'We're all just Pittsfielders': Working Cities Pittsfield celebrates two years

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PITTSFIELD — Hop on any local online comment board and you'll find no shortage of people bashing the city of Pittsfield.

For these people, Alisa Costa has a message: Come to Working Cities Wednesdays.

Every fourth Wednesday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., community members gather to brainstorm solutions to city problems and ways to realize them. Tearing down Pittsfield on Facebook isn't the best way to fix things, Costa said.

"We're not communicating in ways that are productive for the city," she said. "Everyone has gifts to give. We all care about the places we live."

Working Cities Pittsfield is a platform for community aspirations, said Costa, the initiative's director. It's geared to bolstering Pittsfield, especially the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods, with money from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The initiative celebrated its two-year anniversary Wednesday.

Costa said the grant program stems from research suggesting that of postindustrial cities across the country, the ones that most successfully "bounced back" were those with stronger community connections.

Costa said residents participating in Working Cities have created several projects, such as a Pittsfield bike-ride program, a Berkshire flash mob and a group working together to tackle street safety issues in West Side.

The initiative also launched a program called Getting Ahead, an eight-week course on financial literacy and understanding how certain systems perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Sherrie McGregor said the program changed the way she thought about her finances.

"I just wanted to find a way to get myself back on track again," she said. "I learned how to budget. I got more creative with my finances. It helped me a lot."

McGregor said she learned how stay on top of her finances, and has since been able to improve her credit. She said she learned "I didn't have to be stuck in my situation." She said she had gotten sick, and her finances went into a downward spiral.

"I had gotten into such a rut," she said.

Now, McGregor is working for Working Cities as a community navigator.

Costa said the idea behind Working Cities is to break down barriers for people, and connect those in the city who have needs with resources that are in place to help them.

"Poverty can be isolating," she said. "When you don't have enough resources, you need a lot more people in your sphere."

Carolyn Valli, executive director of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, said the initial grant for Working Cities Pittsfield was for $480,000 over three years, which the initiative has used to hire community navigators like McGregor and to support residents in their pursuit of a better quality of life. She said Working Cities just landed an additional $280,000 from Habitat for Humanity International to continue the work.

She said the community navigators are going door to door and asking neighbors what they'd like to see, and helping them connect with resources.

"There's a whole lot of things happening in the Berkshires," Valli said. "Not everybody knows about it."

Valli said her organization is in no way leading this effort, but rather providing peripheral support.

"It's really important that the community owns this work and not any agency," she said.

People from all types of organizations and walks of life participate in the monthly brainstorming sessions, but Costa said there are no titles allowed.

Here, she said, "we're all just Pittsfielders."

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

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