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Northern Berkshire Community Coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw, left, listens to one of the small groups discussing inclusive development at the coalition forum on Tuesday.

Northern Berkshire Coalition Forum Envisions 'Inclusive Development'

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Kerri Nicoll, associate professor of social work at MCLA, introduces the 'inclusive development' topic at the NBCC meeting on Tuesday.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In its third forum on the topic of gentrification, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition flipped the script.

Instead of focusing on what people fear when thinking about the challenges of new community investment, participants in the October forum were asked to instead think about what aspects of "inclusive development" they would like to see.

"It was not a good place to get stuck in our fear," said Kerri Nicoll, associate professor of social work in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who led Tuesday's forum as well as the previous two forums on the topic. "Our goal is to come up with some concrete ideas of what an inclusive community would look like."

To that end, participants were split into small groups to discuss three different areas. Two groups focused on "physical inclusion," which included the topic of affordable housing. Two groups focused on "economic inclusion," which included the topic of resources needed so everyone could "participate fully" in the community in terms of training and jobs. The last two groups focused on "social inclusion," which Nicoll said was the "most abstract" but which should include discussion of how to make sure people felt like they "belong" in the community.

After half an hour of discussion in these small groups, moderators reported back their top talking points.

The "physical inclusion" groups spoke about making sure there was housing that was affordable and diverse with access to stores, has sidewalks, etc., things "we often take for granted," moderator Paula Consolini from Williams College said. Diversity should also be more deliberate in new developments, to facilitate "building relationships" across different cultures and communities, which Consolini called "the antidote to bias." New development should also have transportation solutions built in, like bike paths, and should address housing needs the spectrum -- from emergency shelters to apartments.

The "economic inclusion" groups talked about the need for paid trainings, not just for available jobs but also for life skills, like balancing a checkbook. One of the groups talked about the possibility of funding short-term leases for storefronts along Main Street in North Adams, for example, so there could be "rotating storefronts" of startup businesses, as well as developing and supporting a co-op mentality among local business owners. The other group talked about transportation barriers to resources like farmers markets and free food as well as spreading the word about resources available for job-seekers, ending with another plug for affordable housing downtown for people who work downtown.

The "social inclusion" groups suggested a "welcome wagon"-type concept in which people would serve as "ambassadors" to the region "to greet friends both old and new," said facilitator Benjamin Lamb, a North Adams city councilor and director of economic development at 1Berkshire.

The group also emphasized the importance on getting "all voices to the table" when issues are being discussed, and that might mean offering transportation and child care, for example. They also suggested hosting community events around the issue of diversity to "combat fear," Lamb said, offering "opportunities for people to want to learn more."

The other group also emphasized the need for diversity to be an "intentional" goal, said Nicoll, who facilitated this last group.

"Social inclusion doesn't just happen because we hang up a sign and say 'everyone welcome,' " she said.

Her group also suggested the creation of physical gathering spaces that are not religiously affiliated so "people can just go hang out in all seasons" and suggested using people like the coalition's community outreach workers to spread news to the greater community.

After the six groups reported back, the floor was opened to suggestions from the 50 people in attendance at The Green. Jess Sweeney spoke about Common Folk, the artist collaborative that already serves as a co-op space geared toward artists, and how it could be a model to a larger co-op idea.

"Almost all of our members are low income and are making income by making their art," she said.

Glenda Matos-Carter, the Northern Berkshire Neighbors program coordinator, took the opportunity to plug the upcoming training session for community outreach workers; she can be reached by email for more information.

And the forum welcomed a first-time attendee, who said he was "very impressed" with how the forum was structured, leading coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw to repeat her new mantra about how important it is to have as many voices as possible discussing these important community issues.

"All 56 of us can bring someone with us who otherwise would not come," she said. "This is a space where we want it to be welcoming and diverse."

Besaw said the issue of "inclusive redevelopment" now will be handed of to a planning group to explore implementation of some of the ideas, led by Nicholl, who has been doing research on the topic of mitigating the negative consequences of gentrification.

"That will be happening," she said, before plugging the next forum for Friday, Nov. 8, from 10 a.m. to noon at The Green with the topic of the use and misuse of alcohol and vaping in the community. Her final words, of course: "Bring someone."

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