Women of Color Giving Circle honors grads for perseverance in troubled times

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PITTSFIELD — Taking a break between protests and deep conversations, members of the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires created a virtual space recently to honor the achievements of 21 local high school graduates of color.

During a June 6 ceremony via Zoom, some speakers were broadcast live from Barrington Stage Company's Wolfson Theater Center, and other participants tuned in from across the county.

Women of Color Giving Circle members Leah Reed, Eden-Renee Hayes and Shirley Edgerton, emceed the group's 15th event and invited graduates to introduce themselves and talk about their future goals. Among them are Jacqueline Niamke, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon; Dan Greenspan who plans to study business and economics; and Alexis Byrd who wants to pursue criminal justice.

Keynote speaker Brooke Bridges, a social emotional learning educator, acknowledged the adversities that students have had to overcome to get to graduation day. "Your lives are shifting during a very shifty, shady time. I don't know anyone who has graduated high school during a pandemic and civil unrest," she said.

"We're trained to be tough in order to survive, but we're stronger when we tap into that justifiable pain and find a way to love ourselves and each other," Bridges told the grads.

Pittsfield High School rising senior Sadiya Quetti-Goodson acknowledged the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and held a moment of silence in the wake of recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

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To the question of, "Why do people not like me because of the color of my skin," Quetti-Goodson said there is no good answer.

She asked graduates to see the value in themselves. "You are what this world needs," she said. "Now is not the time to let you head down and your crown fall. You are unstoppable. Important. Strong."

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Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless spoke about the inequities nonwhite citizens face.

When it comes to fair wages, equal rights to jobs, justice and protection, Tyer said, "This nation has not lived up to its promise to you."

As "a white, straight, educated male in America," McCandless acknowledged how he does not have to fear getting behind the wheel of a car, being passed over for a job or having his hair touched by a stranger in the way black and brown people often do. "I never have and never will walk in your shoes," he said, offering his lifelong allyship and gratitude to the students.

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"I'm energized by you," NAACP Berkshire County Branch President Dennis Powell told the students after attending a youth-led a peaceful protest held earlier that day in Great Barrington. He told students to, "use your voice, vote, continue to protest, continue to protest," repeating the latter for emphasis.

D.J. Boy Blue Harris offered the grads a musical rap interlude with the following message: "It's your life. You're about to come into the real world. If you want to be anything, just put your mind to it."

After the virtual ceremony, volunteers hand-delivered to students at their homes certificates and gift bags that included a copy of W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk," donated by Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts history Professor Emeritus Frances Jones-Sneed; a soy candle from C& K Kreations; and a meal donated by Flavours of Malaysia. Each student will also receive a check of at least $50, due to the fundraising efforts of the Women of Color Giving Circle through the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts.

"It's important to show the students how valued they are," Hayes said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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