Berkshire NAACP works to connect with young people in community activism

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PITTSFIELD — Leaders of the Berkshire branch of the NAACP say General Electric's departure dealt more than a financial blow to the city.

Since the manufacturer left, they say, racial diversity within city institutions has waned. That realization is what spurred them to reactivate the local branch five years ago, in December 2012. Since then, they've successfully helped pass an affirmative action policy in Pittsfield.

What's the organization's focus now? Addressing political issues affecting the black community, shining a light on important voices and — perhaps most importantly — bringing young people into the fold.

"This year we really started to engage our youth and young adults as far as the organization is concerned," said Dennis Powell, president of the local branch. "Because they are the future and we really need to start listening to their voices."

Powell said young people in the county are less inclined to come to meetings, and so local NAACP members are revamping the website and getting active on social media.

Akilah Edgerton, 35, heads up the agency's newly formed youth committee. Since starting the committee about six months ago, she said, members have focused on meeting with young people and asking about the issues as they see them.

She said the desire for more evening activities is proving a dominant theme.

"They'd definitely like to see an increase of youth activities and programming in the community," she said, adding she's also hearing a desire for a haven from violence. "Our kids definitely are aware and have also voiced that as a concern in the community, and also just feeling like they have a place to belong, where their voices can be heard."

She said she's setting up a panel discussion between young people and youth agency leaders to help their desires bear fruit.

"That's really important, that we're not just listening — that we're taking next steps," she said. "We'd like to see more kids of color involved in making sure these organizations are culturally competent."

Edgerton said she's also partnering with the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington on a project honoring Berkshires native W.E.B. Du Bois, a renowned turn-of-the-century civil rights activist whose legacy has not always found a welcoming home in Berkshire County.

Powell said he'd like to foster a passion for activism in local youth so that they'll take the torch for positive change from leaders like Shirley Edgerton, John Bissell and Wray Gunn, who all won awards during a dinner last month.

"All three have made really significant contributions to our community," Will Singleton, past branch president, said of this year's winners. "We thought they certainly deserved to be recognized."

The third annual Freedom Fund Awards Dinner served both as a fundraiser and an opportunity to present the three awards. Singleton said Edgerton was chosen for her work mentoring young people, for her involvement in groups like the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires and with cultural competency in Pittsfield schools.

Wray Gunn, a lifelong member of the NAACP, was chosen for being an active community member in the Great Barrington area, including his role in the African-American Heritage Trail, the Clinton Church restoration and the Friends of Du Bois Committee.

Singleton said Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, was selected for running his company in a way that gives a lot back to the community, for his work chairing the Berkshire United Way's board of directors, Berkshire Initiative for Growth and his role in founding the early literacy initiative, Pittsfield Promise.

Powell said he also hopes to rally the organization around national issues that extend to Berkshire County, like criminal justice issues, voting rights, political representation and the integrity of the public education system.

"Our action is unfortunately dictated by the direction of what happens in Washington," he said. "They seem to be setting the agenda for all organizations that are seeking justice and equality and human rights."

Powell said people have to get fired up about voicing their opinions.

"Everybody's got to start speaking out. We gotta hold our elected officials accountable — write letters, make phone calls, to make sure we don't go backwards," he said. "We all have a voice. We're the ones that put them in office."

Powell said he's proud of the work the agency has accomplished in the past five years, and there's a lot more to come.

"Change is slow," he said. "We have seen some improvement but of course there's a lot more room."

Reach Amanda Drane at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.


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