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PITTSFIELD >> Race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religious orientation — there are a lot of differences among the people of Pittsfield, Berkshire County — and the world for that matter.
But it's not always comfortable, and in some cases, safe for people to talk about their differences and how they shape society's thinking, programs and policies.
Earlier this week, the city of Pittsfield and Multicultural BRIDGE partnered to present a program called "Learning from Differences." Sign-ups were offered first to city and school employees, then opened to community members, for a program designed to encourage them do just that — listen and learn from each other.
The two-hour workshop, held Monday night at the Ralph J. Froio Senior Center, was facilitated in part by psychoanalyst Gerard "Jerry" Fromm, Ph.D., senior consultant to the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge.
BRIDGE Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant said a total of 42 people of varying ages and backgrounds participated.
Typically BRIDGE convenes groups for training related to issues of diversity and cultural competence, but Hampton VanSant said Monday's program "was not a training" but "a valuable way to get people to the table."
She and other participants, several of whom have been involved with similarly themed meetings and trainings through the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP or the countywide BRIDGE Race Task Force, said they saw many new participants and heard new perspectives during the event.
"In my experience of doing a lot of work on topics like this, you get used to seeing the same people at the table, but it was refreshing to see so many new faces," said Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn.
Hampton VanSant said the workshop was initially conceived by Fromm in the wake of national incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo., then directed toward Pittsfield, which has been working to address issues like affirmative action and other issues of equity.
Julia Sabourin, the city's director of administrative services, helped coordinate the event, and sent out some preface materials to those who signed up to participate:
"When traumatic events happen, fractures too often erupt along racial, religious, political or other fault lines," she said. "Differences between groups become highly charged and vulnerable to misunderstanding and stored up feelings from the past."
"Open dialogue and honesty is crucial to create change even though it is not always easy," Sabourin said.
After a brief introduction, participants divided themselves into smaller groups of 10 to 12 people, and let the sharing of experiences and concerns take a natural, conversational course. Though participants agreed not to disclose specific details of talks and revelations, some agreed to talk about the general topics that their groups approached.
John Bissell, executive vice president of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said he was interested in participating as an employer, as well as a resident and parent.
He said in his group, he compared and contrasted experiences he had growing up in Dalton; he said his experiences seemed more "homogenous" as compared with others in his group.
Said Bissell, "We can all catalog our differences endlessly, but how do we learn to embrace that?"
In practical terms, he and his Greylock colleagues are looking at ways to attract and retain a more diverse group of employees; how to address language barriers, and how to help people with different kinds of financial challenges.
Luci Leonard, a local nurse, said her group talked largely about diversity in education and increasing the representation of teachers who are African-American, Hispanic and of other non-white backgrounds in Berkshire County classrooms.
"There are documents and structural environments that keep differences at a disadvantage, but differences are healthy. That's how we dove into conversation," Leonard said. She also serves as the vice president of the NAACP-Berkshire chapter, but she said she participated in the workshop as a health care worker and resident.
"I learned that some people had never been around people who are very different from them. This is what we call a 'popular education,' " she said. "Once you know about someone or something, you can't say 'I don't know' or 'I don't understand.' "
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi, who also participated, said he'd like to see more community programs and conversations like this continue in the city and county, and that he would support future forums.
"We're one of the largest employers in Berkshire County," he said. "It's important that we stimulate community discussion."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
The Berkshire Eagle
LENOX >> Following a recent screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom's trail-blazing documentary, "The Mask You Live In," the audience at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School sat for a moment in stunned silence.
Then, the floodgates opened for a sometimes tense but ultimately healthy discussion, moderated by JV Hampton VanSant, youth coordinator at Multicultural BRIDGE, which organized the event attended by about 100 students, parents and other community members.
As reported in this space last Sunday, the film exposes in provocative fashion the ill effects of our society's super-macho definition of masculinity. The price paid by boys and men cut off from their feelings and by women who are demeaned or exploited is unacceptably high.
The filmmakers see a connection to the upsurge of sexual assaults on female students at many college campuses. A U.S. Justice Department study at two large Midwestern and Southern universities several years ago found that one out of four young women had been subjected to some form of unwanted sexual activity. (Whether that alarming statistic can be applied to U.S. campuses overall remains unclear.)
Multicultural BRIDGE assembled a post-screening discussion panel at the high school. It quickly became clear that there was no consensus in the audience on how to change deeply ingrained standards of behavior.
"The biggest challenge here is how to bring this back into your home lives and school," said Stockbridge native Jonathan Aronoff, a clinical psychologist whose forthcoming book is titled "Lost Generation of Boys."
A woman in the audience complained that "my biggest problem with this film is that it protected men, it talked about embracing masculinity and making it positive. I'm afraid we need to say that an absolutely vital part of feminism is destroying masculinity; it's toxic and based largely on attacking women."
Panelist Bear McHugh, of the Berkshire Area Health Education Center, said "sometimes men are hard to get along with, sometimes women are hard to get along with, and that's what I've truly learned in this life. The whole thing goes back to that middle ground because we are human and we should treat each other that way ... to talk about what's good for everybody."
But the audience member asserted that "there's a huge social divide between genders in America; we have to talk about it in terms of the relationship between oppressed and oppressor. Yes, we are all human but we're not all treated like humans."
"So, are you saying we should also destroy femininity because it's actually the same concept?" asked a male high school student. "It's extremely harmful to say 'destroy masculinity,' because when you destroy something, you take away everything that's part of it, and you should just want to change it."
LMMHS Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell questioned whether "destroying is the right word, but there absolutely needs to be change. Maybe we should try to get our youth coaches involved to get that to our children when they're younger."
"Conversations like these and results that you're not even expecting help promote the change in society that we want to see," said Matthew Bitten, clinic director at South Bay Mental Health's Pittsfield office.
Another woman in the audience discussed how much chauvinism she had witnessed during more than eight years at a mostly male workplace. And the father of a 7-year-old boy acknowledged that "I'm guilty of all this and very focused on changing it, but without acknowledging it until I witnessed this film."
Another father pointed out that "the moment our children turn on their first TV set, the parents are already playing catchup. We only have our children so many hours a day, you teachers and students are the second defense for our kids. The main thing you can give to boys and girls is a safety net. They have to feel safe enough to tell you what they're feeling."
Aronoff suggested three key words — "compassion, empathy and critical thinking that lead to teamwork, family and, eventually, community. If you engage in a conversation with your family or your peers, be mindful, are you being empathic, simultaneously being able to hold on to your thoughts, feelings and actions, and to another person's."
"Critical thinking is being able to think about it objectively," he explained, "and then try to render an opinion that isn't knocking someone off, it's including everyone. If you practice those qualities, you'll find at least you have something to work with."
As demonstrated by the intense discussion, "The Mask You Live In" fuels constructive debates. More school showings are being scheduled by Multicultural BRIDGE. The next public screening is expected during the upcoming 10th anniversary Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF) from May 28-31.
Thought-provoking and highly relevant to the times we live in, the documentary has the potential to affect attitudes and help create positive change in our too-often conflict-ridden society.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org.
email@example.com @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter
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."
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