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Amber Besaw, interim executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, speaks at the Coalition's first forum on Friday, Sept. 9
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State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi speaks at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meeting on Sept. 9.
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Mark Rondeau, co-founder of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative and its Friendship Center Food Pantry, speaks.

Changes Mark Start of Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's 31st Year

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition has started its 31st year by dealing with a bunch of changes — but keeping its focus on the future nonetheless.

At its first monthly forum on Friday, coalition staff led the annual "needs assessment" discussion to gather ideas on what topics to tackle this year. Suggestions ranged from topics that have been continually discussed over the years like food insecurity, health care and transportation to newer concerns such as resources available to those in recovery from substance abuse to multicultural and multigenerational training and engagement to media literacy and communication strategies.

That's what the coalition does: Identify needs and bring together resources to address those needs. But this year is starting off with a little different look.

For one, after 29 years of being led by founder Al Bashevkin, the coalition's board of directors last year tapped Adam Hinds to lead the organization. After just a few months at the helm, Hinds took a leave of absence to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Benjamin Downing. His victory in the Sept. 8 Democratic primary leaves him the clear favorite over Republican candidate Christine Canning-Wilson to win the seat in a district that has not elected a Republican since Jane Swift in the 1990s.

Hinds' departure from the Coalition led the board to promote Amber Besaw as interim executive director. Besaw then oversaw a series of key staff departures over the past few months, including Jessica Sweeney and Adam Tobin from the coalition's UNITY youth programs and Annie Rodgers of the coalition's Northern Berkshire Neighbors.

Besaw, speaking from her office in August as she prepared to interview candidates for these openings, said that while the sheer amount of simultaneous turnover at the coalition was indeed challenging for someone leading in an "interim" capacity, each departure was unique.

"Independently, every person, it's understandable," she said. Hinds had a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to run for office. Tobin "has a dream," she said. Sweeney is leaving to lead the new teen center in the city, and Rodgers, after six years, is "ready for the next step in her own life."

So she understands why from outside the structure of the coalition might look a little messy, but she chooses to look at it from a positive perspective.

"Change happens around us, but we're trying not to let it affect what we do," she said. "I see it as an opportunity. Every new person who starts with us is an opportunity."

Besaw, who has been with the Coalition nearly five years, said the Coalition's strong board of directors has helped through the transition and aims to start working on a strategic plan for the future as soon as the leadership issue is settled by the election.

"We recognize there's a ways to go," she said. "We're as relevant, and even more so, than we've ever been."

Kris Maloney, president of the coalition's board of directors, said the board has "complete confidence" in Besaw's ability to lead the organization through these challenges.

"We are moving forward the same way we have in the past," she said. "The underlying goals of the coalition have not changed."

Speaking a couple weeks before the first forum last Friday, Mahoney said she is always energized by the monthly meetings and the way they bring stakeholders and change makers together to tackle tough topics.

"At the meetings, I learn something new every time we meet," she said. "It gets exciting for me."

And the goal of the annual "needs assessment" forum really reflects the goals of the organization as a whole: to hear what the community has to say.

"We're really good listeners," she said. "We listen to the needs of the community and do our best to respond to them."

That's why, even as they deal with all of this internal change, the coalition announced on Friday it was considering some external change to help them hear more of the community's voices: possibly moving some of the monthly forums to evening hours to accommodate those people who can't attend the morning sessions.

"There are those who are not able to be here. Is there another time they can be here?" Besaw asked the 70 people at the Sept. 9 forum. A survey will be emailed out to meeting participants to start the conversation about that, she said. "There's talk in the coalition about how to expand, particularly to reach those people from Williamstown, and Adams, all of Northern Berkshire."

At the end of the forum, the first in the coalition's 31st year as a community organization, two elected officials vocalized what appeared to be the main sentiment of those in attendance.

State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi said she always appreciates the "heartfelt outpouring" of caring and concern heard at coalition meetings and urged the attendees to utilize her as a resource, particularly by coming on the show she has on Northern Berkshire Community Television.

"Don't be bashful," she said. "I want to be a participant in that."

And North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright added that he can't stress enough the resources available to North County through organizations like the coalition.

"We have a lot of issues. But have a lot of assets," he said.

Besaw said a survey will be mailed to participants to denote which topics they think should be discussed in further details at upcoming meetings. The next coalition meeting is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 14.

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