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LENOX >> There are laws that protect citizens' constitutional and civil rights, but organizers of an upcoming conference on the matter feel that few people know what protections they're entitled to.
"It's all about equitable access to information and services," said Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and executive director of the Berkshires' Multicultural BRIDGE.
The agency for education and social justice will host the Berkshire County Civil Rights Conference at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Lenox Community Center, featuring keynote speaker U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
The event was previously to be held at Lenox Town Hall but the venue was changed due to a scheduling conflict.
Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009, Ortiz is the first Hispanic person and the first woman to represent Massachusetts in this post. In 2010, she implemented the District of Massachusetts's first civil rights enforcement and outreach initiative, and has prosecuted controversial cases like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
At 5:30 p.m., Multicultural BRIDGE will mark its seventh anniversary by holding its fifth annual Cultural Competence & Community Stewardship Awards ceremony. The honorees, also distinguished women, include Mary Grant, outgoing president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; Jean Clarke-Mitchell, director of clinical services for the Elizabeth Freeman Center and clinician for the Brien Center; Jeanet Ingalls, founder of Shout Out Loud Productions; and Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, founding director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Recognition will also be given to the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women.
VanSant said the evening, which is expected to include more than 120 participants, will celebrate the accomplishments and highlight the struggles, both on a local and national level, in sustaining civil rights.
In addition to her remarks, Ortiz and her Department of Justice staff members will participate in a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with New York Judge B. Harold Ramsey, Berkshire Attorney Ken Gogel, and staff members from the Northampton-based Center for Public Representation.
VanSant said the conference will touch upon timely topics such as hiring and employment law, race and gender protections, disability rights and immigration, and will help people distinguish the difference between civil and criminal cases.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who is co-chairman of the event, said the program could help "raise awareness on things we may not be thinking of in the Berkshires."
He said whether it's race or gang violence, "We have issues in the Berkshires ... that we need to better educated about, aware of and responsive to."
Since 1957, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has been tasked with enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.
VanSant said Ortiz and her staff have ensured her that this event also will serve as an opportunity for people in the Berkshires to bring cases forward and ask questions one-on-one with them.
As part of BRIDGE's "Towards Racial Justice" and "Social Justice in Action" campaigns, VanSant said all remarks and feedback heard at the event will be digested by the Civil Rights Conference Committee and Race Task Force to develop initiatives that can shape programs and policies in the county and beyond.
"Our long-term agenda goal is that we're a better-educated community on these topics," VanSant said. "The next generation is a more diverse generation than we've seen before, and we're not as prepared as we should be. We need to know how to appreciate, integrate and know the value of people and understand where the gaps are."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239
What: Multicultural BRIDGE Berkshire County Civil Rights Conference and fifth annual Cultural Competence & Community Stewardship Awards Ceremony, featuring U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday. Awards ceremony will be held at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Lenox Community Center, 65 Walker St., Lenox.
Details: The event will include presentations, a panel discussion, Q&A and a light dinner. Tickets are required and range from $10 to $30; students ages 18 and under are free; sliding scale rates available.
Info: Call 413-394-4029 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
LENOX >> Resilience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks that we all experience, to use failure as a springboard to success.
That was the passionate message delivered by Maria Sirois, a Pittsfield-based licensed clinical psychologist, during a series of meetings with middle and high school students, faculty, staff, guidance counselors and parents.
The sessions at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and at the town's community center were held on Monday and Tuesday, organized by Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, the local organization that promotes mutual understanding and acceptance among diverse groups in the Berkshire community.
Built around student survey questions during last year's "Pillars of Community Day" in the Lenox schools, Sirois presented the program, "Resilience and Permission to Fail" through highly interactive give and take meetings with students, as seen during the assembly for middle schoolers.
Sirois, a motivational speaker and consultant, is a frequent program leader at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge.
During her joint presentation with VanSant, Sirois encouraged students to share their experiences with academic, athletic and social setbacks and to partner with classmates to talk about experiences that have inspired them to try ever harder to succeed.
She also asked students to guess her age — they shouted out 26 to 50s and points between — as she described her own inability as a beginner to complete an advanced ropes course during an outing with her son, 15, in La Jolla, Calif. Sirois, who's 54, candidly acknowledged her own disappointment, frustration and anger, and shared a strategy for recovering her self-esteem.
"The message for the students, at its heart, is coming to accept who they are, knowing that, in and of itself, is good enough," Sirois explained in an Eagle interview following the session with middle-schoolers. The goal, she added, is "to push away the fog of delusion we have that life is going to be easy and perfect, and embrace that in a way that actually moves us to the positive, toward what's going to help us grow and become more resilient."
Sirois had asked students to guess which celebrities had experienced repeated setbacks early in their careers before gaining fame and success. Her examples included basketball star Michael Jordan and filmmakers Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg.
Her aim with students was "to make it real, with seed-planting in 40 minutes," she added. With parents and faculty, she presented some of the positive-psychology research and science behind her message.
"Positive psychology is the study of what works," Sirois emphasized. "Ironically, when you accept the fact that perfection is not possible and you learn to use failure as the launchpad for the next level of growth, you actually move toward a thriving life in high school, college and beyond."
Explaining her technique designed to capture and hold the attention of potentially restless middle schoolers, she said: "It was trial and error. You have to keep it moving, keep it fast, and you have to do something a little unusual."
She credited VanSant's previous presentations to students for establishing a "platform of safety, so by being brought in by her, I had the sense, and I think I was right, that they would go with me, they would at least try it, and if I kept it moving, all the better."
During the assembly, Sirois and VanSant — a student of her positive psychology course at Kripalu — distributed envelopes and post-it notes. They asked students to write an example of how someone in their lives offered them support and kindness in a time of adversity. The students were told to write their names and addresses on the envelopes and seal the notes inside for mailing to their homes within a few weeks.
"I can't overstate how alone we often feel, and how helpful it is to be reminded that we aren't alone, that people have been encouraging us, even at young ages," Sirois said. "What we know from research is that kindness generates greater kindness, elevates optimism, and optimism opens the door to hope. We want hope that's grounded in reality, nothing is perfect, and things can get better. All of that is a positive cascade that comes from a simple act like this."
If she had a T-shirt for the students, said Sirois, "it would say, 'I'm not perfect' on the front and on the back, it would say, 'I'm magnificent.' Both are always true, and they matter."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto
LENOX -- Sometimes, the percussion resonated like a steady heartbeat through the school's gymnasium.
At others, it was noisy and chaotic, with kids hitting each others' instruments or yelling over each other.
The approximately 400 students of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School were challenged to keep drum rhythms in harmony with one another Friday during an assembly led by local percussionist Otha Day.
Principal Michael Knybel is hoping that the school can find and keep its own steady, unified rhythm throughout the year.
"The theme for this afternoon's assembly is unity through diversity, along with school and a commitment to learn," he said. "If they can do this, then they'll strengthen each other."
Last spring, through the efforts of school leadership teams of students, staff, parents and community members and a newly formed partnership with Multicultural BRIDGE, Lenox Memorial began a campaign to build a more positive school climate and foster stronger relationships between teachers, staff and students.
The school also adopted a "Character Counts" curriculum created by the Josephson Institute's Center for Youth Ethics. That program, adopted by other schools in the Berkshires, focuses on educating young people about its fundamental "Six Pillars of Character:" Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
These pillars have manifested into a colorful sculpture and a banner that can be seen upon entering the school.
"When we surveyed the students last spring, they wanted not to be judged. So we created a ‘judgment free zone' that will remind students every day when they come in that this is what they wanted," Knybel said.
Throughout the year, with support from BRIDGE and among its own committees, the school will bring in presenters and promote activities around issues like building compassion; discussing racism and gender identity; understanding poverty and why there are "haves and have nots."
"Our goal is to help them continue what we started last year," said Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and executive director of Multicultural Bridge. "The school is strong in academics, but needs work in building socioemotional connections."
"I hope it will bring us into more of a community in sense of the school," said Charlotte Cahillane, who serves as a senior class officer, along with Rishabh Kedia.
Cahillane said sometimes it can seem like there's "a lack of school spirit" at Lenox Memorial, in part due to the fact that the school's nickname for its sports teams is "The Millionaires."
"Sometimes we get made fun of because of it," she said.
"I hope that we can become a more integrated community," Kedia said.
During Friday's drumming program, Otha Day worked to create a rhythmic chant using the school's name, and a call-and-response song, highlighting the school colors of maroon and gold.
Class officers from grades 7 and 12 sat side-by-side with faculty, drumming core rhythms, while the rest of the students and faculty added layers with shakers and tubular plastic percussion instruments known as Boomwhackers. They sang a West African song called "Funga Alafia," which is sung to welcome people into a community.
"Look around at the people around you. You are a community," Day said. "You're going to spend the next year supporting and loving them and helping them through the year. If you see someone struggling, say to them, ‘Do you need a hand?' "
To reach Jenn Smith:
By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD -- The latest work of art to be displayed in a showcase at Stearns Elementary School was made by 440 hands.
On Friday afternoon during a schoolwide assembly a three-dimensional mosaic sculpture was unveiled, made with the contributions of the two hands of each of the school's 220 students. The artwork's center contains the hemisphere of a globe with golden beads and craft pieces radiating from it to make it look like the sun. Around that, students sorted and glued other objects -- beads, cutout shapes and buttons -- around it to create a rainbow-colored heart.
Principal Aaron Dean told students that when they see their sculpture displayed in the hallway, they should be reminded of "the bigger message" that each student and staff member brings something unique through
the doors to create a whole school community.
"It's about being kind to each other and being safe and respectful," he said.
This year, the Pittsfield public school district has partnered with the Housatonic-based organization Multicultural BRIDGE, to provide programs and workshops about diversity and cultural competence to its schools. As city school demographics become more varied in terms of race, socioeconomic status, language and levels of ability, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said schools are making it more of a priority to educate students and staff members about becoming more mindful and accepting of each other, no matter how different another person might seem from themselves.
Multicultural BRIDGE Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant and program assistant JV Hampton-VanSant partnered with art educator Rebecca Vanderstelt and education specialist Karen Woolis to conduct various art and literacy projects about diversity for students in kindergarten through grade five.
Students created personal mosaics, and with JV, created self-portraits and drawings of things they like which will be used to make quilts representing the individual personalities of each classroom.
Woolis said hopefully these exercises and projects help students learn early on that, as human beings, "we're more the same than we are different."
By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff
At 3 p.m. today, the Women of Color Giving Circle will hold its 10th annual Berkshire Graduates of Color Celebration in the second-floor ballroom at Spice Dragon restaurant. This year, there are 47 graduates, most of whom are black or of African descent, who will be honored for completing their high school graduation requirements -- the Giving Circle's largest turnout yet.
A public forum held earlier this week, however, detailed the difficulties that black and other non-white students in Pittsfield face in reaching graduation day.
The local chapter of the NAACP held an "Education Summit" at Morningside Community School on Monday night to offer community members "an opportunity to address relevant educational issues in communities of color in Pittsfield."
The event was attended by about 50 people, and about a third of the people, from ages 4 and up, took some time at the microphone to share their stories and their concerns for students. Over the course of two hours, participants gave accounts of discrimination and offered some ideas for resolution.
"We still live in a society where race dominates a lot of people's thinking," said Will Singleton, president of the local NAACP chapter. "If we don't come together and work together to make this society fair, we're going to be in deep, deep trouble."
"We're not going to solve all the ills of society tonight, but I hope we start a conversation about the lack of success for so many children of color in our school system," he said.
Berkshire Community College adjunct professor and theater artist Jamuna Yvette Sirker said it is a "statistical necessity" for all schools in the country to be prepared to support and offer role models for students of color.
She cited a statistic from the 2012 U.S. census that 50.4 percent of the nation's births as of July 1, 2011, were of a a minority race --defined as someone who is not single-race white and not Hispanic.
In Massachusetts, only about 65 percent of the currently enrolled population of 955,739 public school students are white. Seventeen percent of students in the state are Hispanic, nearly 9 percent are African-American, and 6 percent are Asian.
When it comes to graduation rates by race, there is a noticeable achievement gap. While about 90 percent of white and Asian students graduated on time in 2013 only about 74 percent of African-American and 67 percent of Hispanic and Latino students did the same.
During the NAACP forum, several students cited a lack of role models and encouragement to achieve for students of color. Pittsfield High School sophomore Sheila Atiemo is a high honors student. She told forum attendees d espite her academic record, she feels that some teachers in the school have put her or other students of color down. She said, for example, that one teacher told students that black men won't attend college. She said another teacher told her she was "retarded" because she was taking a longer time than her peers to complete an algebra exam in an honors class, which had mostly white students.
"Sometimes [teachers'] word choices can be harsh," Atiemo said.
She said that even if the teachers didn't intend to be mean-spirited, they would be better to offer encouragement than to cite struggle.
"I feel like people think less of me because of the color of my skin," Atiemo said. "But I have a lot of potential. I have a lot of goals and dreams to achieve."
Several other forum participants also spoke about similar issues, and thanked the NAACP for giving them a venue to share their experiences.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless were on hand during the forum, responding to questions and taking notes.
Bianchi said his administration is making a concerted effort to address issues of race and diversity in the city, including the review of hiring practices and how vacancies are promoted, and reviving the city's Human Rights Commission, which had been dormant since 1999.
"We have schools that are better than others at doing this work. We have principals who are better than others at doing this work," said McCandless. "We're working around policies, but to me it's about practice."
Audience members suggested having more programs to teach students about race and diversity; creating confidential ways that students can report incidents of racism or discrimination, and creating a school-community partnership or task force to further address issues of race and education.
McCandless noted that schools and staff are working on cultural competency training with local organization Multicultural BRIDGE.
Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, who moderated the forum, said that BRIDGE staff will be heading to Conte Community School next for training. She said Stearns and Crosby elementary schools are in the process of putting up mosaic art that students made celebrating their diversity.
"We need to teach kids to be respectful," she said. "Our kids and our schools are just mirroring our community, and we need to look at ourselves and our values."
LENOX -- "Caring, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and appropriate citizenship."
Those are the "six pillars of character" prominently displayed on a banner in the lobby of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
They also form the basis for an all-day forum this week planned by school leaders and Multicultural BRIDGE, the Lee-based non-profit organization founded in 2007 as a resource to "promote mutual understanding and acceptance among diverse groups" at local institutions and the community at large.
As part of its mission to serve as "catalysts for change through collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy," co-founder and Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant hosted recent informational previews and is working with administrators, teachers, students, parents and other community members for the full day of discussions and videos involving all 430 students at the middle and high school.
This Friday's Pillars of Character Forum involves groups of about 15 students in 26 classrooms during most of the entire school day, said Principal Michael Knybel.
The program is part of a countywide effort by Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) to promote a "truly integrated multicultural community."
VanSant noted that poverty, "have and have-nots, insiders and outsiders" are all on the agenda. "Your job is to hold a safe space for exploring the ideas," she told participants attending the informational preview.
"We want everyone to feel they have a voice within our community," Knybel said in an interview. In a note to parents, he described the schools as "a mirror of society. The climate of the school has a strong impact on both how well students learn and how well they interact with the overall community. It's to bring back that small-town ownership, being part of a whole and not just an individual focused on their own goal but to realize how the people around them support them."
According to Knybel, "teachers, administrators, parents and students must work hard to make their classrooms a welcoming place where each student feels equal and included."
"It all starts with awareness," he added. "Often communities are unsure how to support their students in a meaningful way. These best practices create a climate in which the most vulnerable students feel safe and valued."
At the informational preview last Wednesday evening, Knybel explained that the project originated with groups of sixth-graders at the school last year, who found the "Pillars of Character" online. Along with Dean Brian Cogswell, he decided to "weave character development" into academic development and then extend it to the broader community.
Much of the two-hour Duffin Auditorium session, attended by at least 30 people, was devoted to video clips highlighting issues of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, self-image and economic diversity.
"We need to guide our community to bind together and not think we're so different," Knybel asserted. "It's through our differences that we bring strength into the world."
VanSant introduced a widely viewed YouTube clip by the white anti-racism activist Tim Wise, who lectures on college campuses nationwide on "white privilege, guilt and responsibility." He trains teachers, corporate employees, nonprofit organizations and law enforcement officers on how to combat and dismantle racism in their institutions.
As explained by VanSant, Friday's schedule includes groups of students playing a game of "Oppression Monopoly." Each student gets varying amounts of money and assets at the beginning, as well as differing goals, to "illustrate how we're all born in a different space." A representative from RBS Wealth Management will attend some of the classes, she added.
VanSant also showed part of "The Story We Tell," an episode of a public TV series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion." It describes "how race was created to preserve wealth and land," she said. Images of masculinity and femininity were explored for the group in a screened trailer for a forthcoming documentary, "The Mask You Live In." She also showed the seven-minute "Selfie" documentary, filmed at Monument Mountain Reg-
Rev. Natalie Shiras, pastor of the Church on the Hill in Lenox, told participants about her five years of work with Multicultural BRIDGE, including a forum at Pittsfield High. "It's the students who will carry it," she said, referring to this Friday's event. "We're providing a safe place, a framework. It's an opportunity for the students to take it forward. It's an honor for us to help create this for this community and for our young people who are ready to shine and move forward," she said.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
LENOX -- For nearly 400 students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School -- where the wireless network is MillionAir -- it was a day unlike any they have experienced in the halls of academia.
More than two months in the making, the Pillars of Community Forum represented a mammoth undertaking by administrators and Multicultural BRIDGE, the nonprofit group dedicated to mutual understanding among diverse groups. On Friday, the normal classroom routine was replaced a series of frank, free-wheeling discussions on race, gender and sexual identity, economic inequality, privilege, entitlement and related social issues.
From my vantage point as an observer, it was an eye-opening, even mind-bending exploration of still-pervasive racism, the origins of slavery in this country, and, most of all, the need to understand and accept people from different backgrounds.
Much credit goes to Gwendolyn VanSant, the co-founder and executive director of BRIDGE, for her organization’s collaboration with District Superintendent Edward W. Costa II, Principal Michael Knybel and Dean Brian Cogswell ("Cogs," as he’s known at the school). VanSant, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., came to the Berkshires to attend Simon’s Rock College and has been here ever since.
At the outset, addressing the students in the school auditorium, Knybel urged them to "be kind Š I want you to be honest as we’re sharing something very intimate for us, our feelings. Sometimes we feel we can’t express ourselves, so today is your day."
Costa, noting that the initiative for the day originated with last year’s LMMHS sixth-graders, pointed out that "this is a huge MCAS testing month, and everything we’re talking about today, you’ll never see on this state test. Does that make it less important? No, quite frankly, today is more important than what you’ll be tested on. These are all life lessons, not textbook lessons; both are important, it’s just that life lessons aren’t tested through paper and pencils."
As Cogswell exhorted the students, "this is a discussion, not a debate. Do that in a respectful way to everyone in your classroom. It is OK to have a different opinion, a different point of view, but it’s not OK to tell somebody else that their opinion is wrong."
"It’s all about promoting mutual respect," VanSant emphasized, adding that the day’s topics were not limited to issues of race, gender, privilege, equity, equality or bullying. "We are all diverse, every one of us is different and unique."
At least 20 community volunteers, including parents and clergy, helped lead the classroom discussions, as groups of about 15 students shared their feelings.
Lenox is fertile territory for an organized effort to promote the six pillars of character embraced by the school system and extended to the community -- caring, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and appropriate citizenship.
The town has many well-known virtues, but is not known for diversity, though gradually that is changing, and the image of a high-income, privileged oasis of entitlement is becoming outdated, if it ever was accurate. About one in five students at the town’s elementary school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, double the number of just four years ago.
"Lenox is changing," Costa observed. "Part of changing is being accepting of all people and that’s what we want our students and our community to embrace with us."
He described the event as the opening of "a new era" for the school district and the broader community, stressing that the special day was just a start, definitely not a "once and done" occasion.
"This day is bold and daring," he acknowledged, noting mostly supportive calls from parents "who think this is the best thing and they’ve been waiting for years for this to start," though one skeptic wondered "why we need to do this."
"Schools are always a mirror of the community and the society," Costa told me. "It takes a concerted effort, a partnership between parents, teachers and schools. Š I invited that person in to see it, and they said they’d think about it. We’re inclusive, and the vast majority of people have said this is the right thing to do."
For many teachers and other staffers, the event loomed initially as anxiety-provoking, outside their comfort zone. "What I mentioned to them is that they don’t have to be an expert in diversity, in race relations, in socio-economics" the superintendent explained, "but they are experts in facilitating discussions. Today is the start of these discussions, and you have to open it up before you can open up education."
The decision to hold the all-day forum was not triggered by a specific incident, but by a series of events during Costa’s four years in the district -- "not all negative," he said, "but the events showed that we have some true learning opportunities, as students, staff and a community Š because it takes a whole community to raise our kids."
According to the Rev. Michael Tuck, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church and a community volunteer for Friday’s discussions, "it’s a chance for us to take the values we espouse, of being a small town and really caring about each other, and making that a little bit more of a reality for all the members of the community."
In his view, problems of inclusion "represent a struggle for many communities. Š I’m very proud of Lenox for deciding to address these needs that might be challenging."
As the Episcopal chaplain at Brown University in Providence, R.I., before he came to Lenox in 2012, Tuck noted that the discussions would prove to be practical for Lenox students who will encounter a much more diverse group when they arrive in college. Besides, colleges evaluate applications not only on academic performance but also on evidence of individual character.
"These are the kinds of issues that can make or break success in college," he observed. "If you come to college, find your roommate is gay and you’ve never thought about this, if that becomes a distraction for you, your grades suffer and who knows what happens?"
For community volunteer Tanya Kalischer, the day represented an effort to gain an understanding of people’s differences and value them, in order to make sure the town isn’t living in a "bubble."
After one lively discussion of race among sixth graders, students agreed that they had learned much and had valued the experience. Likewise, a 12th-grade class held an animated discussion on gender and sexual identity in a spirit of open-minded acceptance and an embrace of the "live and let live" approach.
At day’s end, VanSant met with her team of BRIDGE staffers and community volunteers; she asserted the faculty anxieties that surfaced earlier in the week had been largely overcome. Friday’s events "connected the dots and established trust," she stated.
An encouraging start, for sure. In the years ahead, parents and faculty should support the school administration by encouraging its leaders to set aside a monthly hour or two, at the minimum, so students can continue discussions aimed at shoring up those Pillars of the Community as the foundation of an ever-more open-minded, welcoming town as a beacon for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and personal preferences.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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