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Berkshire leaders stress diversity work still to be done

posted Mar 16, 2012, 8:42 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

From the Berkshire Eagle

PITTSFIELD -- Strides have been made to improve racial and gender diversity in the Berkshires in recent years, but more needs to be done, according to panelists who participated in a diversity forum Tuesday evening at PCTV.

The Eagle organized the hourlong forum at Pittsfield Comm unity Television's studios; issues ranged from recent racially derogatory comments made at local sporting events to the struggles women face in the workplace.

Six local leaders whose personal and professional lives give them insight into diversity issues facing Berkshire County took part in the discussion, which was moderated by Eagle reporter Dick Lindsay and Warren Dews, vice president of circulation for New England Newspapers Inc., which includes The Eagle.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, said local groups have taken steps to respond to the recent racial remarks at high school athletic events in the county, and BRIDGE will work on sensitivity training with local athletic directors this year and later will expand those efforts to include coaches, parents and students.

Panel members said training and educational opportunities are important, but real change won't happen until school administrators and faculties in the areamore accurately represent the student population in their classrooms.

Shirley Edgerton, Berkshire County program director for the state Department of Develop mental Services, said incidents such as derogatory racial remarks necessitate the need for more diversity, especially among teachers.

"It's important when kids enter the school system that there's a reflection of themselves," she said.

Edgerton said school leaders need to devise a plan to solve these issues and not just speak about their desire to become more diverse.

Hilary Greene, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, said it's important to integrate that diversity at all levels of education. Schools often are a newcomer's first introduction to a community, so it's crucial that the first impression be positive.

"We need to be known -- as Pittsfield and the Berkshires -- as a place where you can come and be accepted and be welcomed and ultimately find success because of that sentiment," she said.

Eddie Taylor, community outreach admissions counselor at Berkshire Community College, said being a welcoming community that reflects its population has to start with town government and City Hall.

"That's definitely an issue for me -- that I can walk through that entire building and not find one person of color, not even the janitor," Taylor said.

Taylor and others praised the city of Pittsfield -- and Megan Whilden in particular -- for its efforts to diversify the arts and cultural offerings.

Whilden, the city's director of cultural development and a panelist Tuesday night, said there's always room for improvement in city government.

"You have to be proactive to make people feel welcome," she said. "In order to attract and retain people, we have to do a lot of things on a lot of different levels."

There also was discussion of how to retain the city's young professional minority population, and VanSant said the lack of diversity among business leaders is the biggest area where the Berkshires are lagging.

The panel also discussed the ongoing struggles of women, who continue to earn less than their male counterparts in the workforce. But Eleanore Velez, admissions counselor and Multicultural Center coordinator at BCC, said it's also important to look at the positives and the need to continue to speak out for change.

"While there is a glass ceiling, and whether it's race or gender issues, we still have a lot of work to become equal," she said. "However, we have a voice. We're sitting here; we're not passive."

At the end of the discussion, panelists said The Eagle needs to be more racially sensitive in its coverage but also noted the newspaper's efforts to write about more diverse issues.

The forum will be broadcast on PCTV at times to be determined.

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On Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones

Diversity forum

When: Tuesday night at the studios of Pittsfield Community TV

Presented by: The Eagle.

Moderators: Dick Lindsay, Eagle reporter; Warren Dews, vice president of circulation for New England Newspapers.


-- Shirley Edgerton, Berkshire County program director for the Mass. Department of Develop mental Services; director of Youth Alive; founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires.

-- Hilary Greene, executive director, Berkshire Immigrant Center.

-- Eddie Taylor, community outreach admissions counselor at Berkshire Community College; executive director for SEED Network.

-- Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director and co-founder, Multi cultural BRIDGE; Berkshire County commissioner on the Status of Women.

-- Eleanore Velez, admissions counselor and Multicultural Center coordinator at BCC.

-- Megan Whilden, Pittsfield's director of cultural development