Our Opinion: Working together to combat poverty

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Editor's note: This editorial was updated to reflect a clarification on May 1, 2018. The Working Cities program does not provide a stipend to community members who participate in the program. 

The Working Cities Pittsfield coalition has only been around since June 2016, but it has created enough buzz that its approach to solving the complex and intractable problem of poverty is attracting attention from other cities. The nonprofit organization came to life after Pittsfield was selected by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as one of eight cities to receive multi-year $475,000 grants to discover and develop ways to eliminate poverty. The motivating philosophy of the Working Cities program is that the overall health of a community depends upon all members participating working together as equals — both those doing the helping and those being helped.

Working Cities Pittsfield has an impressive roster of sponsoring companies and agencies willing to contribute resources — over two dozen, ranging from Berkshire Health Systems to Jacob's Pillow — which is impressive by itself, but what Working Cities Pittsfield does best is listen to people (Eagle, April 30). It meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month, and the meetings are characterized not by their top-down structure, but by their welcoming, cooperative attitude toward those the organization exists to help. It goes out of its way to make those meetings as accessible as possible — providing dinner and childcare for those who take the trouble to attend. This forges a special working relationship precisely because it discards the traditional approach of civic leaders (those who belong to the class of "haves") deciding on their own what is best for the have-nots and imposing these solutions whether or not they are welcome, or even needed. The Working Cities model, wherein participants are discouraged from using titles or any kind of honorific that would distinguish one member from another, presupposes that those caught in the grip of a system that perpetuates poverty know what is required to free themselves.

At the meetings, any good idea is fair game. Participants come to pitch ideas, ranging from a couple of already-successful ride share companies that transport people to important appointments, to a free bus to bring Pittsfield children to Jacob's Pillow, to construction of an LGBTQUIA float for Pittsfield's Fourth of July Parade. Ideas are discussed, working groups developed, and nuts-and-bolts ways are devised to make them happen, along with providing specific goals and detailed strategies to be pursued before the next meeting.

Collaboration is the key to success for this group that now has Working Cities teams from other towns venturing to Pittsfield to learn its methodology. As Colleen Dawicki, Working Cities manager in the Boston Fed's Regional & Community Outreach department told The Eagle, what is really important is that the Pittsfield group has succeeded in changing the culture of city leadership to make it more inclusive and collaborative. Put simply, it's a matter of respect and an acknowledgment that every member of a community is deserving of dignity regardless of their income level. Once this barrier has been surmounted, the societal impediments that encourage generational poverty can be addressed with greater ease. It's what Working Cities Pittsfield is all about as it seeks to create a community whose members look out for each other.


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