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'Real Talk' program provides Pittsfield High School students support on race, bias issues | By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

posted Dec 19, 2012, 10:39 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

From left, Pittsfield High School junior Christine Ahoussi, sophomore Xinhui Li, facilitators Danika Padilla and JV Hampton-VanSant participate recently in an activity during Real Talk. Led by the Housatonic-based organization Multicultural BRIDGE, the after-school program gathers teens to talk about race, school and other issues on their minds. (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff)


Racism, bias and other forms of discrimination and judgment exist in various forms at any high school, but at Pittsfield High School, there is now a safe place for teens to talk about these issues.

This fall, PHS is partnering with the Housatonic-based nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups of Education) to pilot a program called "Real Talk."

The after-school session is presented with trained BRIDGE facilitators, and gives students time to share stories and talk about how to deal with things like stress, isolation and conflicts. And it offers participants a network of peers to whom that can turn for support.

In addition, the group plays various games, watches films and enjoys fun, food and music.

The group particularly aims to help students in minority groups at the school -- Latino, Jewish, and low-income, for example -- but all students are welcome, including teens who want to be allies to their peers.

"Sometimes having another person of color around, any person of color, makes it easier, because they know what it's like," said PHS junior Christine Ahoussi.

During a recent Real Talk meeting, Ahoussi shared some of her stories about being called names and being made to feel uncomfortable, by both other teens and teachers, because of her deep skin tone and African heritage.

She and BRIDGE Real Talk facilitator JV Hampton-VanSant shared a laugh at a misperception both of them have experienced simply because they are black people with African roots.

"I have never been to Africa and have never seen a lion in my life," Hampton-VanSant said. "Sometimes, you just have to laugh."

The half-dozen students currently going to Real Talk meetings are students of Louise Celebi, a teacher for students who are learning or have learned English as a second language.

Some of her students are immigrants, while others may have been born in the United States but have grown up in a home where English is not primarily spoken.

Celebi, who attends the Real Talk meetings to listen and occasionally chime in, says that the activities allow students of all different backgrounds the opportunity to come together and bond.

"What's great about this is that it is real talk and offers the opportunity to share stories with people who understand," Celebi said.

Xinhui Li, a sophomore at PHS, said she would like to see more students getting involved with Real Talk.

"That way there will be more people understanding and wanting to learn more," she said.

One idea that has been hatched out of the program is to hold a school-wide celebration in the spring, where students from all backgrounds can share food, music, fashion and languages from their various cultures.

In addition to PHS, the Real Talk program is also being piloted at the Greylock ABC House and Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, at the BRIDGE campus in Housatonic, and a cable access program, "Real Talk Time: Be the Change," produced by Hampton-VanSant through Community Television for the Southern Berkshires.