PITTSFIELD -- Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant had only just heard of Donald Sterling when a concerned parent called her earlier this week.
The elementary-school age children were upset about what they heard, the parent told her.
Some Internet research showed VanSant Sterling’s long, sometimes controversial history as owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
"This is a good opportunity to give kids the vocabulary to talk [about prejudice]," said VanSant, co-founder and executive director of the Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) program in Lee.
Her organization aims to promote a "truly integrated multicultural community" in a world where many still face discrimination every day.
"We talk one way, we act like we know what’s right and wrong," she said, "but values we’re trying to pass on keep slipping through."
Sterling, 80, longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was banned for life by the NBA on Tuesday -- just days after he was heard on audio recordings making racist remarks. A website posted the audio of Sterling chastising an ex-girlfriend for associating with black people.
The leaked audio sparked protests among outraged fans and civil rights groups, and even drew remarks from President Barack Obama.
Sterling, who has owned the franchise since 1981, also faces a $2.5 million fine -- the maximum penalty allowed under league guidelines, according to The Associated Press.
VanSant and others interviewed all expressed the need for more education surrounding multiculturalism, both nationally and in the Berkshires.
"I’m in support of the ban," VanSant said. "I think it gives a good message."
Taj Smith, assistant director of the Davis Center at Williams College, said he was able to view the situation with a dual perspective. As an educator, he said, he sees a need to have more of an educational component to the punishment. Many people are socialized to believe prejudiced thoughts, he said, a cycle that begins at a young age. Those beliefs aren’t changed easily, especially in adults.
As an African-American, Smith said, he agrees with the sentence. He spoke of an irony in Sterling’s ownership -- he’s the face of a team with the majority of players being African-American, he said, in a city with a high African-American population.
Thomas Alexander, coordinator of MCLA’s international student programs and services office for ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) program at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, spoke of other racial incidents in the news.
"We have all this shock now, but it repeats itself regularly in history," he said. "We need to do more to prepare ourselves to reduce how often this happens and to empower people to handle it."
VanSant spoke about her organization’s work as one way to change attitudes and promote awareness of racial prejudice. The organization brings programming to children in local schools around the county, she said, and trains teachers on how to talk to children about prejudice.
"Many people live with the perception that racism is over," she said. "But what this man said clearly shows ... people are living it in school and work environments."
Smith noted the $2.5 million fine will go to organizations fighting prejudice, but added it’s a small piece of a much larger picture.
"There’s not enough money to do the work that needs to be done," Smith said.
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