Judy Williamson: It can be done in Pittsfield



Brian Sullivan’s weekly column is titled "The City I Love." Well, I love Pittsfield too. Except for a few years of life experiences elsewhere, this has always been home.

Sometimes I think that people forget there is more than one way to love Pittsfield. For example, you don’t have to have been born here to love Pittsfield, or be Irish or Italian to love Pittsfield. As a proud descendant of both these wondrous cultures, it puzzles me as to why we seem to lavish so much municipal spending on our celebration of these two heritages in the form of "Sister City" relationships when community initiatives to fund expansion of diversity awareness at City Hall are met with such resistance.

Consider: Brian’s column of March 13 ("Minority hiring not as simple as some think") outlined the obstacles, oppositional thinking, negative inertia and cynical "group-think" which justifies the abuse of power, as decisions are made behind the closed doors by people in power, around the dinner tables and back rooms of many right-minded, provincial thinking Pittsfieldians for the past 20 years.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, after the civil rights movement when the doors of opportunity here were forced open, employment opportunities were evident. People of color worked at jobs for AT&T and WMECO. Teachers of color taught throughout the Pittsfield schools, from Head Start on. There was a thriving, active, visible and vocal Westside community. City Hall was truly an equal opportunity employer where people of color were visible role models for the community. So Brian, it can be done.

It seems in the "Working for Community Change Strategy Book" the chapter didn’t get written on the fact that in Pittsfield we evidently can never stop fighting the dominant culture. They will misuse their power to hire other white people and exclude people of color, as long as no one is watching over their shoulder. The facts and statistics presented by the NAACP to the City Council last week are clear and convincing.

One day, a couple of months back, I was in City Hall, and met a nice young white man who was in the mayor’s office. He was introduced to me and told me his story. He grew up in the area and currently works for the U.N. in the Middle East but wanted to return home and was looking for a job. Evidently, he had some type of connection to the mayor.

Much to my surprise, I recently read in the paper he had been hired by the mayor’s office to coordinate efforts to address Pittsfield’s gang problem through the Shannon Grant. When I inquired as to whether this position had been properly posted, I was told that it was announced in a legal notice. I don’t know how many people of color read legal notices, but I am pretty sure they don’t read them when they are looking for jobs. And I can tell you that it is going to take someone who has come here from the Middle East a long time to understand the dynamics of our entrenched gang problems. As I understand it, they are hoping to hire a person of color from the community to work for him. Ironic, huh?

When efforts are made by an entire system to find ways around hiring people of color instead of embracing fair hiring practices that is called institutional racism. It has never been about hiring the "most qualified" -- that’s a myth. Job qualifications are man-made constructs -- usually white-man-made constructs -- that can and should be reconstructed. Recruitment and a welcoming, supportive City Hall and school administration can go a long way to undoing this problem.

Our Northern Berkshire neighbor, Williams College, has chosen to celebrate diversity well beyond the guidelines of any affirmative action policy. Williams ranks as the No. 1 liberal arts college in the country. It is also one of the most diverse college campuses in the nation. It gets thousands of applications every year for admission into the freshman class. Williams could fill all 1,200 openings with young white males who have perfect SATs and GPAs.

So why doesn’t it? Because Williams has chosen to use all of the academic prowess available on its campus to challenge conventional thinking about the definition of "perfection" in traditional white male terms and break through all that inertia and group-think to come up with a new paradigm for what constitutes the best and the brightest. Williams never lowered its standards. It expanded its standards exponentially and now there is so much brilliance of every kind on its campus that the place just radiates. See Brian. It can be done.

The men who made these revolutionary changes at Williams were white men who did so because it was the right thing to do. Some of these changes are referenced in a recent Newsweek article on fraternity-free college campuses. Every time Williams has faced the status quo and gone beyond the results for its community have been nothing short of remarkable.

How do I know this? Because 20 years ago Williams took a chance on me as a married, non-traditional, transfer student, graduating from Berkshire Community College, a wife and mom with two toddlers from a multi-racial family. They determined that I had a contribution to make to their campus.

Today, thanks in large part to that experience, this is what I know: Pittsfield can be remarkable. We can challenge ourselves to embrace all the wonderful diversity in this city. And with a healthy eye, and an open mind, we can expand our views of the contributions all our citizens have to make and let them make them.

My Irish grandmother used to say that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Let’s make a commitment to make everyone who lives here in Pittsfield feel welcome and celebrated, so that everyone who lives here really is from Pittsfield.

Judy Williamson is a 1994 Williams College alum, long-time community activist and advocate and resident of Pittsfield.


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