September 10, 2019
Moving around a bit in their early life has connected Lina Dostilio to the concept of space and place, particularly as it relates to community engagement and Dostilio’s work within that framework. A self-described hard worker, Dostilio thinks deeply about how to build relationships between and among folks in the community and those engaged in an academic university. A lover of “bizarre British television,” cooking, and her family, Lina balances long workdays with finding joy off the clock.
Lina Dostilio, EdD is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations at the University of Pittsburgh. She is responsible for supporting community-facing work at Pitt that includes community relations, cultivating strategic opportunities to advance Pitt’s community engagement agenda, and implementing the University’s place-based community engagement initiative through the development of neighborhood-based community engagement centers.
Lina: I remember my grandfather saying you know it's when he puts his head down at the end of the day, when he puts his head down at night, it's a good sleep. You always want a good sleep. And I don’t mean, you know, like he didn't toss and turn; a good sleep means like you're proud of what happened that day. You feel good about who you were that day. And so I feel like that's always sort of stayed with me.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh. A show about the people in Pittsburgh – innovators, scientists, community leaders – and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and the work they’ve produced. I’m Mike Flock. On the show today, CTSI’s Community Engagement Coordinator Bee Schindler and I catch up with Lina Dostilio, Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations at the University of Pittsburgh.
Bee: Lina Dostilio grew up both in the state of Texas, and in a bedroom community in the Poconos, and, later, traveled to an Aboriginal compound in Australia to think about the importance of space and place. Leveraging her own story of finding roots and showing up for people when needed, led Lina to a career in community engagement. Long and structured days also lend to time spent with Lina’s two children, watching British TV, and taking part in her beloved husband’s chefery.
Mike: Tell us a little bit about where you're from; where did you grow up?
Lina: Oh, you know a couple different places. The place where I spent the most amount of time was the Pocono Mountains near Lake Wallenpaupack, in a place called Newfoundland. I'm from east Texas though…
Lina: Yeah, I was adopted by my grandparents and they raised me up in the Poconos later on in my life and so you know have had some really interesting rural lake-based kind of experiences but I've also had some other kinds of like country experience and things like that.
Bee: What did your grandparents do for a living or what did they do at home?
Lina: So my grandparents. My grandfather was a truck driver and my grandmother was a custodian and so she took care of like a kind of RV camp - she cleaned in an RV camp, and my grandfather was a short Haul truck driver, so not the kind that you know goes away for weeks at a time, but instead would be home almost every day.
Bee. I'm curious about their influence on you - your grandparents - if there was any, were they sort of mentors to you in terms of occupation?
Lina: My whole family are really hard workers. You know I come from the kind of family where my grandfather after driving truck would come home and like split wood right, he's in his upper 80s and is still living in his own house and splitting wood, and taking care of property, and there's just this sense in my family that you dive in and you work really really hard. So growing up, my grandparents, they really wanted me to have a good stable steady life. That was really important to them, and it's because we have you know some parts of our family where that's not always been possible and they were really very prescriptive about how that would come about. When I decided that I was going to go to college, it wasn't a foregone conclusion. It was, I didn't really apply to a lot of places. I applied to one college, I happened to get in it. It was sort of on the fly, and it was a conversation in our household that was sort of like okay so you're 18 if this is what you want to do then that's great and we will you know that's good for you, but you know make it happen, basically. I think if I would have said to them I want to you know work at the Sterling Inn, which is exactly where I had been, and working almost full-time, while I was in high school and if I said, you know, that's really what I want to stay doing, they would have said, great, if that's what you want to do - just have a happy life and be a good person. So I think one of the really core messages in my family was always this sense of showing up for family and being a good person and working really hard. Which I've come to think of as sort of just you know this sense of wanting the best for each other and wanting the best for how you feel at the end of any given day. I mean I remember my grandfather saying you know it's when he puts his head down at the end of the day. When he puts his head down at night. It's a good sleep; you always want a good sleep. And that didn't mean you know like he didn't toss and turn - a good sleep means like you're proud of what happened that day, you feel good about who you were that day. And so I feel like that's always sort of stayed with me.
Lina: I also think that it's just that sense of wanting to have a good day. Show up for other people really, sort of is a priority for me. It's how I choose to raise my kids. I think that it's important to me that I surround myself with people that are looking to sort of show up for each other and to have a life of meaning.
Bee: Really beautiful. Interesting, cool, physical like imagery I think of hitting the pillow and in feeling accomplished - that's a really beautiful way of putting that.
Mike: When you were growing up, before college, what did you want to be? Did you have a particular career in mind? Did you always want to be involved in community engagement?
Lina: Oh no. And that's not a reaction to community engagement, it’s just – you know, I think all of us, our perspective on what we want to do and what we want to be is really limited to what we see every day. And so I know that I thought about things like joining the military. I know that I thought about maybe someday being a teacher. I feel like I probably somewhere there in thought about maybe owning a business. My grandfather laughed at me and told me I’d never make it in the military because I don't handle people telling me what to do very well. I was pretty frustrated when he said that, but in retrospect I think he was probably right. I'm the kind of person that needs to love what I do for a living. I don't think I would make it in just working for a paycheck. My grandfather on the other hand he always - we had this conversation many times -he said it never mattered to him what he did it was just always about you know kind of providing for his family and showing up for them, but I was different, and he knew that, and he told me that. He was like, you’re different, you need to love what you do.” And he is right; the good news is I love what I get to do every day.
Mike: How did you decide to major in sociology?
Lina: It took me awhile to get there. So I’m a first gen student. You know I kind of meandered through college, I just kept switching majors. I thought I was going to be a marketing major for a while, and the math requirement didn't go over very well for me. And so then I thought about some other things, but I took some course work around race and class and that really struck a chord with me. I think there was a - I just felt like it resonated with me and my experiences lent themselves to just thinking about the ways that we construct pathways of opportunity for people, or we limit pathways of opportunity for people and so that was really relevant. And I found the classes engaging; I connected with some of the faculty, you know my undergraduate degree is it in an institution where you can sit down and have class with 1,200 other students, so connection is really important.
Bee: How did you end up deciding to get into the EdD?
Lina: Well, so I was working to support community engaged work at a university and I am very pragmatic. Bee, more than anything, I'm very pragmatic. And so I was getting free tuition as a condition of my employment. I was also starting to ask questions of my work that couldn't be answered without having some kind of theoretical or research basis. You know I really wanted to collect some data on how we could do that work differently or better. I wanted to understand just really what were the influences behind the way that we were doing community engagement; how communication could be – just better – I was about to use the word emancipatory - that's really fancy language for just do it better, right. And so I looked around and I said, where I can get my degree, what degree program would facilitate this for me. At that time it was the EdD program. Turns out it was a really good fit for me because an EdD is all about a practical doctorate and again going back to the pragmatic person that I am, you know my world is practice and so being able to really expand and study that world of practice was important for me so I think it happenstance. I ended up right in the right place.
Bee: Lina received a Doctor of Education, or EdD from Duquesne University and applied the knowledge directly to work in the field of community engagement. The author of academic articles and chapters and in 2017 published a book titled “The Community Engagement Professional in Higher Education: A Competency Model for an Emerging Field.” A year later, the companion guidebook to that text was in print. Lina’s name comes up a lot when thinking about how to best blend the university and community. And we wanted to ask what does this type of engagement really mean?
Bee: So pretty much like any Google search but then anyone like that knows or of you really considers you to be like an expert in community engagement what is that, what does that mean to you?
Lina: oh I think that the way that we label people experts is super dangerous. Here's what I think. I really found my field. I love the work that we get to do. And I am very inspired by being able to think about ways to do the work differently, better, more congruently with the communities that were engaging, and so that kind of dovetails, Bee. I think place is really important and that might be because I moved a bit as a kid, I shifted spaces and place and so when I got rooted here in Pittsburgh I knew that I wanted to stay here, that to be really invested in the community event in community engagement means that you invest in place. But that also means that there's a lot of other places to learn from, and then to know about. And so that's where the research component comes in for me. So my research has always been around looking at other field of practice. How other institutions do community-engaged work, and then finding opportunities to have those conversations. And so I've just been really lucky that I've had different opportunities to work with national associations or national organizations and always stay rooted here. So when I hear you say that about me, about that sort of expertise, I think it's really just deep love trying to figure out the answers to questions that I have.
Bee: In one of your books you draw out sort of these personality traits of folks who are that, I don't know if they are drawn to community engagement is it how we I don't know if that's how you would say it but there's certain personality traits right of a folks that might go into this type of work?
Lina: We didn't look at it so much from personality, but really, - so funny story - when I was going to do my dissertation I really wanted to do that dissertation on the staff who support community-engaged work in higher education. And I was told by a couple of people in our field, you know that there's no real there, there. You know if you really want to learn more about community-engaged work you look at faculty, or you look at students, or you look at communities, but you know, because those are the agents of engagement. And so I did. I looked at partnerships; I looked at how partnerships come together around shared public problem solving, and I learned a lot from that work. I'm really glad that that's what I did my dissertation on. But in the back of my mind I've always been interested in these people that work in higher education that may not be considered faculty, often these are people that come from the communities that are being engaged, or have a really deep commitment to place, and I was curious - and it turns out there's a lot of other people that share that curiosity - about what these people know, and what they do, and what they believe. So it's not so much personality traits, as it is what is the body of work that we do, and then also, why do we do it, and how do we do it. And so we took to studying that - we actually went out and tried to figure out, so what do I know, what do I do, and what do I believe that makes this work move forward.
Bee: Does it feel like there is was a pattern that kind of emerged from that that feels like something is like an easy wrap up without having to read the book on this podcast?
Lina: Nice Bee. What’s the cliff notes version of your book, Lina? It’s such a question I would ask someone too.
Mike: It’s pragmatic, right?
Lina: It truly is pragmatic. Yeah, I think cliff notes version. We are a very, very rich group of people in that I mean we come from lots of different places and we do the work a lot of different kinds of ways. At the end of the day, most of us are very concerned about making sure that higher education or you know, post-secondary education is a public good. That we’re really thinking deeply about what's the role of college and university in public life. If we don't have that larger purpose then we tend to sort of get down into the weeds - it's more about you know creating the activity for the activity sake, as opposed to really elevating that and thinking about what's the role of college of teaching, of research, and how we move communities forward.
Bee: What’s interesting about the skills gained in the area of community engagement is that they are used to continue to leverage the folks around you – meaning, more knowledge in engagement doesn’t make you an expert in that you are the lead or the idea maker, in fact, the more one can leave their assumptions at the door, the better chance for the creation of space and place that work to dismantle the power and privilege that can come with an authority like a university serving as a stakeholder. It’s a balance that Lina works around the clock to ensure.
Lina: The nature of community engagement in higher education is that unless you as a member of that University, are working in the community that you come, typically the role of the University is an outsider role. I think a place to start is that we just have to grapple with that. So what does it mean to be an outsider? A well-meaning, well-intentioned outsider that wants to do good work, help, collaborate. And right off of the bat, I think we quickly come to the understanding that engagement is really about two different entities or two different people coming together and collaborating for mutual benefit. Now, I want to take that apart for a second because that's real slick, right; that's a sentence. But what does it mean to be of mutual benefit? It means that I have goals – that I come with something that I want to get out of the interaction, and it means that other people that come into that collaboration also have goals. How do we create the space where our all of our goals are realized? And it's not as simple as you worry about you, and I'll worry about me. You really have to create that. Often when we're working with communities that have been minoritized by race or economic status or marginalized or disenfranchised in those same ways, one of the expressed goals is equity. And so we have to create space for that. And that means we have to be a learner in that situation. I think we have to be pretty cognizant that there's different kinds of space. So I always like to say, there's open space, closed space, and invited space. Here's what I mean by that. I think when you are of a of a group that has some kind of dominance or some kind of you know mainstream nature right so in this case let me just talk about myself. I'm a white lady. There can be the perception that I'm allowed to be in whatever space I want to be in, because that's what my group has become accustomed to. It’s not the case. There's some spaces that that’s perfectly fine, then there's other spaces that I need to hold as reserved and sacred and not one that I'm freely invited to. And then there's invited space. So if I invite you to my home for dinner on Friday night, and I come home on Tuesday and you're still on my couch, I am like, alright there's something wrong with this, right. We clearly did not put the boundaries on this relationship the right way or at least you misinterpreted the relationship. So I kind of feel that way about communities, right. There are spaces in community that are entirely open; there are spaces that are not open, and then there are spaces that are invited. And I think as University folk we just need to be cognizant of that. And so it’s about coming and saying how can I add value, and really looking for the invitations as opposed to sort of inserting ourself in a place where that's not wanted or it doesn't belong.
Bee: Wow, yeah I love that.
Lina: But Bee you can come to my house on Tuesday; it’d be okay.
Bee: And stay the weekend – thank you.
Bee: Lina is a part of a university commitment to Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and communities through the Community Engagement Centers. But what exactly are the Centers and how is collaboration actually show up? Leaning in to Lina’s wealth of knowledge of engagement, we hear some insight during our conversation.
Lina: There are some colleges and universities that are getting deeply engaged in, let’s say, a neighborhood. There are a few that have built infrastructure around that - not unlike our Community Engagement Centers - but I think Pitt is approaching it a very unique way. So these Community Engagement Centers are the place for collaboration between community and university. It's not just about university outreach, as in, here the services and programs that we provide to the broader community, but here are the ways that we collaborate with the community to develop joint work. And that’s across teaching that is across capacity building, that’s across research. I haven't found too many examples of that kind of work. And my current research project is about benchmarking the hyper local engagement happening across the country; we just actually got some survey results back, and we have 32 examples across 35 cities, two in Canada and one in Mexico as well. And I'll say l feel like we are uniquely approaching the idea of going deep, and having sustainable relationships because it involves every school at the University and it is truly co-developed and co-designed with community.
Mike: Is there anything exciting coming up this new school year?
Lina: In December, we open the second phase of the Community Engagement Center in Homewood and that will has quite a few health and wellness initiatives are education initiatives that's going to be exciting we've been working really closely with our health and wellness schools in units and apartments to think about what they would be doing and into think about the collaborators in the community that they'll be working with I think we will be making some significant strides forward on the Hill District Community Engagement Center we are just so excited to have our staff and place and now the physical home will come alongside of that so I think we're going to make some significant strides and also I think I'm really excited for the community engaged scholarship forum. So for a few years now the campus has had an idea exchange for the first time last year they change the name of that event to the community engaged scholarship forum and it will now be institutionalized as a joint venture of the Provost Office and the Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Office and will carry that name the community engaged scholarship for moving forward by I'm excited to have an annual space where we gather and convenience really bring together some ideas and some work that it that's going on across the campus
Bee: Are there other communities that you're a member of I mean that you consider yourself a part of outside of the work that you do?
Lina: Hmm, that's a great question. I have a very large extended family in Western Pennsylvania and so I spend a great deal of time with them. I'm also becoming more engrossed in the communities that my son is a part of, right, so we are now hitting the age of sports and baseball teams and all the things, as they say, and so I feel like I'm getting a little bit more immersed in that. I have a really tight-knit circle of women that I lean on and are in my life, but I have to admit, I work a lot and I think it's probably because I'm so in love with the work that we get to do in the communities that we are a part of.
Mike: One challenge a lot of academics and doctors and scientists have is just balancing their career, and love of their career, with home life, family. How do you approach that, given that you're doing so much, but yet you also have your own family that you're raising too?
Lina: Yeah well and I should mention, so in addition to having a seven-year-old son, we have a one-year-old daughter and I think – so, no; there's no mastery, there's no statement that I am about to make that I've got this down. I really – owe just incredible deep appreciation and gratitude to my husband. My husband Joe is just one of the most amazing partners but I could ever have. Like so yeah I love the phrase the person might not be perfect but they're perfect for me right. I feel that we both think that way about each other. Joe is very nurturing and he is extremely funny. He has made me laugh every single day that I've ever known him, but he plays a really large part in our family balance. And you know we are often talking at home about our gender roles, they don't always feel traditional, but I feel like they work for us. I think we we try as much as we possibly can to get really good quality time with the kids, particularly on weekends, in the evenings, sometimes when I'm not in community meetings, and so there's little things that we're working on. So as an example my son, is at a camp here in town and every morning and every night we drive together and we have that kind of time and I asked him how the campus going. I said, you know, what do you think about it, and he was like, ‘great,’ but the best part is getting to drive and talk with you, Mom. And I said, I couldn't help myself, did you say that because you knew that was going to make me happy, or did you say that because you really thought that? He's like, both: I always want to make you happy, but I really liked it too.
Bee: I'd love to know what your day looks like in your job I mean I know we're talking about this work-life balance but like what does it really mean to be your role?
Lina: That's a great question
Bee: I am sure it is different day to day.
Lina: Of course - it's part of what I love about my work. So I wake up really early. And I tend to get some work done first thing in the morning. So it's part of when I do my research, it’s part of when I do some deeper work. You know from like 5 to 6:30 that's a really good time for me to get some work done. And then of course, the day kicks off right and it's all hands on deck, and you know, I'm listening to the baby monitor, and chasing my son around, and my husband has tried to lay out Joey's clothes, and Joey’s like, I don’t want to wear those clothes, and you know all the good fun family stuff. I usually get into work somewhere around 8, 8:30, and then it's - changed over the two and a half years that I have been at Pitt. Some days it you know it's just meeting from morning ‘til night. Other times, I got a little bit breather room in there to get a little bit of work done. I work with a phenomenal team of people and we are constantly in communication. So we've got a good back and forth: texts, emails, phone calls, drop-ins. I'm back and forth at the Homewood Community Engagement Center a few different times a week. And then you know my meetings are varied: they can be with faculty who want to think about the ways that they would engage their teaching in research; they might be with coalitions of people that are looking to take on a project or an initiative; it might be with community leaders or organizational staff that are trying to broker a collaboration with the university. It could be me with my own team, thinking about the ways that we're doing our work. Frequently at night it’s community meetings. So, my set of responsibilities covers responsibility for Pitt’s community facing work, community relations, community engagement, the Community Engagement Centers. And so are we just wrapped up a whole sequence of meetings for the institutional master plan, so that would happen at night. Or maybe there's a neighborhood meeting that I'm a part of. We try to to be present a lot of the time in a lot of different community meetings that we think that Pitt is a neighbor of, if you will. I am a member of too. And so that happens. And then you know by the time I get home at the end of the night, it's usually pretty close on to about 6:30, 7:00, unless I have an evening meeting, and then if a little bit later, and I grab some time with the kids, grab some time with Joe. Do it again the next day. You know, those kind of things.
Mike: Any hobbies and within all the time you spend work and your family are there any little hobbies or anything that you enjoy?
Lina: I have a love of really sort of, I don't know, bizarre British television.
Mike: I didn’t see that one coming.
Lina: I know – it’s surprising for so many people, just because I think I might be the only one. I'm pretty sure the BBC produces shows just for me. I think it is from the eighties - it's equivalent to our sort of like Murder She Wrote but I think it was called Rosemary and Thyme – they solve murders were using their Garden. It's the most bizarre thing - oh trust me, it is a source of hilarity in our family; my husband makes no end of fun about this for me. But you know, I like to read, I like to listen to podcasts, I like to - we don't do it nearly as much as we used to - but we love to go hiking. I love being with my kids. And I really enjoy cooking. I really don't get enough time for that - but that's a that's a sure way for me to ease and kind of relieve some stress is to just get in the kitchen for a while. I don't profess to be great at it; I just like it.
Mike: Any particular dishes that you tend to cook more frequently? Family favorites?
Lina: Oh. Well, all of the family favorites are made by my husband.
Mike: Oh really.
Lina: Well, he comes from this great line of chefs. These cooks. So, this Italian food. He makes his own sauce, and he makes his own meatballs, and it’s sort of a cultural center of our family cuisine. But when I make things - they are pretty simple, you know. I love hosting Thanksgiving. I love getting the opportunity to sort of make stuff that my kid won't eat anyway. My son – I don’t know if it is a hunger striker, or a food strike, but man we are in that zone of like, he will eat cheese burgers and like chocolate Rice Krispies cereal. And it's very frustrating.
Bee: So specific.
Lina: I know! And yesterday you ate this, but today you do not. Why is that!
Mike: One question we always ask folks for the podcast is one word to describe yourself. You can select one word what would that be?
Lina: Intense. I know that about myself. I know I can have an easy way of speaking and I can have an easy way of listening, but I I bring intensity to everything that I do.
Mike: Does that raise up those in the room and those around you to meet you where you're at in terms of intensity
Lina: I think you've given me something that I need to reflect on: how does my intensity affect the others around me. I can tell you what I think it does for me. I hold myself to a pretty high standard. And I hold the work that I do to a pretty high standard. I think my team, the team that I am a part of: community and governmental relations - the team that gets to work in Community Affairs, and the CECs – we have a lot of energy, and we get a lot done. And I think it’s because I think we've collected this group of people that are also very intense. But now I have something to think about.
Mike: Well channeling that intensity on something meaningful, obviously, and directing that intensity.
Lina: Yeah but I am just as intense about my obscure British television as I am about the work that I do. I just think it's who I am in the world, right. I just I'm also kind of an Energizer Bunny you know I get up and I do the thing, and I do it until I fall asleep at night. And when I'm done, I'm done; and I sleep well and have a good night of sleep.
Mike: Lina Dostilio, Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mike: That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. If you know an extraordinary individual, someone who is having a positive impact on the Pittsburgh community, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to check out our website www.ctsi.pitt.edu to learn more. I’m Mike Flock along with Bee Schindler and Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.