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LENOX >> There are laws that protect citizens' constitutional and civil rights, but organizers of an upcoming conference on the matter feel that few people know what protections they're entitled to.
"It's all about equitable access to information and services," said Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and executive director of the Berkshires' Multicultural BRIDGE.
The agency for education and social justice will host the Berkshire County Civil Rights Conference at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Lenox Community Center, featuring keynote speaker U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
The event was previously to be held at Lenox Town Hall but the venue was changed due to a scheduling conflict.
Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009, Ortiz is the first Hispanic person and the first woman to represent Massachusetts in this post. In 2010, she implemented the District of Massachusetts's first civil rights enforcement and outreach initiative, and has prosecuted controversial cases like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
At 5:30 p.m., Multicultural BRIDGE will mark its seventh anniversary by holding its fifth annual Cultural Competence & Community Stewardship Awards ceremony. The honorees, also distinguished women, include Mary Grant, outgoing president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; Jean Clarke-Mitchell, director of clinical services for the Elizabeth Freeman Center and clinician for the Brien Center; Jeanet Ingalls, founder of Shout Out Loud Productions; and Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, founding director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Recognition will also be given to the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women.
VanSant said the evening, which is expected to include more than 120 participants, will celebrate the accomplishments and highlight the struggles, both on a local and national level, in sustaining civil rights.
In addition to her remarks, Ortiz and her Department of Justice staff members will participate in a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with New York Judge B. Harold Ramsey, Berkshire Attorney Ken Gogel, and staff members from the Northampton-based Center for Public Representation.
VanSant said the conference will touch upon timely topics such as hiring and employment law, race and gender protections, disability rights and immigration, and will help people distinguish the difference between civil and criminal cases.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who is co-chairman of the event, said the program could help "raise awareness on things we may not be thinking of in the Berkshires."
He said whether it's race or gang violence, "We have issues in the Berkshires ... that we need to better educated about, aware of and responsive to."
Since 1957, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has been tasked with enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.
VanSant said Ortiz and her staff have ensured her that this event also will serve as an opportunity for people in the Berkshires to bring cases forward and ask questions one-on-one with them.
As part of BRIDGE's "Towards Racial Justice" and "Social Justice in Action" campaigns, VanSant said all remarks and feedback heard at the event will be digested by the Civil Rights Conference Committee and Race Task Force to develop initiatives that can shape programs and policies in the county and beyond.
"Our long-term agenda goal is that we're a better-educated community on these topics," VanSant said. "The next generation is a more diverse generation than we've seen before, and we're not as prepared as we should be. We need to know how to appreciate, integrate and know the value of people and understand where the gaps are."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239
What: Multicultural BRIDGE Berkshire County Civil Rights Conference and fifth annual Cultural Competence & Community Stewardship Awards Ceremony, featuring U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday. Awards ceremony will be held at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Lenox Community Center, 65 Walker St., Lenox.
Details: The event will include presentations, a panel discussion, Q&A and a light dinner. Tickets are required and range from $10 to $30; students ages 18 and under are free; sliding scale rates available.
Info: Call 413-394-4029 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.