On Sept. 24 and 25, 2009, the City of Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 economic summit, a meeting of global leaders, finance ministers, and central bank governors from 20 of the world’s largest economies. The G-20, or Group of Twenty, consults and cooperates on issues involving the international financial system. U.S. President Barack Obama chaired the summit. Not surprisingly, Pitt people were actively involved in the hands-on work and the successful outcomes. Here are some glimpses into the action.
Written by Cara J. Hayden, except as noted.
Pitt law student Amelia Mathias spent the past summer in Brussels researching legal directives passed by the European Union, but she didn’t have a chance to meet any of the lawmakers who had roles in creating those documents. Then, the G-20 Summit brought one of those lawmakers—José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission of the European Union—to a luncheon at Pitt.
In Alumni Hall, faculty, staff, students (including Mathias) and other guests joined Barroso and Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg for a European-style meal. Afterwards, the Chancellor conferred upon Barroso an honorary doctoral degree in public and international affairs.
Mathias conducted her summer research at Brussels’ Institute for European Studies with the support of Pitt’s Nordenberg Fellowship and the Center for International Legal Education. This semester she’s using that research to write a paper about the effectiveness of European legislation in dismantling the finances of terrorists.
Barroso first visited the University three years ago to tour Pitt’s European Union Center of Excellence and to deliver a lecture to a standing-room-only audience. This time, he spoke to the lunch attendees and international journalists about building bridges between Europe and the United States, particularly on issues of climate control.
At the luncheon, Mathias was given a chance to ask Barroso a question. She stood tall in her business suit and spoke into a microphone. She asked him how he felt about organizational changes that will soon be taking place in the European Union. Over the summer, she had discussed the changes with colleagues at outdoor cafés. From the podium, Barroso replied that he’s pleased because there will be more stability in the European Union. Through her research and discussions, Mathias had already come to that conclusion, and she was glad to hear the EU leader’s endorsement.
Then Barroso left to prepare for dinner with President Obama and other world leaders at Phipps Conservatory, and Mathias headed across campus with a renewed exuberance to continue her scholarly work.
It didn’t quite hit the city’s top aide as he watched his boss, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, exchange football banter with President Barack Obama. It wasn’t until late on the summit’s opening night, as he stood on the steps of the City-County Building with four city hall guards, that Pitt alumnus Yarone Zober finally felt the G-20 had arrived.
“There were just five of us, watching the presidential motorcade, and then the Russian motorcade, and the French motorcade …” says Zober, the mayor’s chief of staff. He’d worn that olive-green suit all day long, and he’d toiled on Grant Street on and off for a decade, but at that moment everything seemed fresh. “It suddenly became real to me that all of these folks were finally here, and each one of them had an opportunity to see, firsthand, a city they probably hadn’t heard of before.”
Perhaps no Pittsburgher endured a longer run-up to the summit than Zober (A&S ’97, LAW ’03). He was on the speakerphone in May when the White House called the mayor to say the city was short-listed to host the gathering. “Of course, we were both floored,” says Zober, who helped the mayor line up financing and manage a coalition of government, business, and nonprofit organizations that prepared the proverbial red carpet. “One of the biggest highlights of all was how this community came together to put on this event,” says Zober.
He was proud that Pittsburgh’s “turnaround city” message resonated with global media. A Middle Eastern reporter, for instance, interviewed the mayor and said he wanted to return and do a feature on Pittsburgh’s rebirth.
“Most cities never get the chance to shine in the international spotlight like this,” he says. “In Pittsburgh now, anything’s possible.”
On the same afternoon that world leaders convened at Pittsburgh’s convention center for the G-20 Summit, their spouses gathered across the river at the Andy Warhol Museum to experience modern American art. During their visit, they unsealed one of the museum’s Warhol time capsules, learned to make screen print art, and ate lunch in a gallery that showcased some of the artist’s key works from the 1960s.
After lunch, two of the First Ladies requested a more in-depth tour of the museum—Carla Bruni-Sarkozy of France and Therese Rein of Australia. So Pitt alumnus Eric C. Shiner, the museum’s Milton Fine Curator of Art, guided the distinguished visitors through additional exhibitions.
When the group reached an enormous, oblong painting—Warhol’s version of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci—Shiner (A&S ’94) explained that it had been commissioned for a 1987 exhibition in Italy. Bruni and Rein, both well-versed in Warhol’s art and anything-goes lifestyle, were surprised that he would accept a commission for religious art. Shiner explained that despite his celebrity profile, Warhol often attended Mass on Sundays. The 1987 exhibition was Warhol’s last before he died.
“Andy is far and away the most international Pittsburgher in history,” says Shiner, who is teaching a Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar at Pitt this semester. “We’ve had exhibitions in 15 of the G-20 nations.” Next year, he and his team will be sending more exhibitions around the world. Here and abroad, Warhol still attracts.
She stood in the school auditorium, youthful yet authoritative in a charcoal gray suit, her voice not betraying a whit of nerves before nearly 250 excited students. And why should she be jittery? After all, the guests that morning were only First Lady Michelle Obama, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, country singer Trisha Yearwood, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and, in the balcony, the spouses of the leaders of the world’s top 20 industrialized nations. Only!
At center stage was Melissa Pearlman (A&S ’96), who heads Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School. One of her many roles was to introduce the dignitaries who were in attendance, leading up to Mrs. Obama, which prompted an explosion of cheering from the audience of CAPA students and guests.
For Pearlman, there were many favorite moments during that day. Early on, she was trying to calm a ninth-grader who would soon present the First Lady with a gift of his artwork. “He was a little nervous,” says Pearlman, “and then this amazing, statuesque woman just walked in.” It was Mrs. Obama, and she immediately put the youngster at ease. Later, adds Pearlman, the First Lady spied the 10th-grade stage manager, embraced her, “and told her, ‘None of this would be possible without you—you make us look good, sound good.’ The student’s face lit up.”
Pearlman says she was struck by the First Lady’s tenderness and poise with the kids. “You read about how down to earth she is, how committed to improving education she is, but seeing it up close and personal is another experience entirely,” she says.
Pearlman always wanted to be a teacher: “For as long as I can remember. And I always thought there would come a time when I’d want to help kids more, and differently, than just in a classroom.” On G-20 day at CAPA, she was doing just that—and this time the world was watching.
In the Russian Room of the Cathedral of Learning, nine students in an advanced Russian literature class discussed the merits of a story on a Thursday afternoon. While waiting for a guest speaker to arrive, they debated in Russian about the sociological underpinnings of a tale about children who were zealous about nationalism during the era of the Soviet Union.
Then, suddenly, security agents entered the classroom and closed the stained-glass windows. Moments later, the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, strode in. He was in town for the G-20 Summit and had requested to meet with university students.
He shook hands with the instructor, Irina Anisimova, a Russian native who teaches in Pitt’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She introduced her awestruck class and explained what they were reading throughout the semester. The Russian president, a former law instructor, was impressed that the students were tackling modern literature and were majoring in fields as diverse as anthropology, economics, and computer science.
After the intimate classroom meeting, the president addressed a crowd of several hundred in the Cathedral’s Commons Room (see page 52 in this issue). For nearly an hour, students raised their hands and inquired about Medvedev’s thoughts on Russia’s relations with Georgia, on U.S. plans to close missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, and whether he could send artists to Pittsburgh to showcase Russian culture. Medvedev amply responded to each question and even offered some wisdom on college: “It is an important foundation for your future lives and should motivate you to seek learning every single day,” he said.
All in the Family
First comes the trio dressed as indigenous healers, faces painted, hair wrapped in ribbons. Then come the Buddhist monks in their cinnamon-colored robes. All around there are young adults in flip-flops carrying antiwar banners. There are horns, and tambourines, and drums—a banging, tooting family of protesters desiring to be heard.
Among them is Celeste Taylor. She, too, has gathered for the People’s March, a peaceful rally held the closing day of the G-20 Summit. After marching about two miles from Oakland to downtown, she stands near the shadows of Pittsburgh’s City-County Building to listen to the rally’s speakers.
Taylor, a Pitt alumnus, wears her forest-green T-shirt, with the community activism slogan, “Build the Hill.” A button, “War is NOT the Answer,” is pinned to her left shoulder. On a wooden stick she holds a poster that calls for jobs for all. The cardboard sign has the face of Martin Luther King Jr.
An honored community activist, Taylor (CGS ’82) is known for her grassroots work on education, justice, and equity causes. The range of summit protesters reminds her of a reunion across the generations and of King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, another event that drew a mosaic of articulate, passionate people united to push for positive change.
Surrounded by friends, Taylor takes in all the excitement of people speaking to the world. She has just discovered that her eldest son is marching, too. She smiles knowing he has joined the global family of those concerned about economics, the environment, and justice around the world. “It does not get any better than this,” she says, hoisting her sign high into the air.