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  • Otha Day issues challenge to Lenox students: Keep the rhythm By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 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 ...
    Posted Sep 2, 2014, 1:00 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
  • Pittsfield Latino community faces opportunities, challenges By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle Staff PITTSFIELD -- A statistical profile of the Latino community in Pittsfield highlights concerns and needs but also significant opportunities for the future, a research institute reported Wednesday.The statistics reveal, for ...
    Posted Jun 12, 2014, 12:08 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
  • Stearns students create mosaic for diversity By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle StaffPITTSFIELD -- The latest work of art to be displayed in a showcase at Stearns Elementary School was made by 440 hands.On Friday afternoon ...
    Posted May 28, 2014, 11:40 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
  • 10th annual Berkshire Graduates of Color Celebration honoring 47 By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle StaffPITTSFIELD -- For students of color in Berkshire County, there are successes to be celebrated and challenges that persist -- a point well-illustrated by two ...
    Posted May 28, 2014, 11:37 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
  • The Forum: SAY It Proud honorees for February named By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle StaffFrom left: Pittsfield High School seniors Gladys Garcia, Christine Ahoussi and Jennyfer BehanzinS.A.Y. It Proud honors from the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership ...
    Posted May 28, 2014, 10:58 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 20. View more »

Otha Day issues challenge to Lenox students: Keep the rhythm By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff,

posted Sep 2, 2014, 1:00 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

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.

Lenox Memorial Middle and High School students participate in a Pep Rally with Otha Day on Friday.
Lenox Memorial Middle and High School students participate in a Pep Rally with Otha Day on Friday. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff /

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:,
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink

Pittsfield Latino community faces opportunities, challenges By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle Staff

posted Jun 12, 2014, 12:07 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant   [ updated Jun 12, 2014, 12:08 PM ]

PITTSFIELD -- A statistical profile of the Latino community in Pittsfield highlights concerns and needs but also significant opportunities for the future, a research institute reported Wednesday.

The statistics reveal, for instance, a segment of the city's population that is rapidly growing and relatively young, while the majority white population here is declining and aging.

During a presentation at Berkshire Community College, researchers with the Gaston Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston covered demographics, public school education and transportation issues.

About 60 government and human-service leaders and members of the Latino community attended the afternoon session.

Sarah Rustan, one of authors of the report, said the profile of Pittsfield is part of a series on different regions in Massachusetts and analyzes U.S. Census, state Department of Education and other data to assist in creation of policies and programs relating to Latinos.

There are 2,250 Latinos in Pittsfield, she said, representing 5.1 percent of the population. The figure is approximately equal to that of African-Americans, while whites make up 86.1 percent of residents, Asians 1.1 percent and other groups total 2.6 percent.

It is significant, Rustan said, that while Pittsfield's population dropped 2.4 percent overall from 2000 to 2010, the Latino population surged 138.2 percent and the white population fell by 8.4 percent over the period.

In terms of median age, the city's Latino population is lowest, at 19; the median age for African-Americans is 29, for Asians 34, and for whites 45. These figures show the potential "for significant contributions" from the Latino community in coming years, Rustan said, in terms of maintaining a youthful work force and in balancing retirees with families with children.

Challenges for the Latino community and those who seek to assist it are revealed in income and education statistics provided by the researchers.

Michael Berardino and Valarie Watson reported on state education department and standardized test score data that show some improvement in recent years, but also areas where Latinos lag behind the general student population.

Latinos now make up 9 percent of students in the city's public schools, they said, while African-Americans are at 11 percent, whites at 72 percent, and others such as Asians, multiracial students or Native Americans, 8 percent.

Since 2006, they said, the enrollment for whites is down 20 percent, while for African-Americans, it is up 3 percent and for Latino students, it rose 50 percent. Overall, the system has seen a 9 percent enrollment decline over the period.

Massachusetts Common Assessment System testing data showed that only 23 percent of Pittsfield's third-grade Latino students scored "proficient" or higher in reading in 2013, compared to 35 percent for African-Americans and 49 percent for whites -- and 57 percent of students statewide.

However, in Grade 10, Latinos had closed the gap in English Language Arts testing in 2013 with whites in the city and statewide, with all groups more than 90 percent proficient.

Latino families with student-age children, according to the data, also are "highly mobile," Berardino said, with 21 percent changing schools during the year and 14 percent leaving the district entirely.

In Grade 10 math testing, Latinos, at 54 percent and African-Americans, at 30 percent, were behind the percentage of whites scoring proficient or higher -- 91 percent in the city or 80 percent statewide.

Graduation and dropout rates for students in the same four-year cohort showed Latinos with a 54 percent graduation rate and an 11 percent dropout rate, compared to 74 percent graduating and 11 percent dropping out for African-Americans, and 81 percent graduating and 8 percent dropping out for whites.

The numbers tend to fluctuate year to year for Latino students, Berardino said, but from 2006 through 2013, the four-year cohort dropout rate has fallen 36 percent. "Clearly, things are moving in the right direction," he said, but more needs to be done.

In terms of going on to college within 16 months of completing high school, only 44 percent of Latinos were enrolled, compared to 62 percent of African-Americans and 73 percent of whites and 74 percent for all high school grads in figures from 2011.

Strikingly, 91 percent of Latino students enrolled in two-year colleges, compared to 75 percent for African-Americans and 48 percent for whites. Community colleges are in particular "great resources" for Latino and other minority students, Berardino said.

UMass students Daniela Bravo, Aida Patencia and Chanel Fields gave a presentation on the importance of public transportation for Latino families, for access to employment and medical care and to avoid becoming isolated in rural Berkshire County.

They said the Safe Driving bill, now before the state Legislature with Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, as a co-sponsor, would help address the problem by allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a special driver's license.

The students said increased funding for bus and other public transportation and for the licensing legislation could prove key in whether the Latino community in the Pittsfield area can grow and thrive.

The presentation, "Latinos in Massachusetts: Focus on Pittsfield," was sponsored by BCC, Community Health Programs and the Multicultural BRIDGE program.

Other speakers included Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, Bryan Ayars, CEO of Community Health Programs, and Father John Salatino of St. Mark's Church.

Bianchi welcomed the presenters to Pittsfield, saying Latino immigration in the city reminds him of his youth and Italian immigrant parents who came here, were assimilated and helped change Pittsfield.

"And now we have another immigrant generation. You are enriching our community in ways we are not even aware of yet," he said.

Bianchi said it is important for the city to understand the needs of its newest immigrants to help them succeed.

The Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latin Community Development and Public Policy, directed by Maria Idali Torres, who moderated the presentation Wednesday, was established in 1989 at UMass Boston.

For information:

To reach Jim Therrien:,

or (413) 496-6247.

On Twitter: @BE_therrien

Vital statistics

Latinos in Pittsfield

Population: 2,250

Change 2000-10: 138.2%

Percentage in city: 5.1%

Median age: 19

Unemployed: 5.4%

In the labor force: 67.6%

Home ownership: 28.5%

High school dropout rate: 11%

Four-year graduation rate: 54%

Source: Gaston Institute at UMass-Amherst

Stearns students create mosaic for diversity

posted May 28, 2014, 11:40 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

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."

10th annual Berkshire Graduates of Color Celebration honoring 47

posted May 28, 2014, 11:37 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- For students of color in Berkshire County, there are successes to be celebrated and challenges that persist -- a point well-illustrated by two programs in Pittsfield this week.

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."

The Forum: SAY It Proud honorees for February named

posted May 28, 2014, 10:58 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

From left: Pittsfield High School seniors Gladys Garcia, Christine Ahoussi and Jennyfer Behanzin
S.A.Y. It Proud honors from the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership and Berkshire
United Way. (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff /

PITTSFIELD -- Each month, the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership and local youth programs honor city youths for making positive contributions to the community through its S.A.Y . (Supporting and Acknowledging Youth) It Proud initiative.
February's S.A.Y . It Proud winners are Pittsfield High School seniors Christine Ahoussi, Jennyfer Behanzin and Gladys Garcia, who were nominated by Multicultural BRIDGE for their participation in the Real Talk program.

The three young women are all students of Louise Celebi, English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, and have greatly improved their language and social skills since first enrolling at PHS.

"I didn't know any English when I came here," said Garcia, who arrived in 2010. "I was a shy person."

She said she's been able to find programs at the school, including those co-sponsored by BRIDGE, where "I could be myself and nobody would judge me."

All three students are now active community members and part of the BRIDGE Youth Corps. They've each collaborated with BRIDGE to present a summer educational program in Pittsfield; participated in spoken word performances and given speeches, and have advocated for themselves, each other and their peers in school. 

"I found the more I got involved with these things, the more I felt loved and connected to the community and friends. I learned I could be someone," Ahoussi said.

Real Talk coordinator JV Hampton-VanSant told the three honorees, "It's been really great to see you all blossom and see you go on to do wonderful things. You are models for the rest of students in the community and in the ESL community, too."

Pillars of Character Forum aims to give all a voice | By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Eagle

posted Apr 1, 2014, 9:00 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

POSTED:   03/06/2014 08:22:20 AM EST0 COMMENTS| UPDATED:   26 DAYS AGO

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-
ional High School in Great Barrington, that confronts female self-images in a society that puts a premium on beauty.

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: 
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

Clarence Fanto: Frank talks step forward for Lenox students

posted Apr 1, 2014, 8:49 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

POSTED:   03/09/2014 12:10:21 AM EST0 COMMENTS| UPDATED:   23 DAYS AGO

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:

The Forum: PHS sophomore latest Say It Proud honoree

posted Feb 27, 2013, 7:41 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant   [ updated Feb 27, 2013, 7:42 PM ]

By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

Posted:   02/26/2013 12:09:52 AM EST
Updated:   02/26/2013 11:21:19 AM EST

PITTSFIELD -- Pittsfield High School sophomore Xinhui Li has a vision to be her own leader, but she knows she must work hard to achieve her American dream.
Li was honored Monday as the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership's February 2013 S.A.Y. It Proud Award recipient, sponsored this month by Multicultural BRIDGE.

"We know it's important to recognize young people doing great things and making positive contributions to the community," said Pittsfield Prevention Partnership coordinator Karen Cole.

Li was nominated by Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, BRIDGE co-founder and executive director with support from her English language teacher, Louise Celebi. Hampton VanSant described the student as a "nice, quiet, strong leader" who has participated in BRIDGE's Youth Diversity Leadership Training Program. Li is also a member of the PHS chapter of Real Talk, a 21st Century Learning after school program with a 35-hour curriculum that fosters student leaders and ambassadors for topics of diversity.

During a program conclusion ceremony, Hampton VanSant said Li delivered an "eloquent speech capturing her experience and learning from the BRIDGE programs, as well as her experience as an immigrant student," charging school leaders and Mayor Daniel Bianchi to raise the bar on supporting multicultural education and students.

Li moved from China to the United States in 2010 and began studying at PHS in 2011.
"When I was in school in China, I knew I wanted to be a leader. I joined the BRIDGE program because I thought it would be helpful and make me strong," Li said.

She said she's struggled with English and with finding friends. She credits her friend, and former PHS student, Shelby Sebring, and her family for helping her learn a new language and helping her family adjust to a new culture. The Sebring family since moved to Virginia.

In addition to school and Real Talk, Li regularly works at her family's restaurant, Little Tokyo, at the Berkshire Mall, and helps care for her two younger siblings.
She said her personal goal is "getting into a top college so I will have a good future, and so my parents won't have to work at a restaurant anymore."

This spring, Li will continue her studies, her job and her work with Real Talk.

"Life is not easy. Sometimes it can be lonely and sometimes you have to try harder," she said. "Still, everyone should believe in themselves and be positive."

Living African-American History Project

posted Feb 15, 2013, 7:43 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

On Feb. 15, Pittsfield High School and Multicultural BRIDGE will present the Living African-American History Project to students at the high school as part of its celebration of Black History Month.

The presentation features 24 local African American men from a variety of disciplines who will speak with groups of students throughout the program day about their work, their passions and their lives.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, said the Living African American History Project is part of a broader endeavor to increase diversity throughout the community.

Hampton VanSant said her organization's work on the project began last spring after a pattern of racial discord became apparent at school sporting events across Berkshire County.  

The race task force of BRIDGE, headed by Hampton VanSant, engaged Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier to help support its work with multicultural education. Farley Bouvier went with Hampton VanSant to meet with school officials.

“We laid out what we'd like to do in a dream world, and they said 'yes.”

Some of BRIDGE's initiatives at the high school have included training for all faculty on race and multicultural education and the formation of a Multicultural Action Team composed of a self-selected group of faculty, which meets to discuss projects for the year.

The Living African American History Project is a result of those meetings.

“One of the things I had heard throughout the training was that they felt without any resources; African American males were falling through the cracks. They {the teachers} felt like they were being charged with being racist. They felt they weren't able to discipline and or educate and or provide role models for these African American male students {the way the wanted to.} I just kept hearing it every which way in every training. That's why when I suggested a living history project, I suggested it be all male because I felt I knew a lot of {positive} resources in the community.”

When Hampton VanSant and faculty liaison, Louise Celebi, brought it the administration and faculty, they found support and an invitation to bring as many speakers as possible.

Hampton VanSant found 20 men from a wide variety of disciplines, each with a distinctive story to tell, and got them onboard.

“I'm really excited about the presenters,” said Hampton VanSant. “We have Steve Robinson, an African American cowboy who has been in a documentary, “The Black West.” We have a graduate from PHS that was told he would never go to college and that he should drop out of high school, and now he has two PhDs, he was {recently inducted} in  hall of fame for girls track coaching. ...

“I've tried to choose purposefully, trying to dispel stereotypes {and perceptions}.”

 Abdullah Abdul-Rahim - Associate Chaplain (Retired)

As a former Associate Chaplain for the United States Department of Justice Community Relations Service, Abdullah Abdul-Rahim served his local community for both the Department of Corrections in Connecticut and in New York.

 Though he has recently retired after a lengthy career he is an active member of the Springfield Muslim Community, and is a distinguished alumnus of American International College. 

 Thomas Alexander - Coordinator for Multicultural Affairs, MCLA

Thomas Alexander serves as the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) Coordinator for Multicultural, International, and Veteran Affairs. He holds a master's degree in counselor education and has spent over 20 years of directing public and private opportunity programs in higher education working in service of students, parents, schools, college campuses and community-based organizations. 

He has extensive experience in counseling and advising students covering admissions, academic, financial aid, personal, social, and career concerns. Additionally, he has many successful years of coaching basketball, at the youth, high school, AAU and the college levels. Mr. Alexander is an assistant coach for the MCLA Men’s Basketball team which you may know is currently sitting at the top of the MASCAC conference.

 Antoine Alston - Trainer

A native to Housatonic, Antoine Alston, through the process of 19 years and with more than 18,000 hours of personal training, has been privileged to be able to gain substantial insight into the fitness world.  He has trained people from all walks of life, including athletes, celebrities, men, women, and children.

He has always felt that everyone deserves and should have access to the services of a highly qualified personal trainer.  He believes the results that people get with the knowledge and accountability of a personal trainer is exponential in comparison to the results of those who are unable to work with a trainer.

Churchill Cotton - Pittsfield City Council Member

Churchill Cotton was elected into the Pittsfield City Council in 2011. His extensive community service experience includes being elected twice to the Pittsfield School Committee in 2007 and 2009 and being a member of Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield and Chairperson of the Westside Initiative Steering Committee. He was a former member of the Berkshire United Way Board (2006 – 2012) and was appointed by Mayor Ruberto to chair the Pittsfield Bike Path Committee (2007) along with the Pittsfield Master Plan Committee (2007 – 2009). He graduated from the Berkshire Leadership Program in 2003. Since 2000, He has refereed high school basketball in Berkshire County. He is currently the president of the Samuel Harrison Society which is responsible for restoring Rev. Harrison’s house as a museum.

Churchill Cotton’s work experience in various financial positions includes 25 years at GE in several locations, 2 years at Martin Marietta in Pittsfield, 2 years at Lockheed Martin in Pittsfield, 5 years at KB Toys in Pittsfield and currently since 2009 at Guardian Life Insurance in Pittsfield.  He worked for a brief time at Eagleton School in Great Barrington.

Churchill Cotton was born March 19, 1950 in Pittsburgh PA. He graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, IL in 1967 and from Lincoln University in PA in 1971. In 1975, he married his wife, Patricia Thompson. He has two sons: Churchill II and John and three grandchildren: Alex (17), Haylei (14), and Langston (4). 

  Otha Day - Drummer

Otha Day is a Community, Communications, Conflict Transformation, Wellness and Team-Building Facilitator. He organizes drum and rhythm events for many and varied communities of participants including Corporate, Education, Wellness, and Spiritual.

He grew up in a segregated suburb of Chicago in the 1960's. He was college and university education in Classical Piano and has a successful career as a pianist and piano teacher in several schools, colleges and through private piano lessons.

  Warren C. Dews Jr. - Circulation Director, New England Newspapers

Warren C. Dews Jr. has worked in the newspaper industry for close to two decades. Dews’ ascent in the field is evident by his former roles. Initially, he held positions such as Telemarketing Supervisor, Single Copy Manager and then Circulation Director. Currently, Dews is the Vice President of Circulation of New England Newspapers, Inc.  As the VP of Circulation, Dews manages the operations for two daily newspapers in western Massachusetts and two in Vermont. Dews is well regarded as a senior management professional with extensive experience in the development and leadership of core business processes; a creative problem solver; and someone who is able to innovate strategies that increase productivity, enhance customer satisfaction, and improve cost-effectiveness. Fittingly, in 2004 Dews was named one of Press time’s “Top 20 Under 40” by the Newspaper Association of America. 

Dews is a member of The National Give Back For Kids Campaign and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. He also is on the Board of Directors for Pittsfield Community TV and is a local Minister at Price Memorial AME Zion church. Dews graduated with a bachelor’s of science in Business Management from Virginia State University in 1993. In 1988, he also graduated from the very famous “FAME” High School in New York City now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia HS of Music and the Performing Arts. In 1995, he was signed with Atlantic Records as a recording artist. He has worked with artist such as Jam Master Jay for the well known Group Run DMC, Eddie F from Heavy D and the boys to name a few. He has also sung on stage with Billy Preston and Patti Labelle for a 4th of July celebration.  He is married to his wife Roberta and the couple has three children, Warren III, West and Kennedy.

  Wray Gunn - is a descendant of Agrippa Hull who came to Stockbridge in 1755. He graduated from Williams High School and U Mass Amherst with a degree in chemistry. He worked for Pfizer Inc. in Canaan, Conn. as a quality control manager. He was an active referee in Berkshire County in baseball, basketball, and soccer for 35 years. He retired from Pfizer and is now very active with several groups including the African American Heritage Trail, The Sheffield Historical Society, The Friends of Du Bois' Homesite and the Olga Dunn Dance Company. He was married to Dolores Oakley and they have four grown children. He is now married to CoraPortnoff who has two grown children.

  Chandrick Hayes - Hotel Manager

Chandrick Hayes is the General Manager of the Albany, NY airport Red Roof Inn hotel.  Chandrick has managed Red Roof Inn hotels for almost eight years in locations including Columbus, Ohio, San Antonio, Texas, and now Albany, New York.  Mr. Hayes was the recipient of the 2008 Most Improve Guest Satisfaction score Award given to him by his Vice President of Operations.  He has improved his Guest Satisfaction scores and total revenue every year at each property he has managed.  Mr. Hayes holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Memphis; as well as a Master of Science degree in Restaurant, Hotel, and Institutional Management from Texas Tech University.  Mr. Hayes is a member of Multicultural BRIDGE and the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP.  Chandrick has lived in the Berkshires for almost 4 years, recently moving to Pittsfield with his wife Dr. Eden-Renee Hayes.  When not working, Chandrick likes to spend time with his wife Eden-Renee and their newborn son Quinton.

 Bryan House -  Project Manager, RECONNECT, BCAC

Since 2008, Bryan has served as the Program Manager of Project RECONNECT, a program of Berkshire Community Action Council which focuses on the needs of at-risk Berkshire County youth and young adults.  As a former professional baseball player, Bryan played seven years in the Chicago Cubs and Texas Ranger organizations.  He has also previously served as a JV basketball and baseball coach at McCann Technical High School in North Adams.  Bryan was recently appointed to the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board (BCREB), and he is also currently serving on the BCREB’s Youth Council.  In its brief history, Project RECONNECT has been featured in media segments by Albany’s Capital News 9, and having served over 400 young adults to date, the project has received the support of community leaders and organizations throughout Berkshire County. 

 Ty Allan Jackson - Author

Ty Allan Jackson is the winner of the Dr. Martin Luther King Content of Character Award and received citations by the Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, Senator Benjamin Downing and the House of Representatives because of his efforts to promote literacy.

His books build self-esteem and confidence in today's children by representing them in a modern, positive and fun way. Ty will not stop at just writing books, his goal is to teach the power of reading to every child. He has spoken to thousand of kids about the importance of literacy and they in turn have spoken to him, in person and through social media telling him how his books have changed the way they think about reading.

 Rodney Mashia - Musician and Diversity Trainer

Rodney Mashia is a diversity trainer, singer, songwriter, flautist, workshop leader and retired computer programming consultant.  As a person of color born and raised in rural Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, Rodney has used his six decades of experience to bring people together through his original music, humor and open heart. 

His experience of being the sole black student at a previously all white high school has given him a unique perspective on American race relations.  He currently resides in the Berkshires, where he is active as a musician, workshop leader, and diversity trainer. Check out his music at:

 HOMER L. MEADE II, Ed.D.,- Senior Area Director, Assessment Services Division, Pearson

Dr.Meade has spent 17 years as a classroom instructor.  During his 10 years of experience as a university-level of teacher and lecturer, he served a four-year term as Chair of the University of Massachusetts Faculty Senate Writing Program Committee and he served four summers as Director of the Writing Program for the Collegiate Education of Black and Minority Students at the University of Massachusetts.  Dr. Meade's higher-education teaching experience also includes his appointment as Five-College Lecturer on the campuses of both Amherst College and Smith College.  These appointments included course offerings in African-American culture and literature and American race relations.

Before his tenure in higher education, Dr. Meade gathered seven years of experience in secondary-level English instruction.  Areas of concentration included English composition, modern literature, Afro-American studies, history, philosophy, radio and video production, script writing, and poetry.  Dr. Meade is published and has presented a wide variety of academic and professional reports in the areas of American race relations, literary criticism and instruction in writing and critical thinking.

Dr. Meade has continued his personal involvement with public and independent school education.  He has served several terms on the Board of Trustees of a long established independent school in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.   He has participated in and designed programs for the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Committee, most notably the National Historic Landmark Dedication Ceremonies of the W. E. B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite.

  Dr. Mulazimuddin S. Rasool - Motivational Speaker and Coach

Mulazimuddin S. Rasool, Ed.D was born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He attended Berkshire Community College and Cheyney State College where he majored in pre-med. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he received a BA in American History, and minored in African American Studies.  He earned a Masters Degree (M.Ed) in Counseling, with a minor in Organizational Development, and an Ed.D in Instructional Leadership. He also has a MCH (Masters Degree in Clinical Hypnosis). He is certified by the state of Massachusetts as a Social Studies Teacher, Guidance Counselor, Attendance Officer, and Principal.

 Dr. Rasool is a much sought after motivational speaker and mind coach. For more than 30 years he has conducted seminars and workshops for middle schools, high schools, colleges, universities, community organizations, and correctional facilities, from Maine to California. He has written and published two books of poetry-”A Breath of Light” co-authored and “Words A Woman Needs...” Three Marriage Workbooks-”The Marriage Workbook: Before You Marry,” “The Marriage Workbook: Before YouRemarry,” and “The Marriage Workbook: Now That You Are Married.”  He is presently a high school track and field coach and Program Manager for Will Power Consultants. His thought provoking stories and charisma are guaranteed to stay in the minds of his audiences long after the experience is over.

 Steve Robinson - Professional Cowboy, Massachusetts Licensed Instructor, Professional Horse Trainer, Professional Horse Show/Competition Judge 

          Steve is the owner of Sunny Banks Ranch. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, part of a large  family, and spent many of his summers in Becket, Massachusetts at his grandparents' farm. When he was a young boy, he became fascinated with horses. Although he was living in a big city, he always dreamed about being a cowboy and was determined to see his dreams come true. As an eager teen, he practiced his rodeo skills and began competing in steer wrestling and roping. He won his first rodeo by his 18th birthday, and that bug bit him hard! 

In Ct., he married and he and his wife began to raise a family. He became a firefighter for the New Haven Fire Department. After helping  raise his family in New Haven, and divorcing,  and then retiring from an illustrious, twenty year career as a New Haven firefighter (and being inducted into the Firefighter's Hall of Fame), Steve and his youngest son, Kyle,  moved to Becket full time  where Steve concentrated his energy on helping to  raise Kyle, and making Sunny Banks Ranch the place he dreamed of as a child. Steve created and began hosting  the  Northeast Youth Rodeo Association (for children between the ages of 8-18) at his ranch, and made the ranch available to the public.He also has the distinct honor as being a judge at many northeast horsemanship competitions. Steve also does motivational speaking to a variety of audiences.

 Will Singleton,Ed.D - NAACP Chapter President                    

Former NY State Public School Administrator, Will Singleton graduated from Pittsfield High School in 1962. He then received his B.A. from Howard University in Political Science, M.A. from Georgetown University in History, and Doctor of Education from New York University.From there, he worked as a public school administrator in Washington D.C. and New York state. Retired, Will currently is the Berkshire Chapter NAACP President.

 Taj Smith - Assistant Director of Davis Center, Williams College

Taj Smith was born in Paterson, NJ but spent most of his early life growing up in Passaic, NJ. Taj attended and graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies and high honors in African American Studies. He went on to do his first round of graduate school at Cornell University, and received a Master's in African American Studies. After Cornell, Taj continued his graduate studies and is currently finishing up his doctorate degree as a part-time student in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass). During his tenure in the doctoral program, he has facilitated and designed the curriculum for a number of inter and intra group dialogues that trains people how to communicate across cultural differences. He has also served as an adjunct instructor for an intro to social diversity course at UMass-Amherst. His dissertation research will assess Phallacies', a male theater and dialogue group that he helped co-found, impact on college men's understanding of what it means to be a man.

  Steven Sneed  Associate Dean of the College, Williams College. Chair of the First Methodist Church of Williamstown. Makes regular trips to Malawi, through the church, donating computers and teaching. The church's "Campaign for Tomorrow" raised over $250,000 under his leadership. Lived for one year in Malawi with his family after receving a Senior Fulbright Fellowship to teach and do reach in Malawi. Works with Berkshire Food Project, YMCA, and Williamstown Youth Center.

Excerpt form his childhood story:

“I was born in the segregated south, North Carolina to be exact. For the first eight years of my life, I lived with my parents and Sheilda, my younger sister in Henderson, a small town not too far from the Virginia border. What I remember most, is a very happy childhood in a caring community of family and friends. Although we were far from prosperous, somebody forgot to tell me that we were not rich. I don’t recall ever being in need or want for anything, but that was probably due to my parents’ sacrifice.”

  After his father moved to NYC for several years for better employment, his father returned to bring the family

to Brooklyn.

  “I went from a segregated African American School in the south, to a mostly African American community school in the north, to a mostly all white school within four years.”

He switched High Schools along with a good friend, during his high school years, choosing a closer high school, but one at which friends were chosen based on race rather than interest/shared-hobbies, and at which there was almost no intermingling of the races.

 Eddie Taylor - Community Outreach Admissions Counselor, Berkshire Community College

Eddie Taylor

Community Outreach Admissions Counselor

Berkshire Community College

Executive Director, S.E.E.D. Network (Social Education Engaging Diversity)

2012 Martin Luther King Content of Character award winner.


Degree – Criminal Justice, AS Program (Summa Cum Laude)

*Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society,

SGA Student Government Ambassador

 David Thompson Jr. - Former NFL Player and Teacher Assistant

David Thompson Jr is a Umass Graduate with a math degree and minor in education. He is currently a teacher’s assistant at Amherst High School and head football and indoor track coach there, as well. He is a former Umass football all conference player and NFL player for the St.Louis Rams.

 David is married to married to Michelle Thompson and is the father of twin girls: Aaliyah and Aleesia Thompson.

 Michael Wynn - Chief of Police, Pittsfield, MA

Michael Wynn is the Chief of Police of the Pittsfield (MA) Police Department.

Mike has been a member of the PPD for eighteen years.  Prior to joining the department, Mike worked as a liaison between the police and the community as the first Director of the Westside Neighborhood Resource Center.  Since joining the department, Mike has served in a variety of assignments, including:  Community Policing, Bicycle Patrol, Narcotics, Special Operations (SWAT), Training, Patrol Supervisor, Shift Commander and Bureau Commander.  Mike has been the Department’s Chief Executive since December 2007.

In addition to his enforcement duties, Mike has served as an instructor at the Western Massachusetts Police Academy teaching topics ranging from defensive tactics and firearms to cultural diversity and bias crimes.  From 2003 to 2004, Mike served as a Leadership Fellow at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia.  Mike is currently an Adjunct Instructor at the Justice System Training and Research Institute located at Roger Williams University, as well as an instructor for the Municipal Police Institute.

Mike is active on several local community boards, including the Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Community College.  He currently serves as a member of a local Cultural Competency Task Force and a steering committee member for the Chamber of Commerce’s Youth Leadership Program.  Chief Wynn is the author of Rising Through the Ranks: Leadership Tools and Techniques for Law Enforcement.

He resides in Pittsfield and is married to the former Vicki J. Gattuso.

Berkshire youth worker summit teaches diversity By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

posted Dec 19, 2012, 10:43 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

Saturday December 1, 2012

BECKET -- The Berkshire County community is becoming more diverse, and that’s changing the needs and concerns of the community.

This week, about 30 workers from youth-oriented agencies and programs, like Railroad Street Youth Project, Pittsfield Prevention Partnership, and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, met for the annual Berkshire Youth Worker Summit, hosted by the Berkshire Youth Development Project at the YMCA Camp Becket-Chimney Corners.

This year’s event was a day-long cultural competence training workshop led by Multicultural BRIDGE.

"A lot of us grow up with certain experiences and interpersonal beliefs in dealing with others, and that carries on with us in our workplaces," said Kate Merrigan, a member of the Berkshire Youth Development Project board. "This is a chance to take a day to look at where the blind spots are in our work, what we’re missing."

The workshop emphasized three major issues pertaining to Berkshire County diversity matters for youth: socioeconomic status, sexual orientation/sexuality, and race.

According to 2011 data from the Berkshire Immigrant Center shared at the summit, there are approximately 12,000 immigrants living in Berkshire County, with about 66 percent of them representing a Latino heritage.

BRIDGE Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant said that percentage is double what it was five years ago. Aside from English, the predominant languages used in the county are Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian and Hindi.

"Our goal is to increase awareness, develop tools and a common language, and facilitate youth workers in developing strategies for ongoing multicultural awareness and cultural competence work, as it is a commitment," wrote Paul McNeil in a description of the summit. He is the Drop-In Center program director for Railroad Street Youth Project.

Anecdotally speaking, Mer rigan said that youths are bringing up or dealing with issues such as racism, learning and developmental disorders like Asperger’s syndrome, and gender identity and sexual orientation -- issues that bring confusion for both youths and the people who they are seeking support and guidance from.

VanSant said being "culturally competent" is to have a knowledge and understanding on these subjects and resources for youths on these matters, so that workers can best serve the young people they interact with.

This could be anything from knowing what the word "transgender" means to knowing cultural differences, like the fact that a handshake is not a practiced greeting in all cultures.

Karen Cole, coordinator for the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership, said cultural competency is becoming a more widespread practice in professional development, noting that federal government contracts now require employees to be culturally competent in the workplace.

"This kind of knowledge about miscommunication can help us find solutions to more deep-seated problems," Cole said.

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