Community leaders gather for forum: 'Healing Pittsfield: A Conversation About What Divides Us'

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PITTSFIELD — The city's prejudicial and racial divide can be unified if community leaders and public at large pays closer attention to what concerns those who feel social, economically and educationally disenfranchised.

Four well-established community leaders delivered that message during Sunday's, "Healing Pittsfield: A Conversation About What Divides Us."

Sponsored by the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations, the PACC forum at First Baptist Church focused on political, business, educational and law enforcement officials needing to be better understand the plight of primarily the city's minorities and youth.

Panelist Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP, having attended similar forums before, has noticed a lack of city councilors, business owners, police department presence and other key professions.

"I never see the people I need to see," Powell said. "We need to bring these people together."

Powell, joined by Greylock Federal Credit Union President & CEO John Bissell, Rev. James Lumsden, pastor First Church of Christ Congregational and Multicultural BRIDGE Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, felt a youth leader's voice should have been added to the panel.

Forum organizer and pastor of First Baptist Church, Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross had hoped to have a young person from an unnamed local school she's had a relationship.

"I tried to get young people here because some of them have faced discrimination at school," she noted.

Bissell added he has a high school-age son and finds the youth conversation on racism gives him hope for a brighter future.

When the young, African-Americans and others feeling slighted within the city speak up, the panel found they often aren't taken seriously or are ignored.

Frustrated, they give up seeking change to better their lives.

"Once one is rejected, one doesn't reach out," said moderator Rabbi Josh Breindel from Temple Anshe Amunim.

Improving the line of community must be coupled with better use of business and city resources, according to the panel.

"There's an abundance of wealth here; question is how do we invest it," Bissell said. "We [in charge] need to use our power to be agents of change."

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The banker added that begins with trying to close the huge income gap between white, African-Americans and Hispanic communities.

They layout of public housing and schools decades ago has also added to the city's racial divide.

Powell cited Pittsdfield's urban renewal nearly 50 years ago as an "incubator for institutional racism," finding Riverview and other public housing created a segregated community.

"They built prisons without guards," he said. "They were isolated, ugly, non-family, non-friendly housing,"

VanSant finds the city's three elementary schools in the poorer neighborhoods also divide the city.

"Our schools are more resegregated than ever before," she noted.


On a grass-roots level, Lumsden suggested community gatherings to bring different, ethnic and religious citizenry together who otherwise wouldn't meet.

"Maybe we need an East Side-West Side dinner, maybe a Christian-Muslim dinner," he said.

Or let actions and words speak loudly together.

"Show solidarity that may be by showing up [for a rally] in the rain at Park Square or writing a [editorial] letter," added Lumsden.

Ultimately, the average resident, along with political, business and educational leaders, must affect change, VanSant told the forum audience.

"I want you to leave here knowing you have the responsibility to have these conversations," she said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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