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Pillars of Character Forum aims to give all a voice | By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Eagle

posted Apr 1, 2014, 9:00 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

POSTED:   03/06/2014 08:22:20 AM EST0 COMMENTS| UPDATED:   26 DAYS AGO

LENOX -- "Caring, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and appropriate citizenship."

Those are the "six pillars of character" prominently displayed on a banner in the lobby of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

They also form the basis for an all-day forum this week planned by school leaders and Multicultural BRIDGE, the Lee-based non-profit organization founded in 2007 as a resource to "promote mutual understanding and acceptance among diverse groups" at local institutions and the community at large.

As part of its mission to serve as "catalysts for change through collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy," co-founder and Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant hosted recent informational previews and is working with administrators, teachers, students, parents and other community members for the full day of discussions and videos involving all 430 students at the middle and high school.

This Friday's Pillars of Character Forum involves groups of about 15 students in 26 classrooms during most of the entire school day, said Principal Michael Knybel.

The program is part of a countywide effort by Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) to promote a "truly integrated multicultural community."

VanSant noted that poverty, "have and have-nots, insiders and outsiders" are all on the agenda. "Your job is to hold a safe space for exploring the ideas," she told participants attending the informational preview.

"We want everyone to feel they have a voice within our community," Knybel said in an interview. In a note to parents, he described the schools as "a mirror of society. The climate of the school has a strong impact on both how well students learn and how well they interact with the overall community. It's to bring back that small-town ownership, being part of a whole and not just an individual focused on their own goal but to realize how the people around them support them."

According to Knybel, "teachers, administrators, parents and students must work hard to make their classrooms a welcoming place where each student feels equal and included."

"It all starts with awareness," he added. "Often communities are unsure how to support their students in a meaningful way. These best practices create a climate in which the most vulnerable students feel safe and valued."

At the informational preview last Wednesday evening, Knybel explained that the project originated with groups of sixth-graders at the school last year, who found the "Pillars of Character" online. Along with Dean Brian Cogswell, he decided to "weave character development" into academic development and then extend it to the broader community.

Much of the two-hour Duffin Auditorium session, attended by at least 30 people, was devoted to video clips highlighting issues of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, self-image and economic diversity.

"We need to guide our community to bind together and not think we're so different," Knybel asserted. "It's through our differences that we bring strength into the world."

VanSant introduced a widely viewed YouTube clip by the white anti-racism activist Tim Wise, who lectures on college campuses nationwide on "white privilege, guilt and responsibility." He trains teachers, corporate employees, nonprofit organizations and law enforcement officers on how to combat and dismantle racism in their institutions.

As explained by VanSant, Friday's schedule includes groups of students playing a game of "Oppression Monopoly." Each student gets varying amounts of money and assets at the beginning, as well as differing goals, to "illustrate how we're all born in a different space." A representative from RBS Wealth Management will attend some of the classes, she added.

VanSant also showed part of "The Story We Tell," an episode of a public TV series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion." It describes "how race was created to preserve wealth and land," she said. Images of masculinity and femininity were explored for the group in a screened trailer for a forthcoming documentary, "The Mask You Live In." She also showed the seven-minute "Selfie" documentary, filmed at Monument Mountain Reg-
ional High School in Great Barrington, that confronts female self-images in a society that puts a premium on beauty.

Rev. Natalie Shiras, pastor of the Church on the Hill in Lenox, told participants about her five years of work with Multicultural BRIDGE, including a forum at Pittsfield High. "It's the students who will carry it," she said, referring to this Friday's event. "We're providing a safe place, a framework. It's an opportunity for the students to take it forward. It's an honor for us to help create this for this community and for our young people who are ready to shine and move forward," she said.

To contact Clarence Fanto: 
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto