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Learning from differences: Finding a path to common ground | By Jenn Smith

posted Aug 3, 2015, 11:48 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

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.

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