LENOX >> A remarkably frank discussion of the chasm separating the affluent and cultured summer visitors — many of them part-time residents of the Berkshires — from the many locals who struggle year-round with poverty, drug abuse, low-wage service jobs and lack of opportunity for young people took place in an unlikely setting this past week.
It was an early-evening cocktail party for some 100 guests invited by The Eagle's new local owners, with the collaboration of the Boston Symphony, to the magnificent setting of Seranak, the estate purchased by the orchestra in 1978 after the death of the legendary BSO Music Director and Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky's widow, Olga.
Those attending included luminaries such as Laurie Norton Moffatt, president/CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Red Lion Inn owner and philanthropist Nancy Fitzpatrick, members of The Eagle's ownership team and staff, and a diverse assortment of other invited guests.
The co-moderators were Yo-Yo Ma, a Tyringham second-homeowner and welcome, ubiquitous presence in the Berkshires during the summer, along with British composer Gerard McBurney, whose forefathers had deep roots in Stockbridge.
The announced theme centered on the role of the arts in fostering the county's creative economy. But, as reported in Saturday's Eagle, the discussion took a sobering turn that resulted in a meaningful conversation without shying away from the challenges confronting many of our year-round residents, especially in Pittsfield, Adams, North Adams and the hilltowns.
Apparently referencing the invisible boundary that separates South County from Pittsfield at Guido's Marketplace on Routes 7 and 20, Fitzpatrick voiced the wish that well-heeled visitors to the county, attracted by our storied cultural attractions and scenic beauty, "would be more aware of the hurt, suffering and needs in our potentially wonderful small city."
What followed was an eloquent appeal from Dennis Powell, 71, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP and a well-known chef with an impressive resume. He described a phenomenon many of us have long recognized — that symbolic wall separating the more prosperous towns to the south from Pittsfield, which he called "a young community and a hurting community."
He reminisced about how he was inspired by music-appreciation education at an early age. "In music, there is personal development, it develops the human being," Powell said, describing a summer program he fostered in his previous role as director of the Pittsfield Christian Center that brought young people to Tanglewood to hear BSO rehearsals conducted by Seiji Ozawa, the orchestra's former music director.
"After the rehearsal, he was sitting on the ground with these youths, talking about music," Powell recalled. "They were open to what he was saying and they were in awe of what was going on."
"Someone commented, 'Couldn't believe their behavior,' " he added. "Present the right setting, give the right message, you don't have to worry about behavior."
"And that's the most important message — if we take the human approach and our hearts, which I learned is where our spirit is, so if we use our hearts and do the right thing and reach back, a lot of our community problems can be solved. We've got to give our young people hope, the same opportunity that all of you have had. Because it's opportunity that makes us achieve."
In a startling anecdote, Powell recalled that he was interviewed "to be chef of this place. I went to four interviews at the BSO, was narrowed down to four individuals. At the final interview, the other three said to me, 'Dennis, you're going to get the job.' Well, Dennis didn't. But the person that was given the job, a woman from New York, called me and said, 'Dennis, I'm really surprised that they hired me. With your permission, I'd like to call them and ask if they would hire both of us, because I'd love to learn from you."
"And I said, 'I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way, I'm happy you got the job and good luck to you. Moral of the story: She lasted two weeks."
Powell described how he had been rejected from at least 15 jobs that his resume qualified him for, "but when I showed up, the job was no longer available. Because I don't have the kind of resume you'd associate with a person of color. So, this is what's got to stop."
Powell exhorted his listeners, "you've got to open your hearts, you've got to open your minds, you've got to realize that inclusiveness is important. There are no gated communities today, because when you ignore the problems of today, they're going to be at your gate. Stop hiding, look at the world, look at what's going on. Treat everybody as a human."
Following vigorous applause, Yo-Yo Ma offered one word: "Wow."
Sounding a similar note as he recalled his youth in the housing projects of the Bronx, Warren C. Dews Jr., a Pittsfield community leader and minister explained that "music saved my life. If I wasn't singing, I'd be doing other things. I had friends who died in front of me, friends selling drugs."
Dews, the vice president of audience development at The Eagle, is a 1988 graduate of the prestigious LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts in Manhattan, the model for "Fame," the film, TV series and Broadway show.
"I didn't have a lot of options, but music changed my life so I could be here today," he said. "One of the things the Berkshires has that no one really has is music, culture, acting — that's what we need to capitalize on. Barrington Stage, the Colonial Theatre, the Mahaiwe, all of these places need to connect with each other."
Dews urged a "pipeline" to attract students from high schools like he attended "to continue to hone our skills, to connect to local people. We need to teach the community about what we have."
He extolled the efforts of The Eagle's new owners to create "a new vision for our paper, a local paper that cares about you, that's truthful about what's going on, that's going to be able to tell the stories that connect the community, because we care. And we didn't have that before."
To hearty laughter, Dews told the ownership team in the audience, "I'd like to get my raise next week sometime."
I'm not looking for a raise, but I'd second his emotion.
Despite the onslaught of so-called social media, the notion many people have that they can get their "news feed" from Facebook, I'd wager on the role of a community-focused print and digital newspaper, "hyper-local" as the media industry describes the approach, to help serve as a healing force and a beneficial agent of positive change.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.