GREAT BARRINGTON — A night of tough conversations in Great Barrington ended with plans for the future and hopes for bridging the divide between the town's black community and police.
The local organization Multicultural BRIDGE hosted the roundtable discussion Wednesday at Grace Church on the issues surrounding race and violence that have torn at the nation's fabric.
BRIDGE founder and Executive Director Gwendolyn VanSant the organization started work in immigration advocacy in 2007.
"We wanted to help integrate the local immigrant population into the community," she said.
In September 2009, "We reached out to the Department of Justice to stop an incident" — like the recent police killings of black men — "from happening," VanSant said. "They gave us ground rules for engaging the community."
One of the DOJ's suggestions was discussing racial justice issues with law enforcement and members of the community. To that end, BRIDGE began holding a monthly forum called the Race Task Force, which meets in Pittsfield on the first Monday of the month.
The conversations can be difficult.
"We all come from different points of view," VanSant said.
Luci Leonard, a self-described advocate for equity from Pittsfield, agreed and told the crowd not to be afraid to speak their minds, but with respect. She pointed to the "Stay Woke" hashtag emblazoned on the front of her shirt.
"'Stay Woke' means being aware and conscious of the environment you're in," Leonard explained.
The crowd of about 40 people expressed frustration, sadness and hope over the country's racial divisions.
Rabbi Barbara Cohen acknowledged the duality of Jewishness in American life.
"I have one foot in the world of privilege and one in the other world," she said.
"Our community is one of haves and have-nots," said Mary Berle, principal of Muddy Brook Elementary School. "It's depressing to see our trajectory reflect what we're seeing nationally."
"Racism and economics are not the same," said Maia Conty, a Great Barrington resident. "But they are overlapping issues."
There were some moments that bridged any divides at the meeting.
"I can't deny the struggle of my people," said Will Hampton, VanSant's brother. "But there's enough blood on both sides at this point."
Hampton walked over to Officer Jason LaForest and shook his hand as a gesture of peace.
LaForest and fellow officer Daniel Bartini were in attendance representing the Great Barrington Police Department. Both men spoke after being asked by Hampton and VanSant.
"We feel prejudice and racism against us too," said Bartini. "When you're saying that if you got pulled over you could be shot, that's racism against us."
"I don't bleed blue," LaForest said. "Do we always do right? No."
But, LaForest said, he blamed the media more than anyone else for the national conflict.
Bartini agreed. "Riots and protests that turn violent don't work."
The room became agitated over any suggestion that the Black Lives Matter movement was responsible for the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers last week, but VanSant calmed the crowd.
"Think of tolerance as a flame and turning the flame up," she said. "It's the capacity to make space for other individuals. We should seek respect as a starting point."
VanSant's son, JV, sounded a more hopeful note.
"If I tally up the amount of times I have to think about how people perceive my race on a day to day basis, it's normally about 10 or so times," he said. "But now there are so many more faces that I can feel comfortable with and turn to if I need to for help and acceptance."
VanSant asked the crowd for plans for the future.
Suggestions included films and workshops around race in the community and creating a Citizen Academy of Anti-Racism Education. The group also regretted the loss of the mural celebrating the town's place in history as the birthplace of NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois that was on the parking lot wall of the Carr Hardware building in downtown.
"Railroad Street Youth Project is going to have it up again," VanSant assured the crowd. But, she added, residents should pressure the town to make that happen as soon as possible.
"I can continue to educate," JV VanSant said. "I can tell people there are other people at the ends of the thoughts they think."
Sunday: At 7 p.m., there will be a public Vigil for Peace and Hope for All our Youth, held at 55 Fenn St., First United Methodist Church, co-sponsored with the Price Memorial AME Zion Church. The formation of a youth-led Forum for Youth Empowerment Training will be announced during this event. Info: The Rev. Ralph W. Howe, pastor of FUMC at 413-499-0866 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Rev. Benjamin Green, pastor of Price Memorial AME Zion Church, at email@example.com.
Next week: The Berkshire County NAACP holds its 43rd annual Gather In Festival on Saturday, July 23, at Durant Park on Columbus Avenue. The public is invited.
Ongoing: The Multicultural BRIDGE Race Task Force meets the first Monday of every month in Pittsfield from noon-1:30 p.m. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.