Four Freedoms Coalition workshops provide avenues to activism

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NORTH ADAMS — In 2016, the Four Freedoms Coalition noticed a rise in residents who wanted to become active in social justice movements but didn't know where to start.

On Saturday, the organization hosted a series of workshops at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to give individuals the tools they need to make real change.

"After the last presidential election, people who hadn't been civilly engaged realized the importance of getting involved," organizer Becky Meier said at the conference. "My thought was that they needed skills."

The day of civic workshops, titled "Step Up!," featured discussions on unconscious bias, poverty, environmental activism, LGBTQ issues and more.

The coalition, which is made up of more than 150 organizations, has hosted two similar events that offered civil engagement workshops to the public, she said.

Springfield attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, hosted a discussion on policy-based issues that affect the Muslim community. Not only does the mother of seven have to face the traditional difficulties of campaigning, but she also has been subjected to hatred and anti-Islamic rhetoric, she said.

She informed those in her workshop that Muslims make up a bigger portion of the population than most people expect, and that there are more than 3 million Muslims living in the United States.

Despite those numbers, 60 percent of polled white Americans have said they don't know a Muslim, Amatul-Wadud said.

Because many Muslims don't walk around in traditional Islamic clothing or headscarves in their daily lives, many Americans might not realize that they regularly interact with someone of the religion, Amatul-Wadud said.

The workshop explored policies targeted at the Muslim communities dating to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System that was initiated in September 2002 as part of the war on terrorism.

That policy "ripped families apart" by requiring men older than 16 who already had entered the United States legally to register in person at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices, she said.

"Hundreds of people were lining up in the streets to get registered," she said. "Many were deported."

While that policy was dismantled in 2016, President Barack Obama then initiated the Countering Violent Extremism program, funding community groups, police departments, universities and nonprofits in an effort to combat potentially violent ideologies.

"I think it was really supposed to be helpful, but ended up that communities were being spied on," Amatul-Wadud said about that task force.

Individuals attending community programming funded through CVE were unaware that what they were saying during the programming was being reported to the government, she said.

These policies were able to exist with little scrutiny, even among the Muslim community, Amatul-Wadud said.

"There was a stigma," and Muslims affected by these policies didn't want to talk about it in fear that others would think they were guilty of something, she said.

Amatul-Wadud told workshop members that it's important to understand that the United Nations determined that those who are likely to partake in violent extremist groups like ISIS share the same characteristics with those who join gangs or become mass shooters in the United States: they are often young, disenfranchised and of single-parent households.

Looking forward, she urged attendees to be critical of pending policy changes by evaluating who will benefit from those changes and who will suffer.

In a separate workshop, Alisa Costa of Working Cities Pittsfield hosted a two-hour discussion on inequality in the Berkshires.

In it, she took a deep dive into barriers faced by those living in poverty, which include everything from a lack of free time to cultural differences in language.

Those living in poverty might speak in a more casual discourse, and respond to questions in a less direct way, than those in the middle class. They also tend to be more tuned in to the body language of those around them, Costa said.

These cultural issues can have negative effects on how these individuals receive services, she said.

During health care appointments, for example, if someone in poverty is taking a longer time to get to the point while explaining an illness, and notices that the doctor is looking at their watch while they're taking, they might take that as a sign of disrespect and be turned off from seeking medical care going forward, Costa said.

Costa recommends that those providing services to this demographic be aware of cultural differences and be honest and engaging to avoid miscommunication.

"Put it out there," she said. "The person you're serving is not dumb, They're just different."

The workshop Costa offered was a shortened version of training sessions offered through Working Cities Pittsfield to organizations interested in becoming more welcoming and inclusive.

Working Cities has a 10-year goal to decrease the number of city residents living in poverty.

Costa said Saturday that she often hears middle-class individuals offer up suggestions on how to improve impoverished neighborhoods without ever asking those who live there what they need.

"People in poverty know what they need, we just haven't asked them, for the most part," Costa said. "This is about solidarity. It isn't about giving a handout, just a hand up."

After the workshop, Wendy Penner of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition said that the workshop gives people a better understanding of all the factors that might contribute to generational poverty.

"People have a certain idea around people and the choices they make," Penner said. "But it's not just about having enough money or their choices."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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