Keith Caldwell, ’00, believes the impact of universities goes beyond education and research. He sees them as drivers of economically vibrant communities, as well.
“When we look to increase access to employment, business partnerships, and a wide array of educational opportunities, we can be transformative partners,” he said.
As executive director of place-based initiatives in the Office of Engagement and Community Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, he is in an ideal position to realize this vision for three neighborhoods around the university.
“My work focuses on supporting our neighborhood commitments,” he explained. “We have established a vibrant front door to the university in the community called our Community Engagement Centers. Our CECs are spaces for community collaboration to advance mutually beneficial partnerships. We believe this approach both supports our university's mission of research and teaching, and when combined with community wisdom and goals, is a great partnership for strengthening communities.”
A native of Saco, Maine, Caldwell came to Niagara as a social work major with the goal of pursuing a career that would enable him to become a “helping professional.” Volunteer work with the Niagara Falls YMCA and another afterschool program reinforced how important service is, and to do it in a way that values and appreciates the people and places he serves, he said.
After graduation, Caldwell moved back to Maine and was hired as a social worker helping families with children with disabilities. Although he enjoyed the work, he wanted to grow his skills further. Inspired by his social work advisor, Dr. Clementine Laverman, who had done her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, and his then-girlfriend (and now, wife) Nicole Kaiser, ’02, who was from Pittsburgh, he applied to Pitt’s School of Social Work, graduating in 2002 with his MSW, focusing on community organization and social administration.
Caldwell worked in children’s mental health administration, and later, in nonprofit leadership before joining the faculty at the Pitt School of Social Work in 2008. During his 14-year tenure with the school, he helped to establish its career services office, and served as BASW program director and associate dean for student success. He also continued his education, earning his doctorate in education from Pitt's School of Education in 2019.
In 2022, Caldwell joined the Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, a transition that seemed logical, given his previous experience and the networks he established both at Pitt and in his previous work. The job gave him the opportunity to “reconnect with a lot of folks on a much more regular basis and to have a real-time understanding of community goals and strengths,” he said.
With a focus on supporting the university’s commitments with the three neighborhoods where it has had longstanding partnerships—Homewood, the Hill District, and in Hazelwood—Caldwell spends his days at one or more of the CECs established there, connecting university faculty and staff with community leadership to advance collaboration and mutually beneficial partnerships.
Making these connections is one of Caldwell’s favorite parts of the job. Although Pittsburgh is a larger city, it has a small-town sensibility that that enables him and his team to find the right person or network for their projects. These connections will ultimately strengthen both the university and the community, he said.
“When we see residents not only visiting our CECs, but returning for additional opportunities, that's a real win for us,” he said. “It shows that we have co-created projects with community members. I also see success through the continued growth of faculty, staff, and students who partner with community organizations and residents not just through one-time projects, but through sustained and long-term engagements that people can count on.
“My days are very people-centered, which I enjoy,” he continued. “I get to connect and think through all kinds of interesting possibilities with an array of interesting people. The ability to put those ideas into action, whether it be implementing a computer programming course in the community, building partnerships with public health researchers and anti-violence programs, or introducing students to the neighborhoods and the opportunities to learn from and with amazing residents, every day is inspiring.”