'Not in Our Berkshires' movement rallies pledges against intolerance

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LEE — More than 375 Berkshire County residents have pledged not to stay silent in the face of intolerance or discrimination.

The list is growing, and come January, towns, cities and organizations will be able to make the same declaration against hate to the group Multicultural BRIDGE, according to Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, its CEO.

Last year, after a racist incident at Monument Mountain High School, the organization teamed with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston to identify steps to create a safer and more inclusive community.

Cara Henderson of the Boston office introduced Multicultural BRIDGE to the idea of launching a "Not in Our Berkshires" campaign, in which members of the community stand against hate by taking a pledge to work with their neighbors to build an integrated, safer community.

The stance requires that they not stay silent in the face of intolerance and that they work to heal all forms of hate, bigotry and bullying.

"It's been sort of a soft launch this fall," Hampton VanSant said, adding that the first step was getting officials to take the pledge, before moving to residents. "We had no hesitation."

The campaign is an offshoot of the national "Not in Our Town" movement launched in 1995 with a PBS film by Patrice O'Neill that documented the heroic efforts of Billings, Montana, residents who stood up for their neighbors after a series of hate crimes.

The Berkshires is one of the first regions to take on the campaign countywide, according to Hampton VanSant.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, State Sen. Adam Hinds, Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer, State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and State Rep. Paul Mark are among those who signed the pledge.

"I just think it's a good way to show people that we're welcoming and we're not going to tolerate any bigotry or violence in our community," Mark said.

Henderson said her office learned of the film series in early 2016. It helped coordinate screenings and panel discussions facilitated by O'Neill, the film producer.

Screenings were held in Lexington, Boston, Billerica, Worcester and Great Barrington.

Henderson said she hopes the campaign will prompt residents, civic leaders and faith communities to combat intolerance and serve as a model for other towns and cities across the state.

New pledges

In January, Multicultural BRIDGE will begin accepting pledges from schools, towns and organizations as a whole.

"Our first strategy is to first get individuals to sign," Hampton VanSant said. "For institutions, we want to make sure that there is clear accountability, in a positive way."

Each town or city can chose what its "Not in the Berkshires" action will be and display a unified logo to let the public know about their commitment.

By signing the pledge, "you're saying that if someone has a complaint, you're going to follow through," Hampton VanSant said.

Individual members of boards and organizations, including the Pittsfield City Council and Great Barrington Select Board, have begun signing up.

A racist comment directed at a football player caused upheaval and soul-searching at Monument Mountain Regional High School last year.

That sparked the Berkshire Hills School Committee's interest in signing the pledge, Hampton VanSant said.

At Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, the movement has inspired discussions among the synagogue's board members, she said.

Aside from those who take the pledge, Multicultural BRIDGE plans to respond to reports of bias. When it hears of instances of intolerance, it plans to reach out to the individual or organization where the incident occurred and offer information about the "Not in Our Berkshires" campaign.

The group is also working with community organizations to host screenings of "Not in Our Town" films that document community responses to hate incidents.

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


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