GREAT BARRINGTON -- Living within the majestic landscape of Berkshire County, many hold dear a set of hills or mountains in the region. The familiar mountains seem to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech in April 1968, often referred to as the "mountaintop speech." King eloquently and passionately relays a vision of gazing out over a mountaintop and beholding his dreams.
Imagine the great soul of Martin Luther King Jr. looking out over our local mountain landscape and seeing Berkshire youth giving shape to his vision of social and economic equality.
He might see youth leaders speak at the upcoming 14th annual Interfaith celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday on Monday.
If King gazed over Mount Greylock, he might see Mount Greylock High School senior Crystal Haynes called into the principal's office -- for her exemplary skillful conduct in cultural conflict resolution. With years of experience as a Youth Leader in Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration and Diverse Groups Education) Youth Corps, Haynes has great confidence in helping her student peers peacefully and constructively resolve situations involving racial prejudice and stereotypes.
As King taught, "you need to try to get a sense of understanding from each side," she said.
Haynes became involved with Multicultural BRIDGE Youth Corps three years ago when the organization responded to a request from Mount Greylock High School. They offered a school-wide series of workshops to collaboratively build a new sense of community.
As a result, Haynes said, "there were big changes in the faculty. I could tell they really cared and made an effort to welcome new people. Our school is making big strides for the community."
Haynes takes part in the Greylock ABC House, which welcomes young scholars from New York City and supports them in the Berkshires. As an African-American originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Haynes has bravely addressed ignorant comments and even hateful remarks.
When she faces these kinds of challenges, she said, she "looks to King as the ultimate example of courage and strength, the definition of peace."
As she has courageously taken on racial integration, she has not only become a part of the community in Williamstown, she has also stepped into leadership with much grace and success; she was recently inducted into the Governor's Youth Council, where she represents Berkshire County's youth, working for their needs on a state level.
While racial integration was an enormous contribution King made to the nation, he wrote in his book, "Strength to Love": "Desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize[:] genuine intergroup and interpersonal living."
This genuine inter-group living resonates with local youth leader and program director of Greenagers Will Conklin.
Glancing over Monument Mountain, King, in his vision, might see Conklin leading a group of teenagers of various economic backgrounds to create gardens, clearing trails, being stewards for the Earth and their community.
Greenagers programs include education, activism, community service, as well as making it a priority to pay youth for their contributions to community.
"Anytime [we're] talking about economics and community building, creating a resilient local economy, if [we're] not engaging the young people in that community, then [we're] perpetuating a stagnant system," Conklin said. "ŠThe income gaps are as important as racial gaps."
Conklin reaches out to school guidance counselors among other groups to recruit youth of diverse backgrounds. He refers to Martin Luther King Jr. as making our nation a richer place to live, and he defined that richness as "talking to people from different backgrounds on a one-to-one, equal level, and asking the hard questions."
If King, in his visioning on the mountain- top, had a glimpse over Mount Everett and East Mountain, he might see the articulate high school senior Austen DuPont, a Youth Operational Board Leader of Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP), asking hard questions about economic and social inequalities.
DuPont points to segregation between income classes at his high school, as well as aspects of the curriculum based around assumptions of financial wealth.
At RSYP, youth of all backgrounds are "encouraged to have a voice, and are welcome to use the place as an actual resource," DuPont explained. Among other activities, he and fellow RSYP participants head once a month to briefing sessions at the United Nations to lift their voices with concern and suggestions for international issues.
When asked about the importance of celebrating MLK Jr. Day in Berkshire County, DuPont responded enthusiastically, "this holiday is like Thanksgiving for Martin Luther King!"
This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.
If you go ...
What: 14th Annual Interfaith Celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday -- youth leaders will speak
When: Monday, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: First Congregational Church, 251 Main St., Great Barrington