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This is the third installment of our series, First Person, featuring Black leaders in environmental organizations and advocacy in our region.

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Ariam Ford admits she’s a history nerd. It was her major as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, and its lessons give her hope that things can change.

“Change is the only constant,” Ford said. 

And there’s a lot that needs to change when it comes to the systemic problems Ford faces in her work. She holds a Master of City Planning from Boston University and is the executive director of Grounded Strategies. It’s a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that helps communities to reclaim vacant lots and underutilized land.  

LISTEN to Ariam Ford tell her story


The city of Pittsburgh’s population swelled to more than 675,000 in 1950, but over the decades the population dwindled to just over 300,000 people today, with about 27,000 vacant lots.

“What’s happened is huge, vast swaths of divestment in Black and Brown communities,” Ford said. “Other neighborhoods have seen decades of investment and rejuvenation and community development. And it’s an emergency that’s not being treated like one.”

Ford says she’s found an alarming lack of urgency in people who have the power to make change for residents in the communities in which Grounded Strategies works, and she has to continually find ways to confront that apathy. 

Ariam Ford

Ariam Ford working in a neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Ariam Ford.

“These are people’s livelihoods and families and legacies,” she said. “Because the system from the beginning was set up to exclude them, everything they have they’ve had to fight for.”

For Ford, delivering environmental justice means giving a voice and a platform to the people who live with hyper-vacancy and the repercussions of environmental inequalities, and making sure they are at the forefront of decision-making for moving forward.

“The voices of community need to be taken just as seriously as any other stakeholder voice, as that has not happened in the past,” she said.

Some of Grounded Strategies’ projects include working with communities to create rain gardens, designing an incentivized program for residents to become land stewards, and connecting residents with data and expertise to take ownership of land. 

“We’ve been putting Band-Aids on this system of land access and ownership, even though land is the number one way to transfer wealth intergenerationally from family to family,” she said. “[It’s] a huge opportunity to find equity in our economy and our wealth-based systems by making sure that underserved communities gain access to that land expediently.”

Ford hopes that helping people improve the physical environment of their communities will change the quality of their lives. 

“It’s exciting to think that something I did meant that someone got to experience something special in their life in a better way than they might have otherwise because we created an environment that facilitated a high standard of living,” Ford said. “It’s like set design for real life. I think that’s really exciting.”