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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.