'Working City Wednesday': Pittsfield nonprofits put their heads together to shrink poverty, grow community

An aerial view of Pittsfield during one of its boom periods; a new group in the city wants growth again.

PITTSFIELD — One Wednesday every month, an intergenerational pool of ambitious residents get together over dinner to discuss their ideas on how to make the city a better, more inclusive, place.

The unique part about these "Working City Wednesday" meetings: those ideas often come to fruition.

"You don't have to have an idea, but you have to be willing to participate in someone else's idea," said Alisa Costa, initiative director of Working Cities Pittsfield.

In June 2016, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston selected Pittsfield as one of eight cities in the state to be awarded $475,000 to pursue neighborhood revitalization, workforce development and improving access to economic opportunity.

The goal for the Pittsfield team, which is made up of representatives from nearly two dozen nonprofits and agencies, is to ensure that in 10 years the people in the lower tiers of income in Pittsfield will be more healthy, engaged in their community, and socially accepted; and that the number of people living in poverty will shrink.

As a part of the initiative's "community engagement" component, Costa put together the "Working Cities Wednesdays" meetings, during which members of the public get together at different venues and have two minutes to pitch their ideas for projects that can improve the city.

Individuals then split into groups for about 30 minutes and collaborate on how to make these ideas a reality, putting together a detailed strategy of the next steps to take.

At the end, everyone reconvenes and shares their goals for the next month.

"Everyone in this room is on the same level," Costa told a group of about 30 at the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center on Wednesday, urging them to not introduce themselves with professional titles and to avoid using acronyms.

The results include nonprofits and residents from throughout the city teaming up to provide resources to accomplish common goals.

Projects that have come out of the meetings include the City Street Ride, organized by 25-year-old Nicholas Russo and Kate Lauzon of the Morningside Initiative, and the Rose & Cole's Co-op Transport, a startup focusing on providing affordable transportation in the city.

"Entrepreneurs are starting to come to this space sometimes to test and get ideas," Costa said.

At the most recent meeting, residents discussed how to bolster the city's community gardens and put together the history of the West Side neighborhood of Pittsfield.

Offering dinner and child care at every meeting ensures that all city residents, even those with young children, have an opportunity to be active in their city, Costa said.

When the group began meeting, Costa was using a more traditional meeting style, with a full agenda put together before each event, but the Working Cities team decided to restructure it in a way that encourages more people to become involved, she said.

Today, the Pittsfield meeting style is used as a model for other Working Cities groups in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, according to Colleen Dawicki, Working Cities manager in the Boston Fed's Regional & Community Outreach department.

"One thing that stood out to us about the Pittsfield team was how enthusiastic the team was, but also how learning-oriented," Dawicki said. "The team was really willing to dig in in ways that really went above and beyond what we're looking for."

Dawicki said she is in touch with the Pittsfield team at least once a month to check in on their progress and accomplishments in the city.

One of the most important goals of Working Cities, which Pittsfield is succeeding in, is to change the culture within city leadership to make it more inclusive and collaborative, Dawicki said.

Costa and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanities representative Carolyn Valli have been asked to present their work to newer teams in Connecticut and a team from Newport, Rhode Island recently took a bus to Pittsfield to observe a Wednesday meeting, Dawicki said.

"What I'm really excited about is the degree that we've been able to showcase the Pittsfield team as a model," she said.

The funding for Working Cities, including leadership training programs it offers outside of the Wednesday community meetings, spans through September of 2019, but the team is in the process of looking for ways to sustain the work through other means.

A lot of the work currently pursued by the team focuses on the Morning Side and West Side neighborhoods in the city, which currently have the highest poverty rates and lower rats of employment and civic engagement, Costa said.

Pittsfield and the Berkshires can't thrive unless those neighborhoods are also thriving, she said.

At a civil engagement conference at MCLA on Saturday, Costa spoke about flipping the culture of leadership.

A lot of the time, organizations look at neighborhoods in poverty and decide for them how to fix their problems, without ever reaching out to those communities, Costa said.

"People in poverty know what they need, we just haven't asked them for the most part," she said.

Working Cities is working to change that.

"I really do see the work here is very important because our destinies are all intertwined," Costa said. "All of us need to work together."

The next Working Cities Wednesday meeting will be from 5:30 to 7 p.m. May 23 and The Christian Center on Robbins Avenue.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.