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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.