Degree Opens Doors for CCAC Alumnus
As Pittsburgh City Council President Douglas Shields sits at his desk in the City-County building, he flips through a notebook saved from his days as a student at CCAC and reminisces how his CCAC education led him from the steel mills to the highest position in the city's legislative branch of government.
Douglas Shields is a lifelong resident of the city of Pittsburgh. He attended St. Mary's High School in Sharpsburg, and at age 16, decided to drop out of school. He began volunteering as a tutor at the Sharpsburg Community Center, and after earning his General Educational Development diploma (GED), Doug was asked to run the tutoring program. He obliged and worked to recruit 80 new tutors for the program.
In the spring of 1972, Doug enrolled in classes at CCAC's Allegheny Campus. After two semesters, he transferred to Duquesne University but was forced to drop out due to financial constraints. He continued tutoring and was eventually compensated with $2,000 for his work. Doug realized that he did not want to finish school at that time, and rather than spend his money on a car as many of his friends had, he decided to travel abroad. "At 19, it wasn't in my make up to go to school," he says. "All my friends were driving around in nice cars, exploring their freedom, but I wanted to explore my freedom overseas."
Although Doug originally planned to visit family in Ireland and return home, he purchased a motorcycle and decided to cruise around western Europe. He then sold his motorcycle and found his way to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz. At the time, Israel was involved in a series of conflicts that left the country war-ravaged, and Doug was forced to remain in Israel due to the 1973 Yom Kippur attack. "It was interesting to see a nation at war," he says. "It was devastating, though. Each kibbutz had about 500 people and most of them lost 15 percent of the men."
In November 1973, Doug was able to leave Israel through the Voice of Peace, an offshore radio station situated on a former cargo vessel that was anchored off the coast of Tel Aviv. The Voice of Peace, which was founded by The Peace Ship Foundation in New York, strived to broadcast a message of peace to the Middle East. Doug worked with the Voice of Peace, and returned to the US in December.
Back home, Doug once again attempted to return to school, but had no money to do so. Instead, he worked a variety of jobs, including driving cabs and working on riverboats. He soon married, and he and his wife, Briget, took their wedding money and went to Europe for a year. The couple traveled around Europe before making their way to Israel, where they lived on a kibbutz for almost nine months.
After returning to Pittsburgh, Doug once again worked a variety of jobs, selling candy at sporting events, cooking at the Grand Concourse in Station Square and working at the Pittsburgh City Theatre. The couple settled in Squirrel Hill and had two children, Lisa and Elliot, and Doug began working in a warehouse for the steel industry. Life was good.
Doug's life was forever changed when Pittsburgh's steel industry began to decline. After losing his job, Doug realized the need for formal education and started exploring his options. "I saw the demise of the industry coming," he says. "It wasn't until I had to grow up that I realized I was smart and that an education could open up doors for me. I had to make a future for myself and my family."
Doug explored his educational options and decided to return to CCAC. In the fall of 1985, he enrolled in night classes at Boyce Campus. Although it was difficult to be a 32-year-old non-traditional student, Doug says he listened to the wisdom of his mother, who told him he could be 32 with or without a degree.
Doug was drawn to CCAC's Paralegal program. While taking classes, he was offered a clerkship at the Pittsburgh-based law firm of Reed Smith at a salary of $12,500 per year. "It was very tough at times," he says. "My salary (from the steel industry to Reed Smith) dropped from $28,000 to $12,500. We were on energy assistance and received support from WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), among others. It was hard."
At Reed Smith, Doug found a passion for environmental law, which was a newly emerging field of law. It was this passion that would later lead him to city politics.
After graduating from CCAC with a Paralegal certificate in August 1988, Doug worked for two Pittsburgh law firms, specializing in environmental litigation. He soon began to build a reputation, and was contacted by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, then a member of City Council, concerning an environmental issue. Doug answered the councilman's question, and was later asked to join his staff. He served as Bob O'Connor's chief of staff for 11 years, from 1992 through 2003, before deciding to run for Council himself.
On January 5, 2004, Doug was sworn in to City Council, representing District 5. After serving as finance chair for two years, he was elected as Council president in 2006 and again in 2008.
Although Doug is not licensed by the Pennsylvania Bar Association to practice law, he considers City Council a team of lawyers. "Lawyers present their cases in court to a jury, but we make our case in the court of public opinion," he says. "We make the rules, and we can and do change things."
For more than 18 years, the fifth floor of the City-County building has been Doug's home away from home, and he credits CCAC for getting him there. "I have been well served by my CCAC training," he says. "The instructors were teriffic, and they taught me the construction of law. The college not only provided me with the ingredients to feed my knowledge, but it offered a menu of training for blue-collar, white-collar jobs and everything in between."
Doug offers current and prospective students the following advice: "Don't be afraid to learn. CCAC is there, the instructors are there, the classes are there—so get there! It's up to you to do it!"
Douglas A. Shields