John Bissell, Peter Taylor, Gwendolyn VanSant: Addressing organizational bias in Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — As three leaders in Berkshire County, we recognize the unjust and uneven balance of power and privilege right here in our communities. Racial inequality has been built into our country's most influential and interconnected institutions—educational and economic, legal, philanthropic and, yes, cultural. We are writing to publicly commit to addressing systemic inequalities in our county head-on as we aim for equity of access and opportunity.

This is why Greylock and Berkshire Taconic helped sponsor, and BRIDGE helped curate, the recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference in the Berkshires at MCLA. It energized over 50 community members through a process that surfaced some of the most persistent systemic indicators and root causes of bias and discrimination. It's also why we are collectively inspired to stand with one of our partners, Jacob's Pillow. We strive to follow CEO Pamela Tatge's example of speaking out about racist and biased incidents when they occur, as she did in her July 10 op-ed for The Berkshire Eagle.

Tatge was well prepared to respond to racism when it occurred in the Jacob's Pillow community because her team had invested in a three-year partnership with BRIDGE to build awareness, responsiveness, and inclusivity into their organizational culture. What's more, Jacob's Pillow has also developed several authentic community collaborations like its dance program Pittsfield Moves.

AMPLIFY THEIR WORK

Achieving greater equity and inclusion takes sustained leadership over time. As leaders committed to addressing injustice and inequality, we are humbled by the scale of effort and time needed to do that work intentionally in our organizations and communities. Many local leaders and organizations have engaged with great care and conscience on these questions for many years, including NAACP Berkshires, Working Cities Pittsfield and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, and Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, as well as other arts institutions and initiatives within colleges and universities. We must amplify their work. Like Greylock and Berkshire Taconic, many have also sought support from BRIDGE, which advocates for silenced and marginalized populations and educates institutions on issues of equity and justice.

In seeking to redress deepening inequality, the leadership team at Greylock is analyzing data from national nonprofit Prosperity Now on the racial wealth gap, and working with BRIDGE to build healthier organizational culture. Greylock aims to improve its own practices, outreach, and design of products and services in order to create more equitable outcomes for people of color, immigrants, and low-income households. Aligned with its mission to help communities thrive, Greylock strives to enhance household financial stability in our region.

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The data are sobering. Across the United States, families of color are twice as likely as white households to live below the federal poverty threshold; in the Berkshires, the situation is considerably worse, with families of color four times more likely to be considered poor than their white peers. Likewise, rates of homeownership are 1.5 times higher for white households than households of color nationally and two times higher here at home.

It might be tempting to attribute this inequality to differences in educational attainment or "work ethic," until we confront the fact that, on average, white high school dropouts hold more household wealth than black college graduates. We are learning that the experience of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans have been prescribed by oppressive structures and policies at play within our government and also other public and private structures (e.g., examining the origins of the mortgage system and its longstanding impact, and the role of philanthropy as a sector). More often than not, we try to explain away or mute these complicated truths and dualities, but we must learn to acknowledge them so we can shift them. So many of our structures have caused harm and trauma in these communities for generations, across residents' education levels and/or socioeconomic status, and this will continue if we are not brave enough to interrupt them.

A focus on underserved residents also led Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to partner with the Barr Foundation on a multi-year initiative to harness the power of the arts and culture sector to increase community engagement, especially among communities of color, immigrants and low-income residents. A community-led research project that reached over 450 people in Pittsfield's most diverse and highest-poverty neighborhoods explored how these residents experience art, whether they feel included in the arts and what prevents them from participating in them.

CREATING CULTURES

In addition to perennial challenges such as transportation and cost, a constellation of barriers related to social discomfort emerged, including residents not feeling welcome and several experiencing incidents of bias. A new grants program and a yearlong seminar for seven arts and community-based nonprofits that are already taking steps to confront these barriers will allow them to learn from each other and test new approaches to create more welcoming environments. BRIDGE has played a critical role by facilitating this learning, while also providing training and support.

Leaders of every business, school, municipality and nonprofit are accountable for the cultures they create. We applaud those who strive to achieve greater inclusion and integration. We also recognize that organizations, including our own, are at different stages of this journey. We are committed to accelerating our efforts by working together to address systemic inequalities. It is the responsible thing to do, and we know we will be a stronger community as a result.

John Bissell is CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union. Peter Taylor is president of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. Gwendolyn VanSant is CEO of BRIDGE.


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