You Can Go Home Again and Make a Difference
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Tara Walker-Pollock is like many young professionals who left the area to pursue career dreams in a bigger city.
And like many young professionals, she returned with experiences and the belief that there’s opportunity in Youngstown.
“It wasn’t like I had to leave, but I just didn’t see an opportunity for me here at that time,” she says. “But I knew I wanted to come back and contribute to where I was from.”
She graduated from Campbell High School and headed to Kentucky, where she had family, to go to college. Walker-Pollock received a baccalaureate in communications from the University of Louisville. She wanted to pursue a career in journalism and an opportunity for an internship at a magazine took her to New York City.
Dennis Pollock grew up in Harlem. He used to ride subway trains, finding music on every street corner and a variety of life that’s open 24/7.
Walker-Pollock’s roommate in New York happened to go to high school with Pollock. “There was a connection right from the start,” Pollock says.
After graduating from high school, he wanted to produce music. While pursuing that dream he had several other jobs, but ended up living with his mother in Maryland.
“That was not the place where I wanted to be in my life,” Pollock says. But job prospects weren’t much better in Maryland when the stock market collapsed, and he wanted to take his relationship with his would-be wife further. So he decided to enlist in the Army.
“It was one of those decisions I felt would just help out all around. The military would help me and help me be a better man for her,” he says.
The couple married in September 2001 and Pollock deployed to Afghanistan in October. He was a communications specialists working on radios and computers and spent a year overseas. During that time, his wife moved back with family in Youngstown.
While home she was deciding on what to do with her career and wanted to pursue graduate school online. Her first thought was to study urban planning. “One thing that drew me to the idea of urban planning was that the cost of living in New York City is sky high, and the process of trying to find an affordable, nice place to live was something that was interesting to me,” she says.
“Seeing gentrification up close and personal is something that just kind of drew me. I wanted to see how can I contribute to that field,” Walker-Pollock says.
Exploring her options, she learned about Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and she sought an internship. “That experience opened my eyes to the opportunities that were here and to build on what they were doing,” she says. She received her degree in economic and community development.
The couple lived in upstate New York for nearly three years while Dennis was stationed at Fort Drum. In 2014 they were expecting their first child while Dennis was transitioning out of the military.
“My mom was getting ready to retire and she said, ‘You have to come back here and I’ll help you take care of the baby while you guys work and go to school,’ ” Walker-Pollock says. “I got him to come with me. We knew going back to New York City wasn’t feasible for us, especially with a baby. We did have family support there, but his mom was still working and his grandparents were older.”
Pollock continued his service in the Army Reserves, stationed in New Castle, Pa. “It was close to Youngstown, so we were able to purchase a house,” he says.
Walker-Pollock worked at some nonprofits and in March began working as a donor-services coordinator for the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley. Her husband works in music production here, although the options are limited compared to New York. He works as a driver for Lyft. He has worked in the trucking industry and maintains his commercial driver’s license. He hopes to be able to teach CDL training locally.
The couple’s house on the north side of Youngstown features historic architecture with high ceilings, handcrafted wooden doors with custom carved molding tastefully decorated with modern furnishings and color.
“Buying a house, this well-kept home with the square footage, would have never been possible in New York City,” Walker-Pollock says.
“Depending on where, it would easily be six or seven figures. Maybe you could find something in Queens or a brownstone in the Bronx for less than half the size,” Pollock says.
Five-year-old Eva sits quietly on the couch glancing at her parents as they speak and mimics writing in a notebook as they answer. “It’s good here. I like school,” Eva says.
Her father is still getting used to the small-town atmosphere, and likes the idea of rearing a family here.
“I do see a lot of opportunity that can be possible, he says. “With the economy, it’s readily available to make change here for a work-life balance to keep people enthused and motivated. But a lot of work needs to be done.”
Some of that work is what Walker-Pollock envisions the Community Foundation doing through economic- development projects and initiatives such as Healthy Community Partnership.
“I have become passionate about equity in general, especially racial equity. We may be creating jobs, but what types of jobs?” Walker-Pollock asks, pointing out that many people are underemployed and working more than one job to make ends meet.
“People of color are disproportionately affected by that,” she says. “That’s a problem.”
She believes everyone has a role to play in trying to solve these issues. The Community Foundation is trying to convene stakeholders to discuss building economic development in an equitable way, she notes.
Walker-Pollock says she doesn’t try to compare the area to somewhere such as New York City because it wouldn’t be fair. “But what types of things exist to keep us here and not search for other opportunities?” she asks.
Pollock says he believes opportunity exists in Youngstown to make recreational activities more available, not just bars, but lounges and places to relax. The challenge he sees is that people seeking entertainment are going to Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“That commerce is leaving so we’re making our foundation weak. To me, you have to be willing to stay here and do things and have fun here,” Pollock says. “I would like to see businesses or opportunities that would allow people to keep it here and build it up instead of spreading it wide outside of the city limits.”
The couple has considered moving back to New York, but it’s not financially feasible. And Walker-Pollock says there is much work to be done in the Mahoning Valley on race equity.
Working to advance race equity is something the Community Foundation is working toward. “It’s a conversation we’re having all the time and I really appreciate that. It’s something I’m passionate about. It touches every aspect of life,” Walker-Pollock says.
Issues of racism and how to move forward will take the right data, especially when it comes to economic development, she observes.
She acknowledges it’s a hard topic to bring up, but says people can’t be afraid to bring it up at the table and not be afraid to have the discussion. “We just need to face it. We have the tools to come together and make the future different,” Walker-Pollock says.
She sees how people in the Mahoning Valley are working hard to revitalize and just won’t give up, and the couple say they won’t either.
Pictured: Dennis Pollock, Eva and Tara Walker-Pollock enjoy their home in Youngstown.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.