Michelle Fanzo: On Storytelling and the Power of Place

Michelle Fanzo has worn many hats throughout her illustrious career, working in international development, urban sustainability, and public health. After traveling the world multiple times over, she now returns as the executive director of AIA Pittsburgh.  Despite her overwhelming accomplishments, we couldn’t help but ask this former journalist about the power of a truly good story.

1) What character does Pittsburgh play in your life story?

I first came to Pittsburgh in the very early 90s as a young journalist. I can’t say it was a popular decision at the time, but I really wanted to live in a place that was different from where I had grown up. I eventually left for a job at the United Nations and never imagined that 18 years and many countries later, I would find myself back in this quirky city. So in a sense, I’m both an outsider and an insider here. There’s this energy and momentum that makes Pittsburgh feel new to me, but like that favorite coat in the back of your closet, so much of the coziness and charm remains. And though I didn’t see it at the time, those first six years in Pittsburgh seeded much of the work that I’ve pursued throughout my entire career.

2) Why is storytelling an important part of community development?

Storytelling is ultimately about engagement and understanding. In learning about other peoples’ lives, you begin to recognize that your world is bigger than yourself, that we’re actually part of a society, a neighborhood, a family. You can find pieces of yourself in others’ stories, and you can also begin to understand the effect that your life choices have on those around you. But the act of telling a story is equally powerful. In sharing your experiences, you begin to realize that you are not alone, that people can understand your struggles or challenges. And when an entire community speaks up, the collective voice can be truly transformative.

3) How do you connect your work in places like Burma and Afghanistan to communities in Pittsburgh?

I have been incredibly fortunate to live and work in so many different contexts, from big cities such as London and Berlin, to rural villages in East Africa, to post-industrial towns in the Mon Valley. And though in some ways I’ve been working on global issues like climate change or water access, every project I undertake is still fundamentally about people trying to make their homes better. People live in a place all over the place. They might struggle for different reasons, they might face different obstacles, but in aggregate, people are far more similar than different. And now I can take all of the knowledge that I gathered from working in other places and bring it to bear where I live.

4) What is your favorite place in the city?

I really like being on the rivers. When you kayak around the Point (State Park), you can feel how the city unfolds. Buildings blend with the hills and valleys in a way that is uniquely Pittsburgh, and there’s just this sense that you could only be in Pittsburgh.

5) If your life were a movie, what would it be called?

“Wherever you go, there you are: a dark comedy.”


Hear Michelle’s full story at our upcoming Inspire Speakers Series event on February 8. We’ll also be treated to narratives from Will Allen, Rebecca Flora, Tim Smith, Dr. Gretchen Givens Generett, and many others! 

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