A Healing Pittsfield is One that Talks about Sexism and Racism

A Healing Pittsfield is One that Talks about Sexism and Racism

Earlier this week I was invited by Reverend Sheila Sholes Ross and Rabbi Josh Breindel to join them in envisioning a healthier Pittsfield, Massachusetts. What I offered is that we don't have to “fix” or “save” the population in Pittsfield. Instead, we have to look courageously at ourselves as well as our privileges.

Privileges are areas where you benefit from access to resources or power, whether you use them, acknowledge them, or are even aware of them. The benefits may or may not be financial. Being the complex individuals that we are, we can be in poverty and in privilege at the same time. Ruby Payne, the driving force behind the Working Cities Pittsfield grant, encourages us to understand how people struggle with poverty on nine levels: financial, emotional, mental, physical, language, hidden social rules/cues, support systems, relationships-networks, and spiritual (a sense of purpose and belonging). I often ask community members, “If you are a member of a dominant group in the culture as it stands now, what person of color or woman of any age might you connect with, matching your privilege up to their poverty? Where do you see someone lacking in one of these nine areas where you can offer relationship, strength, and healing?”

Thinking about our community as a whole… as the central heartbeat of the Berkshires, Pittsfield is a resilient city. We don't need another GE to rescue or “restore” Pittsfield; we need to loosen up the status quo in leadership and start practicing equity. We need to ask each other, what would a healthier Pittsfield look like? To me, it would look like this:

  • We would choose new partnerships, invite in new faces, and consider new leadership perspectives. We would interrupt the tradition (intentional or not) of placing white males in top leadership spaces in education, politics, board rooms, etc.
  • We would create new jobs and training opportunities to keep millennials and generation Z young people excited about the Berkshires. We would invest in millennial-led startups and professional development.
  • We would offer sustaining support and partnership to minority-owned and women-run businesses, giving them ample time to be successful. We would offer support for small businesses of all kinds, and we would share resources. We would do away with the scarcity of model and mindset in business.
  • We would have more women leaders across all sectors and more integrated support systems for women who want to lead and are already out there leading. We would provide fair compensation for their work as well as support in the form of child care, education, and community. We would focus on intentional recruitment and retention practices for women, people of color, and families striving in the educational system, workforce, and political leadership landscape so that our institutions are reflective of our actual community. We would uplift and support individuals aiming to transcend generational poverty. We would create intentional spaces for training, restoration/healing for women and people of color, and for our currently leaders (those in overly represented groups) to unpack their bias in safe environments.
  • We would intentionally desegregate the schools in both demographics and resources. We would see to it that each Berkshire educational institution, political office, and business prioritizes best practices in race and gender lens training, cultural competence, and equity and inclusion for their educators and staffers.
  • We would build in real accountability within the medical and pharmaceutical field so we are not killing our fellow community members with opiates.

A healthier Pittsfield would also start looking at racism and sexism head on at three levels: individual/interrelationalinstitutional, and cultural.


As a mother of a diverse family across identities and ability, the Director of Multicultural BRIDGECounty Commissioner on the Status of Women, and a member of the UU local and state social action groups, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with racism, sexism, and classism everyday. My goal is to educate, to bring us one step closer to human connection. Indeed it is hard to think about changing racism and sexism, such large -isms, as individuals because counteracting racism and sexism takes constant intention and attention. But perhaps it can be easy, too, as it is something we can start doing with small intentional steps everyday.

I often write and speak about cultural humility. Start with yourself. Educate yourself and your family. Start with your own affinity groups, your community and network, your workplace. Understand your values. Examine your most valued relationships. Develop historical and cultural proficiency with a gender and racial justice lens. Reflect: Who can you support? What might you be willing to give up to understand another person’s journey? What can you give up to make room for another person’s thoughts and perceptions to shape a shared goal? What resources do you have to share to help repair and rebuild Pittsfield?


Institutions are systems that replicate themselves without any effort. They frame our day-to-day transactions and interactions in ways that we take for granted. At the institutional level, like any other city in our country, Pittsfield is currently living out the effects of systemic racism. We need to begin to unpack our institutions, their histories and purposes, and then, with courage, redesign and renew them so that they truly thrive in the 21st century.

Remember, race has been institutionalized since the founding of our country to preserve wealth and power and access for the dominant class. The “easy” way to draw these lines was and continues to be along color lines. Race in and of itself has nothing to do with the color of your skin or biology and your family’s ethnic heritage; it depends on the need to label one’s race to designate place and access. We have examples from our forefathers--who held concepts of liberty and justice so closely while owning slaves--all the way up to the 20th century inception of the mortgage system in which first blacks were denied mortgages altogether. Then, if they could get a mortgage on the GI bill, the original mortgage policy stated that whites’ property values would go down. And they did. This is where we saw the redlining of our communities and white flight. This is how the future of segregated neighborhoods became institutionalized.

Beverly Tatum just published a new edition of her book, Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together with a 70 page prologue that tells us that our schools are more re-segregated than ever and we have the lowest enrollment of college students of color. In the last 20 years, black and brown communities have lost gross wealth of upwards of $70 billion dollars, the largest capital loss in modern US history. Tatum reminds us that more black men are incarcerated now than were enslaved in 1860. (Those of us who understand the New Jim Crow know that this system of incarceration is slavery by another name). These systems are in place to hold back African Americans in perpetuity. And this is not to forget the decimation of the Indigenous cultures in the U.S. and the historic internment of Asian Americans or to dismiss the attacks on immigrants in our communities. We must comb through all of our systems, programs, and policies, and be willing to create new ones to counteract historical ones, even if they are uncomfortable or unknown. If we don’t, we uphold racist policies that continue to exist. Our history is a part of the systems we live in today.

Reflect: Are our Pittsfield schools segregated? Are schools divided according to “the haves” and “the have nots”? What can you do to change that? What office might you run for or who is someone running for office (or should be) that you can support? What resources can you share? As People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond says: “Gatekeeping Persons who work in institutions often function as gatekeepers to ensure that the institution perpetuates itself. By operating with anti-racist values and networking with those who share those values and maintaining accountability in the community, the gatekeeper becomes an agent of institutional transformation.”

When I talk about educational and health disparities correlated with economic disparities along this identity of race, I want to be clear that I am just talking about this one identity. We are complex individuals with multiple identities. If you are a white person, for example, who is living in poverty or you have worked your way to a “better” life, I encourage you to listen and not hear this as an “either/or” situation that negates your hard work or your success. Different policies simply have been set in place for different racial groups over time. Until we work together to acknowledge them and change them, they will remain.


Institutions set cultural norms. One effect of an institution without any racial justice awareness may be that a white family working hard to barely feed their children doesn’t understand why another family is “belly-aching about race.” The context becomes skewed, and folks become siloed in their realities. This is where we need to discuss our values as different cultural groups and share them across communities. We need to ask, “Are we replicating a world that is diverse and reflective of the populations that actually live within it?” We need to check our lives and choices to see if we are embodying the values that we truly hold dear.

We can see this disconnect clearly around gender. Many people are unaware of the systemic and cultural inhibitors for women’s success in leadership roles in key sectors. We have plenty of studies showing that when women lead in business, there is more collaboration and higher return on revenue. But women are still hugely underrepresented in leadership roles across the board. A culture shifts as individuals rise up against long-established systems of privilege, often outdated assumptions of gender roles and racial identity, and the harsh implicit bias individuals hold around leadership. So where do we see women leading in our community? Where do we need more women leading and co-leading? Our Berkshire young women need to see this leadership reflected in their day to day so they can see themselves (much like students of color need to see the educators, doctors, and community leaders of color). Young people need to see leaders who reflect their life experience and values. Our current systems can be influenced by cultural shifts that we make together.

bell hooks wrote, “If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justice, have recognition for difference without attaching difference to privilege.” So let’s flip the script. What is Pittsfield doing right? What assets does our small city have? Former Mayor Ruberto wanted Pittsfield to be the best small city. What can we do to make this a reality? How do we show in support of Mayor Tyer and many others in leadership? In the words of Positive Social Psychologist, Barbara Frederickson, where can we broaden and build? We might start by going through Appreciative Inquiry Process with all Pittsfield programming to build on what is working in addressing the systemic barriers of racism and sexism, developing more opportunities to dismantle racism and sexism. All while making sure that our beloved Pittsfield thrives. We cannot do one without the other.

Resources & Strategies (please share!):

Create sustaining wrap-around services for programs that already exist:

  • Getting Ahead Graduates
  • Boys & Girls Club, Girls Inc., etc. Alumni
  • Dual Enrollment Students at MCLA and BCC/Greylock Together of PPS and MCLA
  • Mentoring programs like PCC, BRIDGE, etc.

Strategies in the Berkshires I'm actively involved in that include Pittsfield’s healing:

  • Continue to support Pittsfield youth by broadening their educational experience. Encourage curiosity and step out of status quo. Find dual enrollment opportunities: BCC, MCLA, and the Greylock Teach Fellows for juniors and seniors of color.
  • Mentor a young person (student or young professional) and see what you learn as well.
  • Offer positive education and cultural competence training to educators and encourage your workplace and boards to invest in Multicultural BRIDGE training. Or host a BRIDGE Real Talk on Race 8 or 12 hour course in your community or workplace.
  • Join our Towards Racial Justice campaigns. Our “Not in the Berkshires” campaign is November 28th. Sign the pledge as a resident and ask your organization to join. Start a Not in the Berkshires in your town and connect with the county-wide committee for shared values, logo, pledge, and strategies. The Berkshires is already being recognized as a way to do this right! Our Race Task Force meets on the first Monday of every month at 12:30pm
  • Join Great Barrington in celebrating W.E.B. Du Bois and his 150th in 2018. We are honoring Du Bois by creating a legacy of monuments and statues, and encouraging every school to share his legacy.
  • Encourage your City Council to have a Trust Policy or Safe Community policy beyond the police protocol.
  • Like our Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women Facebook page and join our open monthly meetings. We connect the voices and needs of women and girls to the State House MCSW for policy advocacy.
  • Join the Berkshire County NAACP!

© 2017 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

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