Pittsfield to get $15K federal grant to fight poverty

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PITTSFIELD — A $15,000 Federal Reserve of Boston grant will go toward devising "complex, systemic changes" to stem poverty and build a fairer city, according to its administers.

The applicants, culled from 27 city organizations, discovered Wednesday night that Pittsfield would be one of 14 Massachusetts cities receiving Working Cities Challenge design grants. The others include Springfield, Chicopee, Worcester, Lowell and New Bedford.

Much of the work will focus on getting into specific neighborhoods — on the West Side, Morningside and the rest of the city — and talking to residents about what they perceive to be the most efficacious solutions to local poverty.

In six months' time, the grant's facilitators, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, among others, will prepare a second grant application requesting implementation funds — to the tune of $700,000 or more.

"As opposed to trying to get people to come to our meetings, we'll be going to where they already are," CBHH Executive Director Carolyn Valli said. "It's really going to be something to watch."

As part of the grant, five local participants plan to travel to Indianapolis to receive training in the Bridges Out of Poverty program, which according to its website specializes "in reducing the barriers to success posed by economic class differences among people and groups."

"A lot of people are very excited about bringing [Bridges Out of Poverty] to the Berkshires," Valli said.

She added, "We know that there are tons of barriers. We're going to be asking people what are those barriers and how can we really break them down. In an ideal world, it would bring about a more level playing field in our community, so everybody has equal opportunity, particularly for jobs, and a real stake in our community."

Problems those involved expect to tackle vary but, according to BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel W. Karns, include "educational issues, lack of transportation issues, health issues and employment issues.

"It's not more studies we need; most of us working on this understand the parameters. What we want is to have a much deeper discussion within the neighborhoods and with the people living in poverty about what will best serve their needs," Karns said. "It's about empowering people and getting them engaged to help themselves by being involved."

The grant, a new offering only in its second year, targets smaller-size cities, particularly those hit by declining industry. It intends to give resources to community leaders so they might "provide outcomes that benefit residents who are under-resourced."

The 14 cities awarded these $15,000 grants will compete for a smaller number of much larger three-year implementation grants in spring 2016.

Pittsfield Public Schools, Berkshire Health Systems, the local NAACP chapter, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Community Action Council are just some of the organizations that will have representatives taking part in the forthcoming efforts.

"I think what's important is that it's a broad-based collaboration, and I am impressed to see who is at the table," said Pittsfield Housing Specialist and Fair Housing Officer Justine Dodds. "We know that the work ahead will help to eliminate barriers to resources, and that's a good thing for our community's residents."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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