BOSTON — A team of community activists from Pittsfield joined with teams from four other Massachusetts cities to celebrate winning a $475,000 grant to each team to help them improve their respective communities in the Working Cities Challenge.
On July 18, the Boston Fed hosted over 150 guests for a celebration honoring winning teams from Haverhill, Lowell, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester. The five teams presented their respective plans — aimed at improving outcomes for low-income residents — to an audience made up of state officials, Boston Fed leadership, and members of the philanthropic, nonprofit, business, and local government communities.
The Pittsfield plan, branded "Pittsfield Bridges: Transformative Movement," (PBTM) is designed to support the journey from poverty to sustainability by collaboratively building community resources and removing barriers.
PBTM's goal is to improve individual, institutional, and social fairness and respect in the community and thus to support individuals moving out of poverty.
The PBTM's core team includes Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, the City of Pittsfield, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Berkshire Community College, BerkshireWorks Career Center, Berkshire United Way, Goodwill Industries, Berkshire Children and Families, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Community Action Council, Downtown Pittsfield, Inc., Pittsfield Public Schools, Local chapter NAACP, Pittsfield Community Connection, West Side Neighborhood Initiative, First United Methodist Church, Heart 2 Heart Ministry, Manos Unidas, Brien Center for Mental Health, Multi-Cultural Bridge, and Girls Inc.
The grant application notes that Pittsfield has experienced a continual loss of manufacturing jobs during the past 40 years and in March had an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.
"The majority of available jobs are low paying, with few if any benefits or long-term prospects. With the imminent loss of 400 Sabic Innovative Plastic jobs (average wage $68,466) the city will reach its 5-year projected loss of manufacturing jobs in just one year," the report notes.
Another challenge facing the city is its poverty rate, according to the application. Since 2000, the poverty rate increased 40 percent. By 2014, 7,088 residents lived in poverty — or 16.4 percent of the city.
Butbroken down by neighborhood, the numbers get worse. In three areas, poverty rates range from 23 percent to 39 percent. These neighborhoods are home to 63 percent of the city's African American, mixed race, immigrant, and Hispanic residents, the application reports. And since 2000, the minority population has doubled.
"It is apparent that Pittsfield's significant demographic change has not been accompanied by subsequent shifts in perspective and institutional processes to welcome these new populations," the application states. "After 13 listening sessions, PBTM identified that an institutionalized lack of inclusion is a significant barrier for low-income residents, which co-exists with and perpetuates a lack of access to available resources. Residents spoke of not feeling welcomed in more prosperous areas, nor in social, economic, or educational institutions. They described covert racism and non-native English speakers reported all too common discrimination resulting in serious barriers to any effort to improve financial stability."
The report points to structural barriers "including limited public transportation, scarce job opportunities, few affordable housing options, and architectural barriers for the disabled."
With SABIC set to leave town, the reports goes on, "this moment demands that residents, social service providers, educational institutions, public, private and nonprofit entities work together in new ways to embrace an approach that builds hope and improves the quality of life for all residents."
The action plan includes a series of training programs to empower "under-resourced neighbors" and shift public, private, and nonprofit culture "to be inclusive and responsive, and enhance the cultural competence in all sectors."
Through its plan, the Pittsfield team hopes to improve the delivery of existing social, education, employment, and health services, and substantially reduce barriers "so residents have the tools and support they need to succeed."
If delivered right, according to the team's application, in 10 years, lower income individuals in Pittsfield will be "healthy, engaged in their community, and socially accepted."
Education levels will rise, the poverty rate will shrink, and more people will be working full-time jobs.
"This will reverse the long-term negative trend where Pittsfield has fallen further and further behind state and national measures," the report concludes.
In June, the Boston Fed awarded the grant funding for each initiative – totaling $2.8 million – made possible by a consortium of partners including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the Smith Family Foundation, and Living Cities. The winners of the competition were selected by an independent jury that does not include the Boston Fed.
"I want to congratulate the winners of the Working Cities Challenge. Collaborative leadership is at the heart of this competition, and these five cities demonstrated significant capacity to reach across sectors and advance efforts on behalf of low-income residents in their communities," said Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren. "I look forward to following the progress in the communities in the coming months and years."
"Today's event really highlighted the important work that the city teams have done, and continue to do, to enhance their communities," said MassDevelopment CEO Marty Jones. "I think I can speak for the jury when I say that we're all looking forward to seeing the initiatives come to life."