WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Difficult conversations about race across racial lines are important.
But so are conversations that are not about race.
Pittsfield author and motivational speaker Ty Allan Jackson made that point last week during a virtual community conversation hosted by the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
"I think there has to continuously be consistency of having people of color coming in [to the schools] to talk -- and not just solely about diverse issues," Jackson said. "I think a big problem we have in a lot of our communities is that there isn't a lot of representation of people of color in the first place. I think we need to look around us and say: How many educators do we have that are of color? How many administrators do we have of color? How many police do we have of color?
"When you don't have the consistency of having a diverse population when someone diverse comes in, it becomes jarring. It becomes a big deal."
Conversations about racial justice have been a very big deal nationally and locally in the last couple of weeks.
At the national level, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while being restrained by police sparked angry protests from coast to coast. In the northwest corner of Berkshire County, a well-circulated post on Facebook from a local black family challenged the notion that reputedly progressive Williamstown is a "safe space" for people of color.
"We are scared for our physical safety," the June 3 post read, in part. "Yes, here in Williamstown."
During last week's webinar, Jackson echoed that sentiment.
"I think our objective here is realizing that, yes, we are in our small part of the world, but we're part of the world," he said. "We can't pretend that we're isolated just because our population looks a certain way. You're going to continuously have people of color coming into our community, and we're constantly going to have our white children going out of our community.
"I think our objective here is to build young, strong, open-minded citizens so that when they go out into the world they are reflecting our community in a way that we should be proud of. Let us not think that because our community is small and white that it's going to stay that way. It will not."
The conversation was hosted by the school district included representatives from the schools, the member towns, their police forces and community partners like Jackson and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts professors Kerry Nicoll, Nichole Porther and Chali Nondo.
Mount Greylock's event came on the heels of the virtual "Coffee with a Cop" hosted by the Williamstown Police Department two weeks ago and Black Lives Matter demonstration, and was followed by a half-hour conversation by the Williamstown Select Board about the issue of racial justice and how it impacts lives in the town of 7,700.
"I will say this, as Jane Patton, private citizen of Williamstown," the Select Board chair said at last Monday evening's meeting. "To the men, women and children of color, I see you in Williamstown and everywhere I go. To those who discriminate and choose to use racist language and exhibit racist behavior, I see you, and I will act immediately in whatever form or fashion necessary, to stop what's happening.
"To those who want to educate me and others, I see you. And I'm committing to listening and learning and becoming part of the solution. Unfortunately, racism has permeated every pore of our society, and anyone who thinks there is no racism in Williamstown has their head buried in the sand."
Nicholl wants to be part of that education.
"I love Williamstown," said Nicholl, a professor of social work at MCLA who has a child at Williamstown Elementary School. "I've been here for six years. We are very happy to be raising our child here. But I don't think it's possible to say in any city or town in the United States that racism is not a problem.
"I don't think it means we are a town full of intentionally racist people, but I do think we need to acknowledge that we live in a country, in a society that has racism deeply ingrained in our institutions and our history and that we, as a community, are a part of that."
Sometimes, that reality becomes painfully apparent.
"I can tell you as the parent of two black boys, it's triggering just to see police cars driving around, knowing what they have seen in the media and reports," said Porther, who teaches biology at MCLA and served as a moderator for Monday's conversation.
"Racism is a pandemic, just like we have recognized that coronavirus, which has been categorized as a pandemic," said Chali, a professor of business administration. "Racism is something that is systemic. It is in every area of society. We can think of schools. We can think of hospitals. We can think of police stations. In every corner of where we live, there is some form of racism.
"As a dad, as a black person and as a parent of two black kids, these are issues that we have confronted. In one way or another, we have encountered some form of racism."
Since the conversation was hosted by the schools, there was an emphasis on what steps the district's schools are taking to confront the pandemic of racism.
Porther asked specifically how the Lanesobrough and Williamstown public schools are addressing incidents of racist language when they arise on campus.
"We have a restorative-based practice rubric that we use to analyze the actions that happened," Lanesborough Elementary School Principal Nolan Pratt said. "We come up with a way to respond that creates a conversation that brings the students back together to create a stronger community, a learning environment about what was said, what it means, how it's interpreted, how it affects the students."
Proactively, Lanesborough and Williamstown have implemented the Second Step and Choose to Be Nice curriculums, but Pratt wants to go further, he said.
"The school psychologist and I have been looking at an anti-racist curriculum to put in for the next school year," he said.
Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald said education does not end when students matriculate up to the middle school.
"We have a variety of programming that we bring in that's external, but we also are trying to embed much of the teaching in courses," she said. "The English department has had a review of its texts and has incorporated and is looking to incorporate more texts by under-represented, specifically black, authors and address experiences by under-represented groups. And the library, in tandem, has done the same review of texts. If we take a look at the shift of the primary text list students are looking at now in 7 through 12 versus what was happening four or five years ago, we see a more diversified selection.
"Separately from that, there are history courses that specifically address inequity and often, in the design of the class, teachers are able to bring in current issues. Just this week, I've been talking to teachers about, ‘How are you addressing George Floyd's death, and how are you making connections back to your curriculum and how are you allowing students to explore and ask questions and look to find answers?' "
No one on the webinar claimed to have all the answers. But town and school officials remain committed to continuing the conversation.
The Williamstown Police Department has scheduled its second virtual Coffee with a Cop event for Wednesday, June 17, at 9 a.m. The school district is continuing to monitor the email@example.com email address it created to solicit questions for the event in hopes of gathering more questions for future forums. The first Collective Community Discussion is available to view on WilliNet and the community access television station's website, willinet.orghttp://willinet.org.
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