to be louder, it needs to be bolder, it needs to be in your face.

And so I created this billboard, and I asked the family members that I knew of that had lost someone if they minded me posting their loved one’s picture on the billboard to try to see if we could get some answers, some resolve, some issues resolved within our community.

If we can’t even find the shooters, they can use the numbers for other things, like calling in gang violence, or if you have a weapon in your home, you can call that and say “Look, I’ve got this gun, can somebody come pick it up?” Whatever it might be.

So I went to the billboard company with my idea, and I did a template of it, and when I told them what I wanted to do, they were so set back about it, they said they’d do it for free. And so the first month, I got the first billboard up and it got a lot attention and a lot of play. And I had quite a few interviews with it.

And I was asked by the billboard company, they said they wanted to help me fine tune it a bit, and they wanted to help me move further with it.

And so, they helped me fine tune it. And because I am a Pittsburgher, and love football, and black and gold, I wanted that to be the colors so that people would recognize that. You know they instantly know the black and gold here.

And then, they said, my first original billboard; well, they said a good billboard has eight words or less. People are driving, eight words capture it, and they’re on their way. My original billboard had 42 words! So they helped me streamline it.

I went to the DA and I asked for reward money to put on it, because people did call in, but I thought money would be a better incentive. And knowing that people want to move out of the area, and usually if they tell what they know, sometimes they do have to leave from where they’re at. And I knew somebody would help, and I asked the DA if we could use drug confiscated funds to post on the billboard.

And the first year I asked him, he gave us $1,000 for every billboard. And then about three or four years later, I asked him if he could bump it up, and he bumped it up to $5,000, and we’ve been doing it at that ever since.

And that opportunity has allowed me to work with a lot of antiviolence initiatives and organizations to create initiatives that can help deter violence, or have another avenue for young people out there as opposed to what they believe is the only thing that they can do out there, and that’s create chaos and havoc.

And so, those efforts have been a lot of my healing process. I didn’t go through a lot of therapy; that was my therapy. To continue to do that is mine; to help with other family members, you know, a lot of them don’t pick up on therapy. And sometimes they have to be encouraged or if they can see the positives of what therapy can do for them. They like to get into the same type of work, and they like to share their stories and they like to try to change young people’s lives as well. Once they’ve worked on their grief for a while, because that’s most important, because they really can’t help anyone else unless they’ve been dealing with their own grief.

But, the work that I’ve been doing, and turned my organization into the name The Pact Initiative, which is Prevent Another Crime Today is geared towards helping those families that have lost a loved one to violence and helping them re-empower themselves within their community so that they can become their own resources for families that are struggling with young people that are involved in violent acts or on the road to that, trying to create avenues where we can kind of control that.

And so I’ve also become the vice-chair of BETA, which is a Black Political Empowerment Project. And that’s given me a lot of political opportunities to talk to legislators on issues that we feel real change needs to be done. And, that has brought about the Coalition Against Violence, which is a document that we set down since 2007 when Pennsylvania was named number one on black-on-black homicide.

And we started writing this document of various strategies that could be worked on from A to Z. Anyone from any segment of society, if they feel they want to do something in regards to violence prevention or intervention, they can look at this document, and we sat down with over 400 people through the years and embellished this document and have reissued it out to the community again, with hopes and prayers of implementation.

And one of the things that we’re very proud of that did come out of the document, just from our particular work, is the YAEP Program, which is the Young Adult Empowerment Project. And we work with the Community College of Allegheny County, the Urban League, and the Pittsburgh Literacy Council, where those youths that are between 17 and 24 and not likely to go to college, can be processed through the program through CCAC and actually work on obtaining a job skill where they can have a decent lifestyle.

And so, we recently have had electricians come on board; they’ve become part of that program as well. And so through the program, and UPMC obtaining the CNA, they’ve added on to our program, as well as the program that CCAC already had: plumbing, heating and air conditioning, carpeting, different things like that. And so those are some of the things we’d like to see happen through the work that’s being done. So it’s for social and economic ills of society that kind of bring about the way our communities end up. And we’re trying to reverse that.

JS: Well Valerie, we could talk for 2 hours and you’ve got a lot to say. And we certainly appreciate your story. We certainly don’t appreciate the circumstances that created it, but your response to it is why you were nominated for the program. We appreciate what you’re doing. We, in some minor ways, grieve your loss with you, but thank you for what you’re doing. And the thing about your efforts is that you don’t know what you’ve prevented, so you just have to do this in faith and trust that you’re making a difference.

VD: Right. Right. There’s no measuring the type of work I do.

JS: If you prevented one person from pulling a trigger and one family was prevented from going through what you went through, it certainly makes it somewhat redemptive in the tragedy that you expressed. At any rate, we could talk longer, I’d like to keep you…


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