Issues of safety, solutions of hope: Housatonic meeting keeps dialogue on race in Berkshires going

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GREAT BARRINGTON>> The community took a step forward toward forging solutions to the county's issues with racism on Thursday at a meeting of the Multicultural BRIDGE Racial Justice Task Force at Housatonic's Unitarian Universalist Church.

"If we keep ignoring this problem, things won't change for decades," said Jade James, 17, a black student at Miss Hall's School. "We can't stop working once things temporarily get better."

BRIDGE holds a meeting every first Thursday of the month at the Unitarian Univeralist Church to discuss issues surrounding racial justice. About 30 people attended Thursday's meeting.

The meeting was called after news of a recent racist threat at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. After a black football player on the school team "took a knee" during the National Anthem — an increasingly popular form of protest around the country against the killings of black men by police — another student reportedly threatened to "lynch" him and "use his body for target practice."

The school took disciplinary action against the accused, although privacy rules preclude that punishment from becoming public. The Berkshire Record, a weekly paper in Great Barrington, reported that the accused student claimed the accusations were "a pack of lies."

Gwendolyn VanSant, BRIDGE director and founder, said that the focus needed to be on moving forward to address issues of prejudice, privilege and safety.

"We don't have to sit and deliberate about the details," VanSant said. "There's been enough of a response to this incident that shows that this meeting is needed."

VanSant asked the crowd of about 30 to share their concerns about the issues they believe the community faces.

Safety was a recurring topic.

Sabrina Allard, the mentor coordinator for the Railroad Street Youth Project, said her experiences growing up in the Berkshires led her to understand there would be people who hated her because of the darker color of her skin.

Allard remembered being a child in the Berkshires and not being particularly aware of race. But that changed when she was 9 and some of her friends would have to warn her before coming over that there might be people in their house — a grandfather, maybe, an uncle — who wouldn't like her because she was biracial.

"That was when I stopped feeling safe," she said.

VanSant agreed. She pointed out to the white people in the crowd that their ideas of safety and the ideas of safety of communities of color were fundamentally different.

"Black children have different rules when they go out in the world," she explained.

Pastor Akilah Edgerton of Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield said that differences can lead to troubles down the road.

"When you feel misunderstood or isolated, you can feel targeted and alone in your community," she said

The meeting addressed that isolation. Stephanie Wright, a teacher at Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, said that the insular whiteness of town and private institutions in the Berkshires makes it difficult for people of color like her to feel they are a part of their community.

"People say they want to change," she said. "But it's always the same families in the boardrooms, down the hall in the offices.

The crowd discussed solutions and ways to keep the dialogue going.

There are events scheduled for the coming month that are intended to foster continuing community discussion. On Sunday, the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series will host a talk by Professor Whitney Battle-Baptiste of UMASS Amherst on Why Black Lives Matter Now at the Unitarian Church in Housatonic. On Oct. 26, the DuBois Educational Series Lecture will present a talk by African American historian Paula Giddings.

The Railroad Street Youth Project has developed a program for youth to receive messages of support from the community. The program asks that people send postcards to the youth center to show their support.

"The youth need to know the community stands with them," Kamal Johnson, the organization's Deputy Director, told The Eagle earlier on Thursday. "Feeling alone just adds to the stress."

NAACP responds

In response to the recent incident, the local NAACP is calling for allies and supporters to show up at the next two home games at Monument to take a knee in solidarity with the victim of the racist threat. The games start at seven p.m.

The action was mentioned at the meeting and those in attendance were invited to be there in solidarity.

It's important to show up, James said.

"Right now there is a boy who is at home whose life is in danger because he took a knee," she said. "That is not right."


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