Shared from the 11/16/2020 Tribune-Review, Greensburg eEdition

Westmoreland eyes diversity

With population down, initiative seeks more welcoming county

Westmoreland County’s population is dwindling, and members of a new initiative hope to help reverse the trend by making the region more welcoming to a more diverse group of people.

“We are losing people, people are not coming into the county, and I fear it’s going to be the continued trend unless we change something,” said Mandy Welty Zalich, CEO of Westmoreland Community Action. “It is a large undertaking, but we have to start somewhere.”

WCA is spearheading the Welcome Everyone Westmoreland project, which is aimed at making the county more inclusive and diverse.

Westmoreland County’s population is almost 95% white, according to census data. The county lost more than 14,580 people since 2010, according to 2019 data, the largest decline in Pennsylvania.

The county’s strategic plan, released last year, calls for making Westmoreland County more inclusive and diverse. The nation’s demographics are shifting, becoming less white, and the county risks falling behind if it does not find ways to welcome these growing population groups, according to the plan.

That’s why county planning officials and WCA teamed up to start the Welcome Everyone Westmore-land project, which recently was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon foundation to get started.

At first, the inclusivity plan was “put on the back burner” because of the coronavirus pandemic. But after George Floyd died in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, sparking national protests and calls for racial justice, officials made it a priority, Zalich said.

“We are losing people, people are not coming into the county, and I fear it’s going to be the continued trend unless we change something. It is a large undertaking, but we have to start somewhere.”

“It seemed an important opportunity to really start working on this goal,” she said.

The project is led by two committees, a Welcome Everyone committee dedicated to making the county more appealing, and a Prioritize Inclusivity committee that specifically focuses on diversity.

The committees include membership by local colleges and nonprofit groups, including the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and YWCA Westmoreland.

Things are just getting started, and creating a culture change to make an overwhelmingly white county more friendly to diverse groups is a daunting task, but inclusivity committee co-chair Lynna Thomas believes it’s doable.

“I know it’s going to be hard work — it needs to be very mindful and intentional work — but I’m excited about it,” she said.

Education is a first step. The committee plans to create training programs to help community members and business leaders understand cultural differences and eliminate racial bias, said Thomas, special populations counselor at Westmoreland County Community College.

The committee will also try to convince residents of the long-term benefits of diversity — and its role in growing the economy.

“We won’t flourish without that kind of change, but we need to get community buy-in around that idea,” Thomas said.

Members of the committee have heard many stories from nonwhite residents and college students who say they don’t feel welcome in Westmoreland County, said co-chair Alyssa Cholodofsky. Committee members plan to see how other communities have tackled similar issues and apply those lessons.

“It’s a very tall order, and it’s a very difficult task, but an important one,” said Cholodofsky, Westmoreland Region director for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Zalich described the program as a long-term initiative. It will present annual reports for at least the next three years.

“I realize this is sometimes a hard topic, but it’s very much needed, not just because it’s the right thing to do… but also because it’s the best thing to do for our county,” she said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at

724-836-6646, or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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