On the Bridge: The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross reaches out | By Jenn Smith

Reverend Sheila Sholes-Ross, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, greets her parishioners after Sunday service.

Reverend Sheila Sholes-Ross, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, greets her parishioners after Sunday service. (Berkshire Eagle file)

PITTSFIELD >> There are many degrees to Sheila Sholes-Ross: Pastor, scholar, activist, feminist, wife.

The reverend is currently at the start of her second year ministering to the congregation of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield. She is the 30th senior pastor of the church, having relocated to the Berkshires with her husband, Nelson Ross, on January 23, 2014. Both come from New Orleans and spent a couple of decades living and working around Durham, N.C. And while Sholes-Ross had first heard her calling to God early on in life — around age 17, she says — it’s only been in recent years she been firmly footed in the ministry, and she is now 59.

Reverend Sheila Sholes-Ross greets Chenyang Lin, 13.

Reverend Sheila Sholes-Ross greets Chenyang Lin, 13. (Berkshire Eagle file)

“I heard something at 17 years old, but never seeing an African American female clergy person where I grew up, I didn’t think of it,” she said.

By 1978, she had two bachelor’s degrees, and she went on to earn a master’s in administration and supervision, and then a master’s in public health, before finally understanding this calling and pursuing a divinity degree.

“Before I felt the calling to God, I felt the calling to advocacy first,” she said.

She said her first act of advocacy, also a first foray into feminism, got her kicked out of her Brownies troop of the Girl Scouts.

“I didn’t like just baking the cookies,” she said. “I wanted to find out why the boys in the Cub Scout were doing something different than we were. I wanted to be a part of that too.”

She attributes much of her will and character development to her mother, Ruth Nicholas Sholes.

“She was a trailblazer,” she said.

In the early 1900s, her mother marched into a bank and negotiated a loan, becoming the owner and hair dresser for her own beauty salon.

“I always had a strong woman in my life,” Sholes-Ross said, “and I’ve always, since I was a little girl, advocated on behalf of all women.”

She also co-chairs the Equity for Women in the Church Community for the progressive national fellowship known as the Alliance of Baptists.

As the first female, first African-American leader of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, the Rev. Sholes-Ross isn’t afraid to state, “Yes, this is history.”

But, she said, her own identity and ownership of that fact doesn’t mean she’s only an advocate for people, or women, like her.

“We are in this together,” she said. “I’m not just going to advocate on behalf of black women or women of color … and that’s the struggle with women — we don’t work on behalf of one another.”

Fortunately, she said, she has a strong ally, her husband of 27 years, who was willing to pack up his successful career as a hair stylist in the South and venture with her to New England.

“I’m a blessed woman,” Sholes-Ross said. “He’s not intimidated by my success, and he’s an advocate for females too. I am so proud of that.”

Beyond her work in the church and towards raising the status of women, she’s also demonstrated in her past year and few months in the city that’s she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and go to bat on its behalf too.

“I know that God has called me here not just to be a pastor of First Baptist but to make a difference in the community,” she said.

One of the first appointments she made was with Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, not at a desk, but in a four-hour ride along with him in a police cruiser through every back alley and byway.

“We can’t do this alone, and we need all the help we can get,” Wynn said, lauding what he called a gracious newfound partnership during Sholes-Ross’s formal installation celebration last August.

Sholes-Ross now serves as one of the adult members of the recently revived Pittsfield Youth Commission, bringing to the table her experience as past executive director of Communities in Schools in Orange County, N.C., and working with a high-school dropout population in the South.

She’s also been a partner a number of collaborations with Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim, including hosting a joint service to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

At 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 12, Sholes-Ross, along with The Berkshire Lyric Chorus and Blafield Children’s Chorus, Jack Brown, Joe Rose and Wanda Houston, will present “Moving to Glory: A Gospel and Spirituals Concert” at the First Baptist Church. The concert was postponed in February due to the inclement weather and will benefit the Pittsfield Youth Commission.

She’s working to develop youth ministry and outreach through her church, she said, and to reach out to other under-served populations, like people who struggle with mental health issues and things like housing and food insecurity.

“You shouldn’t be made to feel like an outcast when you’re struggling,” she said.

“I try to meet with people, to see where the greatest need is and how I can fit in to help.”

She works to stay actively involved in the community she’s still learning about.

To keep her energy, stamina and focus on her missions of ministry and empowerment, she said, it’s also important to “make time for Sheila,” to help find clarity and stay on task.

“I have my days,” she said. “Things have not always been easy.”

She hit multiple glass ceilings in her effort to find a congregation that would accept her.

“I was denied 33 times as pastor,” she said.

She relied on inner strength and support from friends and loved ones until First Baptist Pittsfield found her.

“We have to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally,” she said. “I want to ensure I’m able to be everything I can be. Every day I get up and spend time with God. I exercise and then come [to the church] to see what’s on the plate. God will put me where I need to be.”

In case she needs a reminder, Proverbs 3:5-6 is displayed on her desk: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

On the Bridge

What: The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, along with The Berkshire Lyric Chorus and Blafield Children’s Chorus, Jack Brown, Joe Rose and Wanda Houston, will present “Moving to Glory: A Gospel and Spirituals Concert”

Where: First Baptist Church, 88 South St., Pittsfield

When: 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 12

Admission: $15 general admission, free for children, to benefit the Pittsfield Youth Commission.

Info: 413-445-4539

On the Bridge is an ongoing collaboration between Multicultural Bridge and Berkshries Week & Shires of Vermont to welcome many voices to these pages. For more, visit berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.


On the Bridge: Professor Asma Abbas finds strength in curiosity | By Kate Abbott

Political power and delight in intellectual explorations

Professor Asma Abbas teaches politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Professor Asma Abbas teaches politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. (Photo courtesy of Asma Abbas)

GREAT BARRINGTON -; Asma Abbas talks about her life and experience in many ways, in philosophy and theory and listening silence.

People often ask someone who has suffered to tell a story, she said, only in the way they want to hear it. She remembers giving a talk and saying she felt thankful for fellowships that have helped her, and people afterward saying, “I can’t believe how much you have struggled” — and they knew nothing about her life, her family or the advantages she has also had.

“Why should I tell you a story you already know?” she said. “Why does someone have to tell a story in first person about my suffering, my background?”

She brings passionate curiosity to understanding the stories of others, to her research and her classrooms. Abbas has taught politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon’s Rock for 10 years, more than four as chair in the division of social studies. She is researching the politics of love on the verges.

She is studying people at the boundaries, on the edges of societies, and the ways people believe in God and love their parents and their children, their country — and what they feel is worth suffering or dying for.

“There has to be a different way of understanding what people who are suffering do,” she said. ” People relate to pain differently. My experience in coming from Pakistan, from a background of labor activists, is not focused on how suffering will end.”

She has come from Karachi to the New School to Pennsylvania State University, and now to the Southern Berkshires, to teach college classes and publish a book, “Liberalism and Human Suffering,” in 2010.

In her teaching, she draws on a wide range of writers, scholars, playwrights and philosophers — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” Ingeborg Bachmann, Assia Djebar, Tony Kushner, Horatio Alger and Malcolm X and more.

She wants to teach her students to question, she said, to feel they belong in any conversation and to affirm that they are there to struggle with ideas — and the struggle is exhilarating.

Many of her students have welcomed the challenge to engage in any deeply theoretical exercise, she said. But she finds herself worried by some students, by a resistance to thinking. They want to study what speaks to them, she said — but how will they know what speaks to them unless they experiment, push themselves, and look for new thoughts and responses and arguments?

She recalled moments of tension in a class, when students study something new to them. When she asks them to open themselves to new ideas, she may also make herself vulnerable, she said. She takes a risk, hoping they will recognize it and take one, too.

She hopes they will claim a space for themselves even when others say it is not theirs. She has had students read W.E.B. DuBois next to Rousseau, she said, and think about what happens when people who have no place stand up to claim it. When the world defines someone as a problem, how effective can they be in any change they work for?

“We have to change the problems,” she said.

She studies what moves her and what she wants to change. And she finds power in the idea that one person can change the structure, the society around her, even the state.

“Politics is the capacity to make meaning,” she said. “How do you do that if you shut out thought?”

When a state has power over someone’s life, political thought can touch the most private places. And people who protest may suffer.

“When we have to fix the world and have nothing to fix it with, we fix it with everything we’ve got,” she said. “It’s like hospitality with nothing, being the outsider and the host all the time … trying to invite people to think.”

This kind of experience is a common one. She has often talked recently with professionals, people of color who have come back to pursue advanced degrees in their mature years. Many were told as young students, “You go back and fix up your neighborhoods, because no one else will” — and they did, she said. But they look back now and see that they were working with someone else’s ideas. Now they want to claim their place among the thinkers.

“For people who are suffering, the moments they’re made to feel included are on the terms of others,” she said.

She sets her own terms. She may explore them in political theory or in a quiet invitation to listen and to talk.

“Isn’t a way of being hospitable a way of telling a story?” she said.

It is too easy to deny someone’s suffering “or find something redeeming in it — you are the meek who will inherit the earth — and both are ways of not thinking about what someone is actually doing,” she said.

Denying the people also denies the causes of pain.

“Violence is not abstract or invisible,” she said.

But political language can try to make it so.

“We give [terror] a sense of otherness that keeps it distant and us uninvolved ‘ she wrote in ‘In Terror, in Love and out of Time,’ an essay in the anthology “At the Limits of Justice: Women of Color on Terror,” in 2014.

So how can thought and language change, so anyone can see suffering and people who suffer, close and involved? She asks the question in her books, in conversations with her students and in TEDx talks at UC Berkeley.

She wants a world open to people who live with pain — and survive, and love.


On the Bridge: A rainbow may come after the sky falls | By JV Hampton-VanSant

Yvette ‘Jamuna’ Sirker reaches out in theater, teaching


Yvette ’Jamuna’ Sirker appears in ’When the Sky Falls,’ above.

Yvette ‘Jamuna’ Sirker appears in ‘When the Sky Falls,’ above. (Courtesy of Yvette ‘Jamuna’ Sirker)

Resilience is the ability to convert the negative to a positive. Sometimes, out of the darkest, most devastating challenges and catastrophes come beauty and new beginnings. For Yvette “Jamuna” Sirker, challenges including a catastrophic hurricane have led to a full life in the Berkshires, changing the lives of the young people at Reid Middle School every year.

Sirker received her MFA in theater from New York University. When she went in search of acting roles, she said, it was one of the first times she had truly encountered racism. The only roles she could find were for a maid or a mistress, and she was turned away for other parts.

“There were simply no roles for people of color; it was truly heartbreaking,” she said. “So I realized I had to create those roles.”

She set out on a new mission: to give voice to under-represented people in theater. She wrote a play set in the Mississippi Flood of 1987 from the perspective of the people it affected. She found she loved writing, she said. She found a passion.

But like many artists living in New York City, she said, she felt something was missing. She made her first contacts with the Berkshires, drawn in by Kripalu in Stockbridge. She began teaching yoga there, and she received her Sanskrit name, Jamuna.

“There was something magical, a healing quality in the earth in this area,” She said. “I felt a connection to this place.”

When she finished her MFA, she felt as though “everything needed to stop” so she could reconnect, she said. The day she graduated, she walked the 80 blocks from Julliard to the West Village. She happened on the Sweet Basil jazz club and got some of the best advice of her life from an old high school compatriot — internationally known jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

“[Wynton] said to me, ‘Go home. Go back to New Orleans for a while and get your soul back,'” Sirker said.

So she returned to New Orleans, to Louisiana and found a new love: teaching. She taught in public schools, as well as at Tulane University and Dillard University. She realized teaching yoga had given her skills in honoring people and working with different ways of learning.

“Rudy Peirce, an excellent Kripalu yoga teacher, told me once, ‘It’s not your job ever to decide whether or not someone will be good at something. Your job is to honor their soul, and honor their journey, and plant seeds of hope. That is your job as a teacher,'” she said.

She worked in theater in New Orleans as she had in New York, directing and writing plays and building a network for local actors, creating roles for actors of color and giving casting directors a place to meet local performers.

Shortly before the largest catastrophe of her life, she wrote “Pink Collar Crime,” a story about what would happen to New Orleans if it was struck with a sudden disaster — like a hurricane.

Within three months of “Pink Collar Crime” coming out, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and decimated New Orleans. Sirker became one of thousands of tenured faculty let go from Louisiana colleges.

“Suddenly,I was homeless,’ she said. “I was a refugee. People would tell me that I was an ‘evacuee.’ But that wasn’t true. Evacuees have something to come back to. I lost everything.”

In that dark hour, an artist relief effort came through for her. She received artist residencies, which gave her a place to lay her head at night and continue creating.

She wrote “When The Sky Falls” in this changing time. Because of her work as an artist, she had to be close to New York, she said, but she did not want to return to the city. She came to the Berkshires and has lived here ever since.

In recent years, she has worked with the youth at Reid Middle School as a writing and reading specialist. She sees roughly 150 students in a semester or period, she said, and she always gives them a final group project: to produce a talk show — to write, edit and film it — and air it on local television.

“When you give students the opportunity to make something that matters to them, they put their hearts and souls into it,” she said. “They don’t always understand exactly how much they are learning, and that is the beauty of arts integration with Common Core standards.”

She also continues to write and direct. This month, she served as artistic director for “10 Shorts” at the Whitney Center for the Arts in the annual 10×10 Upstreet Festival in Pittsfield. She put together the 10 Shorts with work from local women, many of them women of color, and her own work.

“There was a hunger for this kind of art,” she said. “People came up to me after and told me how much they appreciated it, saying that now they knew what they had been missing.”

She hopes now to work in theater in the Berkshires as she has in New Orleans, she said. Her work here in writing, teaching, and directing goes on. After a hurricane can come a rainbow — out of tragedy can come art, beauty and meaning.

On the Bridge

On the Bridge is an ongoing collaboration between Multicultural Bridge and Berkshries Week & Shires of Vermont to welcome many voices to these pages. For more, visit berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge


Where We Live: John Fülöp’s World and Ours | By Margot Welch


For the last decade, John Fülöp’s been documenting the urgency of climate change by assembling a long list of events.

“Bad things keep happening. For example, the devastating flooding of West Islip,” he said, “when an unusual rainstorm dumped 13.7” of rain in one day. Incredible snow storms have buried various places around the country — Buffalo, among others. California has endured wildfires lasting for as long as eleven months and recently, a three-year drought, followed by torrential rains, flooding, and mudslides. During Hurricane Sandy the lower third of Manhattan got flooded with unprecedented amounts of water. Eight inches of water in a day also flooded Arizona and New Mexico. Every high tide in Miami Beach brings in about six inches of water: the city is pumps the toxic water back into the bay…. (S)olutions to flooding everywhere are short-sighted and damaging our oceans. The chemical composition of the water is changing, which affects the reefs, where all fish reproduce.  Crustaceans are having difficulties forming their hard shells. Oil spills keep happening.”

Recent news reports and research articles attest to increasingly severe weather events:  hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, wild fires, and snowfalls.  Temperatures are rising, melting Arctic ice with increasing speed, elevating sea levels, and threatening the world’s coastlines and marine life. Toxic algae appear in the Great Lakes. Every month more evidence emerges about endangered ecosystems, plants and animals (and, of course, word of alterations in animal behavior).

“The simple fact is,” Fülöp explains, “that an elevated air temperature will hold more moisture and thus produce more rain (and snow).  Though high tides are regularly flooding big cities, instead of designing and installing floodgates to protect population centers, buildings in New York, for example, have moved their mechanical equipment to higher floors. That’s how they’re dealing with it.  All these extraordinary weather events in our time, today, just seem to become more ordinary as time passes.”

Our country is wedded to the notion that a healthy economy must always be  growing.  This promotes a dynamic that drives climate change, Fulop believes. Planned obsolescence, for example, empowers manufacturers to constantly increase their production of goods. In turn, this impacts public opinion and policy decisions about which companies we subsidize economically. It also increases the amount of garbage accumulating in our landfills,contributing significantly to our world’s rising temperatures.

“The highest man-made mountain on the East Coast is an incredibly high pile of trash on Staten Island,”  Fülöp reports. “For a time that’s where New York City used to take its garbage.  Like all these dumps, this one still produces quantities of methane, which is a much more form of greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide. Companies need to take long-term responsibility for what they produce. When what they make becomes garbage in our society, the taxpayer suffers.”

Are people ready to act to contain or reverse global warming? In a recent issue of Yale’s Alumni magazine, Fülöp read a survey of its highly educated readers’ attitudes toward climate change. Among those, only 13% described themselves as “alarmed.”  More promisingly, the New York Times recently reported that most Americans — including half of those identifying as Republicans —  want to vote for a presidential candidate who is determined to curb global warming. (Jan 30, 2015). That’s encouraging — though somewhat qualified by the information that their public stance on the issue will be impacted by campaign funding they receive. But promising, also, is the rapid growth globally of the solar efficiency industry and the improvement of photo-voltaic cells, says Fülöp.  He also describes new kinds of compressor units that make it possible to heat and cool buildings without using fossil fuels.

A range of variables must be considered in calculating costs and benefits of smart building — including ways that efficiency is being measured, the kinds of insulation and materials used, and the costs of everything — dredging, processing,treating and transporting, Fülöp explains. But well established construction practices make residential clustering with zero-energy, affordable and market rate housing absolutely feasible.

Since the 1970’s Fülöp has been working on solar and renewable energy design. A few years ago, he and colleagues brought home, to the Berkshires, a proposal for constructing diverse-use, mixed affordable and market-based, clustered housing for a site with old, mostly unused mill buildings. In addition to providing homes for a diverse population, the complex would include artist lofts and studios, museum and gallery spaces, a market place, restaurant, cafe, and multi-use outdoor gathering place with a bandstand serving the local and extended community in new ways.

Mixing housing and with commercial units has many benefits, Fülöp explains. It enhances building security (there is always activity at the site), convenience, accessible close-to-home employment possibilities, and a reduced need to travel.

“Won’t this winter’s record-breaking snowfalls in Boston — and its associated problems of antiquated, under-funded public transit systems, significant and prolonged city traffic gridlock, and vast snow removal tasks — help us all wake up?” I ask.

“We have to reach people who still don’t get it. And  if you put enough of these recent, memorable events close together, in one place, they have to recognize that this is us. We’ve experienced this. There must be something going on. And we have to do something about it.”

On the Bridge: Mary Makuc embodies positive strength, Local advocate has overcome obstacles | By Emma Sanger-Johnson, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Mary Makuc relaxes in her festively decorated home in Monterey.

Mary Makuc relaxes in her festively decorated home in Monterey. (Stephanie Zollshan / The Berkshire Eagle)

MONTEREY >> As she prepared for Christmas with her husband, five children — one son applying to colleges up and down the coast — and a boisterous dog, Mary Makuc looked forward to a week filled with family and activity. Her husband had made dozens of Christmas cookies. Her family is Catholic, she says, and the holiday is a warm gathering and focus for them.

With her husband and children and work with local organizations, she is busy and fulfilled, a community organizer — and an advocate.

At 21, she survived a car accident that injured her head, spine and leg. These injuries prevented her from walking for a long time, and she still experiences challenges in walking. Her disability crystallized her mission: she works to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Mary grew up in eastern Massachusetts, in a suburb between Worcester and Boston. She was attending college to become a nurse when the car accident injured her.

Her family, her religion, her humor and the fact she is “an extreme extrovert” helped her through her recovery, she said. When her father entered the hospital room after the accident, he said to her, “Mary, you still have hands,” and she responded, “Yeah, and I’m breathing, Dad.”

She held onto her ability to see positive possibilities and humor in daily situations.

At first, recovery took a great deal of energy, she said. Immediately after her accident, she moved back into her family’s house and began learning to walk again with the help of medications and physical therapy. Sometimes, she said, she felt as though she spent all her time going to doctors.

Then one night, a friend came over and loaded Mary and her wheelchair into the car and took her to the movies. Her friend helped Mary return to herself by making sure Mary could get out and relax.

She continued her studies in social services and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. After looking for work around Worcester and Boston, she moved to Amherst. While working there she met her husband, who was living and working in Monterey, and they moved here, where they still live. She has worked continuously in social services, in places including Gould Farm, and now while raising her children she pursues projects that will benefit the Southern Berkshires. She is working to form a Monterey Community Center, a local space for classes and other learning opportunities. She serves on the community center’s board, and she has also applied for a grant to create a dance class in the pool at Berkshire South Community Center, an opportunity for people who have difficulty dancing and can learn in the safety and warmth of the water.

She wants to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities, she said, to find ways for them to move comfortably in their communities — and for their communities to open to them.

Many communities and places have made some effort to accommodate them. Special parking spaces, designated wheelchair ramps and seating on buses give people with disabilities recognition, she said, and she believes they are positive steps, but they are not enough.

Recognition happens between people.

She said it helps when people are honest about their emotions and concerns when they encounter people with disabilities. It helps when people ask questions — like how or when someone needs or wants help. Asking is the best thing anyone can do, she said.

If they don’t ask, people who want to give her a hand may do the opposite. When she is going through a door and someone automatically assists, saying, “Oh, let me get the door for you,” they may not realize she is using the door for help in balancing, and someone taking the door from her might make her fall.

She also wants to shape space so people can move through it smoothly. She works for more awareness of the architectural challenges people with disabilities face every day, looking for ways to change them and to help people understand them.

“I would love to see more integration and inclusion,” she said.

Some spaces are easily accessible for her, while others are difficult, and the people who shape them may not know it.

“It’s straddling two worlds,” she said.

When she goes out with a group of friends who also have spinal cord injuries, she knows they are going somewhere accessible and the people with her are experiencing the same things she does. But when she comes into local restaurants or stores, she may have trouble getting in the door, and once inside she often has trouble navigating the space. These places are not built to accommodate people with physical disabilities, and she knows this is not intentional, but it is a constant challenge.

She can move around more easily in a wheelchair, she said, and she uses one at home because she can move quickly in it. But the world is not set up to allow wheelchairs everywhere, and away from home she often uses a walker to get around because she can move more freely with one, in more varied spaces.

She sees and pushes against the stigma that surrounds people with physical or mental disabilities, people too often seen as a burden, she said, as being too slow and awkward to accommodate.

People with disabilities have gifts, talents and skills, she said. They contribute to the world, and often they have trouble being recognized outside of their disability.

At the turning of the year, in a time of community and listening, willingness to learn and understanding, she and her friends are here, sharing gifts, reaching out to loved ones and making resolutions — leading their lives with strength, humor and confidence.

On the Bridge …

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

On the bridge: Young black voices lift in sadness, hope | By Cynthia Pease and JV Hampton-VanSant Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

GREAT BARRINGTON >> In the ongoing turbulence following the killing of unarmed black men and boys, and the failure of grand juries to indict the police who shot them, three young African-Americans involved with the Railroad Street Youth Project who all live in the Berkshires spoke about these events.

Kiana Estime, 18, said that her first feelings on hearing that Policeman Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of the unarmed Michael Brown were disbelief, fear, passion, and responsibility.

“My responsibility is to continue the passion to protest, to not stand by and allow this to happen,” she said. “I have a responsibility to let friends know and to allow them to be aware of the systemic racism in this country.”

She referred mostly to white friends, but also to friends of color, because she believes that her generation has had a need to deny that their color makes a difference. Getting rid of that denial may make them vulnerable and insecure, she said, but it is necessary to address the issue head on.

She also thinks there is a fear among her peers of bringing up controversial issues to do with racism, particularly in what are called microaggressions, things said to people of color that are perhaps not intended to be racist, but in fact are because they stem from unquestioned ideas white people have grown up with. These people may mean well, but they cause hurt and anger.

The first step, she said, is to get at the root of systemic racism: the misrepresentation, misunderstandings and social injustice that still prevail for people of color today.

“If you don’t solve the root, there is no desire to change,” she said.

Tymell, 24, who asked that his full name not be used, said he didn’t watch television news about the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s or Eric Garner’s killers.

“Watching makes me too angry,” he said.

Commenting on the public outrage towards the justice system and the riots after the verdict, Tymell compared the media coverage and the social outrage over the killing people of color to emotions experienced running over a squirrel.

“You feel bad for a minute, but then you’re over it,” he said.

He sees this public outrage as fleeting in this society, a society in which the murder of these young black men are dismissed as though they do not matter.

“That’s what we are to these people: roadkill. All because of the color of our skin,” he said.

These kinds of murders are not new and have been ongoing for quite some time, he said. For him, the recent tragedies are personal. When he was 12 years old, he said, living in Brooklyn with a foster family, he had an older brother who was called J Happy, and Tymell and looked up to him. J Happy was on the verge of going to college. One day he took Tymell to the park, as he usually did.

The next moment, said Tymell, “a white cop pulled over and accused him of having drugs in his pocket.”

The encounter ended with J Happy being shot in the head by the policeman.

There was an inquiry during which Tymell was interviewed, but there were no repercussions for the policeman except for his gun being taken away.

“I went through hell there,” Tymell said.

The policeman was a local beat cop, and Tymell had to see him on a daily basis until he was moved to another foster home.

Originally from Uganda, 21-year-old David, who also asked that his last name not be used, has lived in the United States for almost 12 years.

“I’ve had my share of run-ins” with police, he said, citing an instance where he and a white friend pulled a prank on Halloween. David was suspected and questioned, he said, not the friend.

David has watched the news about Ferguson and Staten Island and the many protests with his brother.

“It feels personal to a degree,” he said. “The legal system is not what it should be.”

He pointed to the fact that district attorneys have to work closely with police and therefore have a conflict of interest in how they handle a police shooting.

“How do you get the bias out?” he said. “How do you fix a system that doesn’t know it’s broken?”

Where is the hope for young African-Americans in all of this? Tymell does not believe there is much hope. He thinks it will take a much larger tragedy before white people wake up to the reality and engage in the conversation.

“I want to hope,” he said, “but I don’t believe it’s going to happen” without some kind of purge that will grow out of the frustration and anger being felt around the country.

David looks to a new governmental system to create change and give hope.

“How do we make action make something that works? There needs to be checks and balances” he said in how police shootings of unarmed people are handled and in the justice system as a whole.

“Hope is in the struggle,” he said.

JV Hampton-VanSant is a youth coordinator with the Railroad Street Youth Project. Cynthia Pease, a volunteer with Multicultural Bridge, has worked with him on this conversation about a difficult topic.

On the Bridge

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

Sue Maguire: What’s Good for Kids (Part II) | By Margot Welch

“At first glance Bennington appears to typify New England life at its best,” Sue Maguire wrote, in her introduction to the book she and Joy Dryfoos wrote together, Inside Full Service Community Schools. (1)  Dryfoos was a life-long educational consultant with a long-term interest in adolescent health, preventive interventions, and high risk youth. The two met after Maguire had long been working at Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School – first as teacher, then as Principal. Maguire describes the context for her work.

“…(T)here is another part of Bennington. Molly Stark School is in an isolated area of the community not typically seen by tourists driving through town. Its student population of nearly 380 is considered large by Vermont standards. The school is literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks…” she wrote, adding that this was actually how people talked about it. When I visited, fifteen years ago, I was told that some of the children rarely saw “downtown Bennington” – which is no more than a mile away.

As a new teacher, Maguire recalls, she had great ideas.

“Two and a half decades ago, I came to Vermont to teach fifth grade… I was ready to change the world for kids. I thought little about poverty or its ramifications because I truly bellieved it didn’t matter; I could make education the ticket for a happy and productive life for all kids, whether rich, middle class, or poor. Through my training, I had learned that teaching consisted of high standards, strong curriculum, and solid instruction delivered by a caring teacher. All these years later, I know that I hadn’t learned enough.”

After being at Molly Stark for a few years, and raising her own two children,  Maguire began to understand what tremendous opportunities they were having. She and her husband read to them incessantly, took them on all kinds of trips and outings, were constantly preparing them with relevant vocabulary and social skills for new experiences and discoveries and encouraging them at every turn.  The result?

“They entered school healthy and eager to learn. They knew education was important in our family and they thrived….What I slowly came to realize is that not all children have lives filled with these basic supports and opportunities. Far too many kids exist in a world without stimulation. Many live in a constant state of chaos and are isolated from everything beyond their own neighborhood. They don’t go to parks and museums and librairies, they don’t eat in restaurants, and they don’t make regular visits to doctors and dentists.”

Very frequently Maguire encountered heart-breaking troubles in her students’ families. She  references, for example, a mother who calls two days before school opened to say that the family has been evicted, and are living in a car without an address, but can she still register her kids? A boy wanting desperately to join the after-school running program doesn’t have sneakers. Two young children have nearly burned down their apartment while their mother is out. With her help, a boy gets to a dentist for the first time and, after he’s had seven teeth extracted, he tells her he’s never before “known what it was for his mouth not to hurt.”


As Maguire understood how many things block a child’s chances for academic, social, physical and emotional growth, she began developing a full-service school – before she’d even heard the term.

“The services and opportunties we developed at Molly Stark happened because they make sense for kids and their families.” Solutions, for Maguire, were obvious.

“Through collaborative partnerships with a wide range of service providers in our community, we… tried to create the opportunities that most of us would expect and demand for our own children. Along with quality instruction, our school offers extended-day and extended-year services, health and social services, and parent education and support – the things we believe that children need to do well in school and that families need to live productive lives in their community.”

Maguire is as certain as ever that education is the critical ticket. Even today, looking forward to mentoring principals when she eventually retires, she is not about to stop educating – and leading by example.

“I am now working with the children of children I taught years ago, and I continue the search to find what it is that might make the difference for this generation and the next.” (2)



End Notes:

Sue Maguire has given me permission to quote extensively from this introductory passage, which I think describes the context for the full service school model in a way that is relevant in communities all over the United States. Inside Full-Service Community Schools was published by Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California, 2002.

(2) The term,  “Full Service Community School” is, today, commonly abbreviated again to “Community School.” But today it is possible to build a much stronger program, under that name, than ever before. The clearinghouse for resources and information about the Community School is the Coalition for Community Schools  (c/o Institute of Educational Leadership, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW Ste 100, Washington, DC 20008 Tel: 1-202-822-8405. Access their website; www.communityschools.org. Email: ccs@iel.org).

On the Bridge: Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor teaches understanding of American Indian culture | By Kate Abbott

Nancy Bonvillain has learned language and friendship among native peoples of the Six Nations in upstate New York

By Kate Abbott

Courtesy of Nancy BonvillainBard College at Simon’s Rock professor Nancy Bonvillain has had close ties to the Kanienkehaka, people of the Mohawk

Courtesy of Nancy Bonvillain Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor Nancy Bonvillain has had close ties to the Kanienkehaka, people of the Mohawk nation, for many pears.

GREAT BARRINGTON >> Akwesasne is said to mean “land where the wild grouse drums.” Grouse drum as a courtship display, but in the fall, in the woods near here, a walker at Notchview may hear a grouse launch into flight with a rapid beating of wings.

In the early 1970s, Nancy Bonvillain lived and worked in Akwesasne (or Ahkwesahsne), a Mohawk Territory on the border of upstate New York and Canada.

Now a professor of anthropology and linguistics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Bonvillain has spent time over many years learning the language and making friends in a community of the Kanien’kehaka — the Mohawk people do not call themselves “Mohawk.”

The Mohawk are an Iroquois people, Bonvillain said, one of six nations of the Haudenosaunee — along with the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora.

Today, they hold land in upstate New York, near Syracuse and Buffalo, Montreal and Lake Ontario.

“They live in a tiny fraction of their original territory,” she said.

She came to Akwesasne to work on grammar of the Mohawk language, she said, and to compile a dictionary and a book of conversations for use in schools. As a linguist, she wanted to work in a place where the language still lives, and she lived with families who spoke it among themselves. When she lived there, she could follow a conversation, she said, though her friends there spoke English with her.


She returned in the summers and on short visits many times in the next 30 years, she said.

At Akwesasne, children now learn the Mohawk language in schools, and the community has emphasized speaking it among families, moving it beyond homework assignments.

The 2006 Canadian census reported 600 people speaking Mohawk. The language may still be listed as endangered, Bonvillain said, but she believes it has a future, because so many people are working for it. She recalled a Tuscarora student at Simon’s Rock four or five years ago, Montgomery Hill, who has gone on to study linguistics.

Many white Americans, she said, think of American Indians and their cultures as part of the past, as though they have merged into American society or vanished.

“We put this into history so we don’t have to think about it,” she said.

People expect American Indians to live as their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago — and how many American people live as their families lived in 1500? — or expect them to live as “mainstream” Americans live, she said.

She sees them as contemporary artists, scientists and lawyers, musicians and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists. She sees their sustained efforts to nurture their own languages, schools for younger students, college scholarships, health programs.

In many ways, she said, American Indians today face substantial obstacles in health, longevity, infant mortality and education. Jobs are scarce, and promised government funding gets cut from the Indian Health services, education, school lunches and many other programs. Most casinos, she added, do not make large profits — she compared the likely population in Connecticut to a place like central Nebraska.

Though barriers like this are slow to budge, she has seen hopeful signs. In the last 10 or 20 years, she said, she has seen a surge in indigenous rights movements around the world.

“To come out of it saying, ‘We have our own voice, our own role,'” she sees as a sign of growing influence among these nations.

“The U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people is at least a sign of worldwide pressure from these groups,” she said.

Near this area, the Iroquois have brought court cases to reclaim land in the U.S. and Canada, to compensate for lost land and to protect and clean up their own land, she said. They may have to live with the effects of contaminated air, land and water they did not cause. Akwesasne is a Superfund site, Bonvillain said. (Readers in the Berkshires will understand the challenges of seeking to clean contaminated land and water. The county has similar areas along the Housatonic and Hoosic River.)

From helping to teach young Akwesasne students, Bonvillain has turned to teaching about American Indians in college courses.

Most recently, she has written new editions of text books on cultural anthropology and American Indian studies. She acknowledges that anthropology today is a field to enter with care and respect.

In the past, anthropologists have at worst made use of other people, she said. Today, an anthropologist might act more honestly, more equally, as a translator — in some ways like a journalist.

She feels strongly that anthropologists have an ethical obligation to the people they work with, she said, to advocate for them and to take confidentiality seriously. In any work like this she would want to be honest and up-front, to make sure anyone who speaks with her knows why she is asking questions and what she plans to do with the answers.

As a professor, she now teaches linguistics and cultural studies. Simon’s Rock has no Native Studies program, she said, because its curriculum is both concentrated and flexible; it offers courses, like “Native American Languages,” and a cultural studies course on “Native American Religions,” and the faculty will willingly coach students in any direction they choose.

As they leave for Thanksgiving vacation, she will tell her students to think about all that has happened to bring turkey to their tables.

And she encouraged people who have not yet shared a meal with them to think of the Hadenausee and the Mohicans, the Pequod, the Narragansett, the Nipmuck, the Penobscot, the Pemaquid, the Huron, the Abenaki and all the people with roots in the Northeast, as they are today.

“These communities in some cases are struggling, like any community,” she said, “but they have a lot of strength. Look at what they’ve survived.”

At a glance …

In the U.S. and Canada, more than 120,000 people are enrolled in the Iroquois nations, according to the 2010 census.

About that many people live in the Berkshires, and less than a third as many live in Bennington County.

Today, about 12,000 people live in the Akwesasne community, according to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which makes it about the size of North Adams and slightly smaller than Bennington.

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge


On the BRIDGE: Bear McHugh strengthens local teens | By JV Hampton-VanSant, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Bear McHugh of Berkshire Area Health Education Center supports local teens.

Bear McHugh of Berkshire Area Health Education Center supports local teens. (Eagle file)

With rolling hills and close-knit community, Berkshire County is known as nurturing — for artists and musicians, and for relationships that last for years.

Bear McHugh, project coordinator for Berkshire Area Health Education Center (Berkshire AHEC), grew up in Great Barrington and still regularly speaks to people he knew as a student at Monument Mountain Regional High School, and some of them now work at the high school. These time-tested friendships have withstood almost anything, even being known by a different name after graduation. McHugh has always been himself, but during high school he was known by a different name.

McHugh is a transgender man. A transman, also called female-to-male transgender (FTM), is a person who was assigned the sex “female” at birth, but who later in life, typically after deep soul searching and self-reflection, identifies as male. This is not an uncommon realization now, he said, but that doesn’t make it easy. Most often, trans* people are met with ignorance on the subject.

McHugh began to question his gender identity as a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. He remembers that as a difficult time, coming after his Roman Catholic upbringing. He also remembers the love and support of his parents, who sought out the correct information to help him. He thinks the transition would have been smooth if it had happened in high school.


“I really think that, if I were still at Monument when all of this was going down, my friends would have still loved me and accepted me,” he said.

Familial understanding, or at least willingness to adapt, can be the most influential factor in the life of any youth. While a person’s gender identity is deeply personal, some chose to share their experiences in the hopes that they will benefit others, he said.

Many people facing this transformation have a difficult time. According to national statistics, McHugh said, 30 percent of LGBTQ youth will have reported a suicide attempt in the past year. Fifty percent of transgender youth will have attempted suicide before the age of 20.

One of the common contributors to depression and suicide is a feeling of being alone and being misunderstood, McHugh said. Mix loneliness with a lack of information about an important section of identity, and those high numbers are understandable.

People who do not encounter outright discrimination often encounter microaggressions, he said. Microaggressions are the little things people say, usually without malice, that alienate groups of people or belittle a group’s experience. That alienation is extremely dangerous to the health and safety of youth, he said. That is why sharing his story is so important: The more he shares the information, the more likely he is to save a life.

“You never know exactly how the information will impact someone,” he said.

Now, McHugh tells stories and gives information that saves lives by running the Youth Suicide Prevention Project. The project hopes to build resiliency among all youth, not just LGBTQ youth, he said. Resiliency means giving youth the ability to bounce back from depression, bullying and other causes of suicide. For those not at risk, it also can give insight and the tools to see when someone is showing signs of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Spreading this information can also be crucial to developing acceptance, he said: “A little bit of education can go a long way.”

He came to this work gradually. After college, he worked as a landlord in Albany for a while, he said. He was working at Berkshire AHEC when the high local suicide rate prompted action. In 2004, Berkshire County had the highest rate of youth suicide in the state. Berkshire AHEC created the Youth Suicide Prevention Project and put McHugh in charge. In 2011, Berkshire County had no youth suicides, which indicated strong progress.

“I didn’t go out looking for the work. It sort of just found me,” he said, and he has become passionate about his work.

McHugh lives in New Lebanon, N.Y., but spends most of his time in Berkshire County. Living up to the “Class Clown” superlative he earned in high school, he has a smile on his face most days. Despite the heavy topics he deals with day to day, he rarely gets discouraged. The Berkshires have a long way to go, but he can see a future that looks brighter.

On The Bridge

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages. To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge


Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo go together like a horse and carriage | By Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe

Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo reflect on their active lives together.

Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo reflect on their active lives together. (Courtesy of JV VanSant)

LEE — The obituary for a man who died in 1982 at the age of at 92 is yellowed and cut slightly unevenly out of a newspaper. It tells of the life of an early Italian immigrant, Ralph J. Rotondo Sr., who came to the U.S in 1908, when he was about 19. He worked on railroad construction in Geneva, N.Y., for a few years, sending money back to his family in Italy, choosing to live leanly.

On a visit to his mother in Italy he was drafted into the Italian army and served in North Africa for a couple years before returning to settle in Lee.

His son, Ralph Rotondo Jr., said his father never returned to Italy again. He had a disagreement with his only sister when she visited Lee, and he cut ties with his family overseas.

Rotondo Sr. worked at Lee Marble, making steam to run the cranes. He then worked at Eagle Mill as a fireman, firing the steam room to power the mill. He studied for his engineer’s license to become a steam engineer and worked at a tannery, where he was promoted to fireman and stayed until the place went out of business.

Rotondo Jr. speaks fondly of his father, who instilled his work ethic by making sure he got a job the minute school let out each summer. Rotondo Jr. said he loved horses and was delighted to find work as a farm hand, where he learned to ride and drive carts.

He worked at the paper mill in Lee as a day-time job for 37 years, but his love of horses led him to purchase horses for his five daughters.


He was unhappy with the local farrier, the man who forged horse shoes and shod horses in the neighborhood, and he learned how to shoe horses himself. When others noticed he was doing this, they asked him to do their horses.A professional farrier, Clarence Martin of Sheffield, who learned to shoe horses during the war, saw his handiwork and asked him to be his apprentice. Rotondo Jr. smiled as he told how, at the end of his one-year apprenticeship, the farrier split the payment for a job with him, telling him he was good enough to go out on his own.

What had started as his attempt to do a better job grew into a business, and Rotondo Jr. traveled throughout New England to shoe race horses and even the Budweiser Clydsdales. He said the harnesses for Budweiser horses were made in the gray building next to the present-day Briarcliff Motel.

Rotondo Jr. kept shoeing until he was about 79. Then he trimmed shoes until he retired at 81. He and his wife still keep a pony on their farm in Lee.

His wife, Jeanette, whose mother immigrated from Quebec, also grew up loving horses. The couple met at Jeanette’s uncle’s house, according to their daughter, Donna. Ralph had come for a meeting — he rode with Jeanette’s uncle in the Powder River Riding Club in 1953.

Jeanette taught people how to ride and care for horses and then build trust in them. She enjoyed working with young people, she said, especially those with special needs. She still teaches her great grandchildren, though the Rotondos no longer give lessons or carriage rides.

Their eyes lit up as they took turns talking about their carriage business. Besides shoeing, showing and grooming horses, they discovered the tradition of carriage parades. Jeanette believed the tradition began in the early 1900s, when rich wives paraded up and down Main Street, all dressed up and riding in horse-drawn carriages.

The Rotondos got involved in showing horses and carriages in various town fairs and festivals, like the Colonial Carriage and Driving, Tub Parade and Norman Rockwell Christmas. The spoke with excitement about their favorite and most expensive carriage, white with a maroon velvet interior, which they bought for $4,000.

“It was always amazing to see [my dad] and his horses pulling diffeent apparatuses in parades and events,” Donna said. “He took my son to the prom in his white carriage, and he was the last one to get a ride in that.”

They provided horses and carriages for the weddings of four of their five children and a grandchild. They turned the carriages into a side business and did local weddings. Rotondo Jr. boasts Town & Country magazine once did a photo spread of their carriages.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Jeanette said, quoting Winston Churchill.

They’ve used that motto as a guiding principle in all their years of working with horses, she said.

Donna Rotondo is the executive assistant at Multicultural Bridge.

On the bridge: This column is a collaboration between this magazine and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds. berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge