New training helps Pittsfield leaders build `Bridges Out of Poverty'

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PITTSFIELD — Pru Pease was 12 when she first started selling herself for sex.

By the time she was 14, she first shot up drugs. Life for her was less than stable.

And through all her struggles, she was told she had no potential.

Then she found her way, thanks to Bridges Out of Poverty, a social model used to help people like her — and the communities surrounding them.

Now she has trained her focus on helping others break out of the same cycle that once kept her down.

Pease, of Vermont, is a national consultant who travels the country training communities how to better understand socioeconomic instability. On Monday, she led a workshop, attended by more than 100 residents and community leaders at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield.

During the session, she talked about her own struggles, and she spoke of another woman in her workshops who didn't seem at first to have much potential. That woman, Pease said, went back to school and got her master's degree, regained custody of her children and now brings her own staff to the workshops.

"I am not the exception — we are the rule," she said. "It is about putting on your goggles and thinking about your community differently."

Monday's training was the first of its kind in Pittsfield, and was organized by Working Cities Pittsfield, a resident-driven initiative aimed at bolstering Pittsfield with money from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Community advocates behind the Working Cities program have been convening Bridges Out of Poverty trainings for specific agencies since the initiative's inception two years ago, but this is the first one that was open to the wider community.

"It's the model we can use to bring economic opportunity for everybody," said Alisa Costa, initiative director for Working Cities Pittsfield. "It just changes the way you see the community."

Having this many community leaders at the same table, said Westside Neighborhood Initiative Chairwoman Linda Kelley, "you begin to see where your interests are aligned."

Mayor Linda Tyer required all of her department heads attend the training, which lasted for most of the day. She said the goal is now to use this model to work more closely with nonprofits to alleviate poverty.

Tyer said the training deepened her understanding of poverty, citing a lesson from earlier in the day when Pease broke down costs associated with going to the laundromat versus having one's own washer and dryer. She said it illustrated how expenses can quickly compound for people who can't afford to spend upfront for what are ultimately cheaper options.

"Really the bottom line is to connect in more meaningful ways with people who are under-resourced," she said.

In the workshop, participants learned about their power to influence the issue as individuals. A subsequent session in January will examine the issue of poverty from an institutional standpoint.

Ranisha Grice said that in her work as a community navigator for Working Cities Pittsfield, she's trying to spread the word about resources like the Monday workshop. Many who could benefit the most aren't aware that these things are happening, she said.

Even if they hear about it peripherally, she said "they might not receive it because it's not spoken in their language."

Still, community leaders said the packed house was heartening.

"I'm especially encouraged by the number of people here, which speaks to our community's ability to move forward," said Carolyn Valli, executive director of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity.

Pease drew from her own life experience to make her points.

From the outsider's perspective, she said, it might have looked like for a time that she was burning through romantic relationships.

"How many of you think that I left all those men because I was promiscuous?" she asked the crowd.

She said she left them because she had made a commitment when she was pregnant with her youngest child that she would stay sober. Sobriety was a condition of any romantic relationship she entered, she said, and when a man failed to maintain it she would cut ties.

Not everyone is equipped to look that closely, she said. Many might have missed her strength and seen simply a single woman, with more than a handful of children with different fathers.

"If you had just seen the family, how many of you would see something to be proud of?" she asked.

The Bridges out of Poverty model provided her a framework that she said empowered her to identify resources she needed in order to live a more stable life.

"And it has transcended to all of my children," she said.

She's easier on herself, she said, looking at her world through this lens. She struggled every day to get where she is, but she said she wouldn't change it if she could.

"I like who I am," she said. "I like who my children are."

Poverty is about more than lacking money, she said; it's about lacking resources. Children growing up in financially poor households still can enjoy the resources afforded in the form of strong support systems, people who believe in their potential and demonstrate for them the "hidden rules" of social class.

People who are familiar with the inner workings of social class structures — which dictate success in educational and professional environments, according to the training — are more able to work within them.

Pease said the strongest building blocks in Bridges Out of Poverty are those who see someone's potential when perhaps no one else does.

"In my perfect world, everyone would have at least one person," she said.

The idea is to get a whole community around that notion of seeing beyond a person's current state.

"I think this is about opening a community to looking at people differently," she said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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