By Rebecca Dravis
01:04AM / Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Michael Obasohan, coordinator of the MCLA Multicultural Education Resource Center, makes a point about the importance of encouraging diversity and acceptance in the community.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Some familiar topics made the list of concerns that were articulated at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's annual "needs assessment" forum: transportation, addiction, health care and poverty.
But on Friday, at the first monthly forum of the year, the 70 or so participants had a bit of a different kind of conversation about the community's needs: namely, how to shape how Northern Berkshire County wants to define itself going forward.
The subject was broached by local educator Kimberly Roberts-Morandi, who said students participating in MCLA's Summer Leadership Academy studied the issue of community identity by interviewing 70 people. Those conversations, she said, shared a common thread.
"They feel as though we don't have a real identity," she said.
That sparked a conversation about the divisions that exist in the community between lifelong and new residents, for example, or between artists and those who worked in manufacturing.
"Not everyone can open a restaurant or be an artist," said Mark Rondeau, president of the Friendship Center Food Pantry, adding that he sees the need for a "common discussion among groups."
Author Joe Manning said embracing a shared identity that includes the past, present and future is key to growing and surviving. That means accepting a changing population — "immigrants" from both foreign countries and other states — while still remembering what it is that people like about living here.
"You can't renew a community without new people," Manning said. "If you don't get people moving in here, the community will die. … There's got to be every welcoming side you can have."
That also includes figuring out how to retain students who might leave for college and never come back, or college students that come here to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts or Williams College and then leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
"Young people don't stay around," said Carrisa Sacherski, a UNITY program associate at the coalition, and the community needs to ask these students why that is. "Why did I stay here? What would make you stay here?"
The availability of jobs and support for those people were mentioned as topics to focus on in that vein, as was a targeted approach to encouraging diversity and discouraging racism.
Rachel Branch, a North Adams resident running for mayor, said she still sees racism and anti-Semitism in the community and thinks people need to talk to each other more to come together.
"I do believe the solutions are one to one to one to one," she said. "We are so blessed to live here in the Berkshires. … [But] we have to stand up and not be afraid. We can be a strong city right here, a community that keeps evolving, and do it with love."
Tom Bernard, also running for mayor, said he sees the lines between generations beginning to blur, as "newcomers" are more integrated into the community, but that more work can be done.
"We never want to take that for granted," he said. "Whether you have deep roots or are a transplant, we all live in the same soil."
And that has been evident in strides made in solving issues that have come up at previous needs assessment forums, said coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw. After a forum on housing needs last year, a work group has formed that has been doing real work, Northern Berkshire United Way Executive Director Crista Collier reported. And after years of discussing the topic of young people not having places of their own, the Roots Teen Center opened last year and the UNITY Skate Board & BMX Park opened this summer.
But Besaw was happy to have ideas for upcoming forums. Other ideas tossed out Friday include embracing environmental challenges, addressing the needs of the growing senior citizen population, encouraging a network of bike trails and outdoor recreation, and fighting nicotine addiction.
Although several of the months have already been scheduled — education in October, the Department of Corrections/criminal justice in November, and substance abuse prevention in December, there's room to tackle more topics during the monthly forums — and beyond. Participants in Friday's forum will get an email to select the topics they want to see addressed, and future forums will reflect those choices.
"We have three months left in our year we need to find topics for," Besaw said.