Shirley Edgerton was presented Berkshire United Way's Daniel C. Dillon Helping Hands, Caring Hearts Award earlier this year for her community work.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Shirley Edgerton has been working diligently throughout her career to inspire and support individuals to be their best selves.
Her work led to the founding of Rites of Passage and Empowerment, which recently earned its 501(c)3 status further legitimizing its efforts. It is also the recipient of $550,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds through the city of Pittsfield.
"Even though we know the work we've been doing, that the community has embraced it over the 11 years that we have existed, it puts us in a situation where we can apply for certain grants independently," Edgerton said.
"And, it also provides an opportunity for our donors to be able to write this off as a tax benefit."
ROPE has helped 50 to 75 young women ages 12 to 18 who have gone through the program since its being founded in 2010.
The umbrella organization for ROPE, the Women of Color Giving Circle, has been receiving financial support from the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts for more than 25 years.
"So now, with us independently having a 501(c)3, we are truly free and independent. And so we can pursue the funding to build the program to continue to move it to a different level and to benefit the young women that we serve," Edgerton said.
ROPE provides mentorships and emotional support to adolescent girls of color and young people identifying as female or non-binary so that they can see develop their voice and inner selves through learning from professional women of color.
The organization operated thanks to volunteers over the past decade but now has more financial flexibility to grow and provide mentors with a stipend for their time. This funding will also increase its capacity to expand programming, including access college tours, travel opportunities, scholar stipends, and advancement of skills and professional development.
"Everyone are volunteers for this organization but with the ARPA funds, now we're going to like, actually give folks a regular stipend, because these women have, most of them, have been here from the first or the second year," Edgerton said.
"So you're talking seven to eight years of volunteering so we want to be able to create more structure, give them stipends, let them know we appreciate their time."
Who the mentors are influences the impact of the organization's work significantly because it gives these adolescents a chance to see women who look like them in power positions.
"Different institutions and systems, there's a lack of people of color. And one of the things we learned is that, it's research, you need representation as young people to understand the possibilities in life," Edgerton said.
"So, if you don't see yourself there, there's a question of whether you can achieve that. That's why we're very specific in terms of who our mentors are."
The mentors are professional women of color who have found their purpose in life and possess academic degrees of bachelor or higher.
Since receiving the Community Awards grant from the city, ROPE has been able to expand its efforts.
"I would say at least 80 to 90 percent [of mentors] have been African Americans, and the others have been Latinx," Edgerton said. "Right now I'm in the process of having some interviews because, with ARPA funds, we'll be able to increase our capacity."
ROPE hopes to help these adolescents understand who they are by providing the opportunity to understand the history they come from through its bi-annual trips to Africa. The history of slavery is well known but the rich history of before slavery is not, Edgerton said.
She said learning about the history of Africa, from the riches to the kings and queens, is important in terms of building self-esteem and self-worth.
"We make it part of our young people's journey, to help them understand their ancestry, to understand their history, to understand what they're building on, to understand that our history started prior to slavery," she said.
"We often hear about slavery, slavery, slavery is our beginnings. No, it's a rich history that took place in Africa. And that before is important, and just as important, as understanding about slavery, and civil rights, and all of it."
These trips also help develop these adolescents' perception of their identity by exposing them to cultures different from the one they were raised in.
"The other thing that happens, and we've realized is that it's also a piece where you very much understand that you're an American because there's the cultures that exist in different parts of Ghana and there are certain behaviors and belief systems that we have as Americans. And trust me, when you go to a different country, you recognize how much of an American you are," Edgerton said.
"So that's another piece for you to reinforce about who you are and the reality is, we're Americans, this is where we were raised, this is the place of the values and the belief systems that we've incorporated along with the individual family and friends. Those two different pieces like that, but there's also that piece about what is it to be an American, and that's reinforced."
ROPE furthers this by bringing guests from various backgrounds to speak with the teens. Most recently the mentors facilitated a conversation with writer, speaker and entrepreneur Amber Chand, who is going to lead a series of conversations around vision.
Chand's family lost everything when Uganda's brutal President Idi Amin forced all East Indians to leave the African country. The Berkshires resident founded online fair-trade markets to provide opportunities for women artisans in countries like Afghanistan, Rwanda and Haiti.
In addition to the weekly mentoring, and monthly workshops, are the tours of historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs.
"It is often an excellent experience for our young women again, because they don't get to see themselves growing up a lot in the Berkshires. And there's some unwritten rules in HBCUs: you learn your history, you learn to appreciate who you are, and you learn to embrace the fact that you have purpose and that you need to give back to your community," Edgerton said.
Edgerton discovered that there is a need for a program that is specific for adolescents of color through her experience with the Youth Alive arts program.
While working for the Youth Alive, Edgerton noticed that the girls' confidence were lower than the boys and rather than focus and build on themselves they would further add to the boys' values by commending them for their talents rather than their own
"I just kept noticing that, that the girls just didn't seem to feel as good about themselves as the boys. So I talked to some friends. And I was like, 'we have to do something for our girls' because they need to know their own worth. They need to know they're just as valuable as a boy, and that anything we share is just as important and just as valuable,'" Edgerton said.
ROPE continues to shift and change based on the needs of its mentees, who build a relationship with the program, providing them with a lifelong support system and the means to give back.
Through Youth Alive and ROPE, Edgerton has helped hundreds of adolescents discover themselves and their purpose in life.
It is clear that Edgerton's desire to help others runs deep in her veins through the powerful success stories that she shared (such as Nyanna Slaughter who's now U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's regional director and Anita Akor, assistant manager of Pittsfield Airport) and the impact she had on her own children, who all help with ROPE or run their own organizations.
The decision to make the organization exclusively for young women of color was not to exclude boys but to provide a specific marginalized group with the means to develop their perception of themselves through role models.
However, her son, Jerome Edgerton, started Sessions, focusing on life skills and training for boys 13 to 18. It uses athletics as an "avenue to communicate with young men and to engage them in terms of learning life practices."
"My philosophy is that if someone like me who's very nurturing, gets involved with mentoring young men, that's just another form of a mother," Edgerton said,
"Young men don't need mothers at the age group that we are involved with. You need men to show you how to move through this world. You don't need another mother."