Anti-racism work climbs agenda for Berkshires arts, business groups

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PITTSFIELD — Institutions in Berkshire County are pledging to promote racial equity inside and outside their organizations, as frustration over systemic racism continues to ignite protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Demands for action, not words, are growing louder.

But not all responses are created equal, one local expert said, and organizations must be deliberate and sincere to create real change.

Gwendolyn VanSant, chief executive officer of the local diversity nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE, advises organizations to be personal and honest in their response to outcry about systemic racism.

"The most important thing is if they talk about what's happening and they reflect on where they are as an organization. So if they haven't talked about race, they have to start there," she said. "If they've been doing training for some time, and they've been working at it, then I think they need to take stock on where they are; what goals they've met and what goals they haven't."

VanSant emphasized that creating an equitable culture is a process, and organizations shouldn't pursue actions like significantly adjusting hiring practices if they "haven't done the work."

"In our county, what happens when you just start hiring people of color is you cause a lot more harm," she said. "You actually reinforce negative stereotypes because people aren't used to working cross-culturally, they don't understand that the culture is hard to penetrate for someone of a different background."

"All of that turns into being perceived, most of the time, as somebody's confidence or `good fit,' when really it's white supremacy culture," she added.

At WAM Theatre in Pittsfield, co-founder and artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven is privately reaching out to Black artists, but trying to do so in a way that "decenters whiteness."

In an email she composed with the help of an anti-racist consultant, van Ginhoven expressed solidarity with the Black artists on behalf of WAM, telling them they're "not disposable." The organization also pledged to financially support Black artists through donations to organizations like the Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund, and offered to give more money to organizations suggested by recipients or the recipients themselves, no questions asked.

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Decentering whiteness, van Ginhoven said, acknowledges that systemic racism persists in everyday life, compelling white allies to step aside and value voices of color equitably.

Van Ginhoven and WAM sought to decenter whiteness in 2019 when they paired with Multicultural BRIDGE to produce a play called "Pipeline." The production sought to unify the work of BRIDGE and the art of WAM to make a more effective impact on the community.

Efforts underway

In the Berkshires, a number of businesses and organizations have announced new efforts to study the way they hire and treat employees, such as the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

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"Although our staff is working on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, we have not done enough," the museum said on its website. "We have a sense of immediacy and a deep commitment to making change happen, including hiring practices, programming and expanding the ways we use and talk about art."

Jacob's Pillow, the prestigious Becket dance institution that sponsors a namesake festival every summer, announced this month it would implement a series of initiatives by the close of 2020. They include diversifying its staff and board, soliciting a review from Black and brown artists to evaluate the organization's racial equity and commissioning Black and brown artists to create works meant to spark social change.

"As an institution that seeks to unite people and communities by celebrating and advancing the cultural diversity of our country, we have a heightened responsibility to challenge white supremacy and disrupt systems of bias and oppression," the organization said in a statement.

Berkshire Roots, a cannabis producer and retailer in Pittsfield, vowed to donate $7,500 to causes targeting systemic racism, citing its mission-based commitment to justice and community philanthropy. The company is giving $2,500 each to the Boston and Berkshires chapters of the NAACP, as well as The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to freeing prisoners jailed on cannabis charges.

Two organizations with Pittsfield ties, WordXWord Festival and Berkshire Bank, planned virtual events to raise awareness about the experience of racial minorities in the United States.

WordXWord Festival, a social justice-oriented sponsor of poetry, will hold a virtual poetry recitation reflecting on the positive impacts of diversity. The event — titled "If 6 was 9" — takes after a Jimmy Hendrix song that endorses `letting your freak flag fly,' and was held on June 15, the day after Flag Day.

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Berkshire Bank, meanwhile, recruited an array of prominent names to lead a two-part panel discussion on June 4 and 5 about the economic consequences of racism in minority communities. "Reimagining America: The Future of the Black and Latinx Economy" featured guests such as Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressly, who is Black, and Texas U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is Latino.

"There is no better time to address the inequity faced by Black and brown communities on a daily basis, which has been further exacerbated in the midst of this global pandemic," said Malia Lazu, executive vice president and chief culture and experience officer at Berkshire. "Banks - and in particular community banks - have an opportunity to be part of the solution, directing capital and resources back into these communities."

Some institutions have announced their intentions to act, but are waiting to announce what steps they will take in order to more deliberately chart a path forward.

"We are using these days to convene with staff, trustees, artists, and community to reflect, to discuss, and to formulate concrete steps to disrupt and dismantle racist biases and systems," MASS MoCA said in a statement. "We look forward to sharing this urgent work with you in the coming days and beyond."

Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield is developing a plan of action, said artistic director Julianne Boyd.

Boyd said the company has discussed initiatives like a no-tolerance for racism statement on all printed materials, especially pertinent when the company hosts "talkback" discussions after shows, and continued anti-racism training among employees.

Boyd noted that five of the company's eight shows in 2021 feature racial minority communities, saying, "it's up to us to make sure our audiences of color feel welcome."

"We all can do more and we need to do more," she said. "It's important that we all figure out what that is."

Jack Lyons can be reached at jlyons@berkshireeagle.com or at (802)-734-4408. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND


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