On the Bridge: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn feels Polish pride
PITTSFIELD - Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn is a man of color, and his skin color masks his Polish heritage, as his career masks childhood difficulties. His background and Polish heritage are important to him and contribute to his success.
Born in Pittsfield, Wynn also lived in Southern Berkshire County in Otis and Lee before returning to his birthplace for high school.
"My family, my brother and I in particular, had a typically American upbringing because of our mixed heritage," he said. "Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter -- every holiday -- but with a Polish twist."
Wynn was raised primarily by his mother and his mother's family, and he spent time with his grandparents, uncles and aunts. His great-grandparents separately emigrated from Poland and met once they were in the United States. The essence of being Polish, for Wynn, is the tradition and family. He cherishes cultural artifacts like food, clothing and language, he said, which remind him of his childhood and his heritage.
Wynn believes the best way of understanding and learning about someone's background is to ask about food.
"If I described the Thanksgiving meal at my grandmother's house, you could easily see my heritage," he said. "The table setting included pierogi, kielbasa, kapusta, golompki."
Though he enjoys Polish foods, he said, most people cannot identify this part of his heritage.
"Most people can figure that out [that I'm Polish] from hearing those foods," he said. "They might be shocked looking at me that there wasn't collard greens on the table."
Wynn experienced difficulties growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle class household. But good mentors and his love of learning led him to pursue higher education.
After spending three semesters at the Naval Academy, he transferred to Williams College. During his time at Williams, he faced social pressure -- he had to choose between his Wrestling Team and the Black Student Union, he said, ultimately deciding to stick with his teammates on the team.
His experiences as a child and young adult informed his later career. After graduating with his bachelor's degree in 1993, Wynn did "what any other recent college graduate would do" he said -- he returned to Pittsfield. He knew he wanted to pursue federal law enforcement as a Federal Agent, and he needed law enforcement experience.
"There was an opportunity to go to work for the City of Pittsfield," he said, "working for the Police Department, not in the Police Department -- on one of their first community outreach centers. One of my first assignments was recruiting people to take the police exam. I thought it would make sense to know what I was talking about, so I took it. I was then selected to go to the Police Academy."
Wynn decided to stay in local law enforcement. With guidance from his commanders and supervisors, he became a certified police trainer and then began to work in the Police Academy. He became a Sergeant and a fellow with the Drug Enforcement Agency with its Leadership Development program. Following rapid departmental shifts, Wynn became chief of police.
As part of his current work, Wynn trains police officers in cultural diversity and bias crimes, a job that calls upon his own background.
As someone who has been misunderstood, he empathizes with other people who have felt misrepresented. Now he leads trainings (including partnerships with Multicultural Bridge), and he talks about his experiences.
In one conversation, Wynn met a mother angry about her son and adamant that Wynn could not understand her. Her son was experiencing horrific treatment in the school district. Wynn reassured her that he did understand.
"When you share your commonalities with people, it makes it easier to make progress," he said.
Diving beneath skin color, names and clothing reveals less-examined facets of peoples' culture and heritage, he said. To see the Polish table setting Wynn described, a guest would have to join him at a meal at his grandmother's house.
"It is uniquely American that you can have these cross-cultural experiences that are hidden," he said.
As a Pittsfield native, he recognizes different neighborhoods. Southeast Pittsfield has houses made of concrete, concrete fences and concrete grottos, markers of the Italian stone masons who historically lived in that area. Fences and lawn ornaments are different in other parts of the city because of the ethnic groups who once occupied those neighborhoods.
Physical markers express the history of Pittsfield, but the character and identity of the city comes from more than architecture. The idea that areas off of Wahconah street are typically Irish neighborhoods and Seymour Street was the Polish neighborhood is not necessarily relevant in modern Pittsfield, he said. Industry has changed in the city, altering the population. Practices like street markets and festivals define a community. Wynn knows where he can get a certain cut of meat on one block, a certain kind of bread across the street.
The past does not have to shape the future, he stressed.
A year ago he spoke at the graduation ceremony for the the Women of Color Giving Circle, a network to support women of color, to build self-esteem and fund education. He worried about how to approach the audience, he said.
"I'm seen as a political figurehead," he said, "and instead of talking about what greatness we expect from them and whatnot, I talked about my own history."
His central message to them was clear -- seize every opportunity and do not worry about the difficulties.
"If I could do it, a kid of mixed heritage and a single-parent household," he said, "then anyone can." This profile is part of On the Bridge, a series written in collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge, to bring many voices into this magazine. For more, visit berkshrieeagleblobs.com/onthebridge