NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Usually when the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meets on the second Friday of the month, participants gather at First Baptist Church and either hear from guest speakers or talk among themselves about a specific topic.
Not this month.
On Friday, for the October monthly forum, participants were asked to get up and out of the church for a very different reason: to engage members of the community who might not be aware of the Coalition's work or its meetings and therefore don't typically have a voice.
The idea came from a comment made by state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi at the September forum, interim Executive Director Amber Besaw told the 40 or so people who attended Friday's forum. In those comments, Cariddi had said it was important to "reach the unreachable."
"Her words inspired us a staff," said Besaw, who said reaching out to the community is a top priority. "I think it's important we're getting out there and letting people know who we are.
"The coalition is not the 15 people who sit in the office on Main Street. The coalition is you."
In teams of two or three, Coalition staff and other participants roamed around downtown North Adams armed with clipboards and a curiosity about the thoughts of people on the streets, in the library and post office, in City Hall, and in banks and downtown shops.
Besaw and Amanda Chilson, the coalition's Mass in Motion coordinator, headed for the North Adams Public Library, talking with staff and patrons. The quick survey included asking people whether they knew about the monthly forums on the second Friday of the month, whether that was a good time for the forums, what they saw as the region's biggest strength and what they saw as the region's biggest problem or need.
Chilson was able to chat with Library Director Mindy Hackner for a few minutes, and Hackner shared her thoughts about what the greatest need for North Adams was.
"The empty storefronts really bother me," she said. "A vibrant presence in the downtown — that's what we need."
Indeed, jobs and the economy were common problems and/or needs voiced by forum participants as they met back at the church to report their findings. People also shared that they thought the region needed stronger resources and programs for youths, transportation and housing, and help in addressing the opioid epidemic.
On the flip side, people shared what they believe are the strengths of the region, including the myriad cultural events, the people themselves and the small-town feel, a low cost-of-living and crime rate, and the tourist industry.
Besaw told the forum participants that this data would be collected along with the needs assessment to form the topics for the remainder of the monthly meetings, as well as the possibility of forums on different days or times to accommodate people unable to make it on Friday mornings.
"This is huge for us," she said. "This is all going to be put to good use."
The exercise in itself was a good one, the participants told Besaw and the rest of the Coalition staff.
"Being able to walk around ... and sit down and talk to people face to face meant the world to me," Kathy Quinn, an employee of Berkshire Children and Families in Pittsfield, said.
"I think people appreciated it, having their opinions being asked," Paula Consolini, director of the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College, said.
Kirby Lecy, outreach and communications coordinator for the state's Office of Rural Health, said it was even more enlightening for her as someone who doesn't live in the Northern Berkshire community.
"For the most part, people were really willing to talk. They enjoyed being engaged," she said. "That's telling about your community."
Another state employee visiting the coalition meeting summed up her thoughts about what the coalition had just accomplished during this unusual forum experience. Susan Colwell, regional manager for community support for the state Department of Children and Families, said she works with a number of community coalitions around the state and was impressed with what she saw on Friday.
"No one has ever done anything quite like this, and I want to congratulate you," she said.
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