The Pittsfield community came together on Monday night to find ways to prevent youth violence after last week's shooting.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Root causes and proposed actions for curbing youth and gang-related violence were voiced Monday night at a community input session at Morningside Community School.
The large crowd of concerned residents came together in the days following a daytime shooting only blocks from the school.
Around 175 local residents gathered to hear from and offer suggestions to a panel of community leaders that included Mayor Daniel Bianchi, Police Chief Michael Wynn, School Superintendent Jason McCandless, the Rev. Warren Dews of Price Memorial AME Zion Church, Big Head Books publisher Eddie Taylor, and Karen Tracanna, district manager for the state's Youth Advocacy Division.
"The shooting last week kind of struck a nerve in the community," panel moderator Adam Hinds, coordinator of the city's Shannon Grant gang prevention program, who said the purpose of the meeting was to allow residents to offer their ideas and input on these issues, with an emphasis on identifying steps for future action.
"I have never seen a turnout like this," said Wynn, remarking along with other panelists on the high attendance of the meeting, which filled the gymnasium of the small elementary school.
"I think it reflects the concern in our community, and what kind of community we have," said Bianchi.
The turnout represented a broad cross section of the community, including many parents and teachers, along with local politicians, police and representatives from more than two dozen youth-related programs and agencies.
"This breaks my heart, that my grandson is laying in there," said Doloros Wright, grandmother of the 17-year-old shooting victim, who urged residents to speak up if they know there is a problem that could lead to such an incident. "I think we need more community efforts, more parents involved."
Other actions suggested ranged from calling in the FBI to increasing or finding funds to make existing and new youth programs available to those who cannot afford them to a city ordinance mandating volunteer time.
Youth disengagement and economic barriers to extracurricular programs were dual subjects that received much attention.
"Youth in Pittsfield are bored," said Charles Hannigan. "There's nothing for them to do."
"We need to not ignore the poor, and we are," said Ellen Mary D'Agnostino. "The funding has to be fair."
Hannigan said that while programs exist, many are not accessible to low-income families, and the need to obtain more or better share existing funds was a recurring theme in comments from participants.
The issue of diversity in who administers these programs was also a concern.
"The kids that are out there getting shot, and who are shooting, they look like me," said Sabrina Powell. "The people that are out there implementing these programs don't look like our kids."
With regards to accepting more police support, Wynn said the department already frequently runs joint operations with county, state and federal agencies including the FBI.
"Honestly, if we had more space, they would spend more time here," said Wynn, referring to the ongoing issue of Pittsfield's cramped police station facility.
"This is not a law enforcement issue. This is not a racial issue," Taylor added. "This is due to a lack of economic opportunity and social engagement, and fear, and if we're not willing to address that, then this is all a waste of time."
"We're limited somewhat on the local level for economic opportunity," acknowledged Bianchi, who said improving educational opportunities such as the new Taconic High School, is an important facet of changing that.
"You guys are ahead of the game compared to other communities I've seen," said Tracanna, who also applauded the turnout. "There are ways to combat this, and one of them is getting together as a community."
Hinds said part of the purpose of the meeting, which involved a lengthy sign-in procedure, was to generate ideas from residents as well as to follow up with their contact info and direct those interested into neighborhood watch groups and other local programs that can help.
"There are groups waiting for these ideas," said Hinds. "Now is the time to take the energy from everything you've heard tonight and go on and take action in your community."