PITTSFIELD- When he was in high school, Alex Leonard didn't talk about experiencing racism. But that doesn't mean it didn't exist.
"In Berkshire County, I have felt like I've had to suppress racist incidents that have occurred," Leonard said. "So I never really talked to my fellow black classmates about that."
Leonard, 20, a Great Barrington native, said the current moment has changed that, inspiring him and three other young black men to organize a rally in Pittsfield this Sunday.
"Change is occurring right now. People are seeing that things have to change," he said.
Leonard organized the protest alongside Lavante Wiggins, 26, of Pittsfield, and Warren Dews III, 16, of Hinsdale. The trio brainstormed how they could work to achieve racial equity in the Berkshires, and decided to hold a "Million Man March," inspired by Louis Farrakhan's inaugural action in the 1990s, which has blossomed into a nationwide movement.
The march will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday in Durant Park on John Street and end at Park Square. A handful of speakers will address demonstrators at Park Square to discuss how changes can be made in local schools and police departments.
One speaker will be the Rev. Warren Dews, the father of the younger Dews, who plans to address diversity in schools. Dews hopes to launch initiatives at local public schools for students and employees to undergo sensitivity training and boost the number of black educators.
Having teachers who look like you makes a big difference in your education, Leonard said.
"We also need to change the narrative of who is telling the story, because when you have a white teacher, I'm not saying they're a bad teacher," he said, "but they're going to make circumstances in history the Puritans, Christopher Columbus, they're going to glorify those moments."
Another focus of Sunday's rally is reforming police practices to promote racial equity. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, whom Leonard has known for many years, will march with demonstrators, a detail that Leonard believes highlights the "unity of the Berkshires."
"This march isn't a march to criticize or scrutinize these officers," Wiggins said of local police participants. "It's to bring the officers together with the people, so the officers are showing that they understand why we're doing what we're doing, they're with us, and they also understand that there are bad cops, that they have to speak up."
It's no accident that the event falls on Father's Day. The three men want to counter the stereotype that black fathers are absent from their children's lives.
"The reason we're doing this on Father's Day is to show that our fathers are here, that we have our dads, that they are in our lives and that they love us," Leonard said. "Simple as that."
Wiggins also noted the significance of the occasion, though he did not always have a father in his life growing up. Still, he said, fatherhood in the black community is not always biological, and he looks up to a number of people in a fatherly way, as some young men do to him.
What really makes someone a father figure, he said, is when they go out of their way to bring people together.
"As long as we're doing things as a group and as a whole," Wiggins said, "we can find a way to make anything happen."
Jack Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-734-4408. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND .
This story has been modified to correct the town in which the Dews' reside.