PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire NAACP held its annual Freedom Fund award ceremony virtually this past weekend, recognizing three individuals for their commitment to community and justice.
The event raises funds to provide stipends to local Black, immigrant and other students of color who pursuing higher education.
"Since 1980, the total cost of four-year public and four-year private college has nearly tripled. Federal support has not kept up. Pell Grants once covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year public college degree for students from working families but now only cover a third," board member Shirley Edgerton said.
"That has left many students from low and middle-income families with no choice but to borrow if they want to get a degree. The NAACP is committed to addressing the burdens of loans acquired while pursuing an education to be self-sufficient and a contributing citizen and, for some, a change agent."
Local activist Kelan O'Brien was honored with the Jahaira DeAlto Legacy Award for community service, named after the former Pittsfield resident and transgender activist who was murdered in 2021.
O'Brien is the former chair of Berkshire Pride, where he and DeAlto built a friendship, and has been involved with various other community groups. He is now focusing on obtaining a master's degree.
"Sometimes as I am working on papers or assignments and I'm thinking about whether or not I'm on the right path, I remember that Jahaira was always dedicated to learning and was working towards her own degrees," he said.
"There is power in education and I think it's very fitting to have her name a part of tonight's ceremony which is uplifting our local Black and African American youth and raising funds to support their higher education journeys."
O'Brien recognized that Jasmine "Star" Mack was killed in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. She's the first recorded death of a transgender person from violence in 2023. He asked for a moment of silence for Star, DeAlto, and all of the other lives that have been lost.
Rhonda Anderson, Western Massachusetts commissioner on Indian Affairs, was presented the Indigenous Peoples Award by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, who was the first recipient of the award last year.
Anderson is an Alaskan native and the founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center in Ashfield alongside Mann.
"The inclusion of indigenous peoples by the NAACP Free Fund is a culmination of nearly 70 years of unity and recognition in the efforts against racism and the fight for freedom from colonization," she said.
"Indigenous peoples have long struggled and are still working for civil rights and basic humanity in the United States and Canada. This unity is important because we cannot do the vital work of social and racial justice without the work of undoing settler colonialism and the resulting systems of oppression, marginalization, and invisibility."
She pointed out that the award was named after Dorothy "Aunt Dot" Davids, who broke barriers in education as an author of curricula and history who worked at the National Congress of America Indians, and recognized several other indigenous leaders who paved the way for her work.
Fred Miller, CEO of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group in Troy, N.Y., was honored with the W.E.B Du Bois Freedom Award.
His business is the oldest inclusion and diversity firm in the country, having worked with multiple Fortune 500 companies, large non-profits, and government agencies throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Miller was the first person of color and the first African American to join the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., beginning as a management trainee and working his way up to an officer of the company.
He also has emeritus status at One World Everybody Eats, the Sage Colleges, and the National Training Labs.
The consulting group has been around since 1970 and Miller has been involved since 1972. He calls himself a "dinosaur that can still dance."
"Mainly we're in the corporate sector because I feel there's a lot of power in the corporate sector and there's a real need to change that sector," Miller said.
"And I've dedicated my life to making that sector more humane, a place where people can be human and bring themselves to the organization and that everybody can be a part of the organization and the success of that organization."
He reflected on his time at Connecticut General in the late 1960s when Black men were shining the shoes of executives.
This made Miller wonder how he was seen, as the only other Black people at the company were in the cafeteria and shining shoes.
"That's some of what we had to deal with as we tried to change organizations," he said.
"So I'm trying to make an organization, again, where people can be human or people can bring their humanness to the organization and bring all the dimension of who they are to the organization and not have to hide part of themselves or leave part of themselves in a parking lot or whatever way they took to get to work."
Miller spoke at length about the journey of life and how it has many doors that can mean different things depending on your perspective. For example, some doors can be imprisoning and some can open to new opportunities.
He gave audience members tips on how to make positive changes in themselves and their community which included pushing back when their values are diminished or threatened, representing others who do not have the same opportunities, and never feeling that it is too late to be a good person.
He said love, kindness, hope, and forgiveness go a long way.
"In this world with so many challenges coming in so many ways, we need to be our best at every moment of time," Miller said.
"Take advantage of the door or use take advantage of breathing air and being around. Take advantage of being in a community, take advantage of being with somebody else and assisting them."
Former Freedom Fund recipients Keya Robertson, Fleur Sereko, Sadiya Quetti-Goodson, and Ornella Bamba spoke of how the funds aided them and the program's importance.
"I think that it is very important to help young people of color in their educational journey because as a black woman, I am really very aware that black people have a lack of representation in the schools and the educational system really just anywhere," Sereko said.
Bamba said not having the proper financial support going into college plays a major role in a student's experience because it can cause them to have stress that affects their academic performance.
"They then go to financial aid to try to plead with financial as to why they should be given more money, as to why they should be given help or more scholarships just to be told 'no,'" she added. "That's a problem that has to change."
President Dennis Powell closed the ceremony by urging viewers to be present in their communities and in their nation.
"All of our rights are under attack right now. The right to vote and have our vote counted, the right to fair elections, the right to protest, the right of women to control their bodies, the right to quality and equitable education, and the right for our children to learn about critical race history," he said.
"The right to love and marry whom we choose, the right to be different, and the right to be Black without being seen as a threat, invisible, or less than. We the people have to take back these rights."
Powell said voting, running for office, attending city or town meetings, and keeping elected officials are all actions that can be taken.
"In short, don't just live in a community. Get involved in your community," he said.
"Not doing so is not an option. Prosperity means future generations. Our children and grandchildren will deal with our lack of physical and personal responsibility for many years to come."
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Construction Grant Changes No Longer Align with Berkshire Atheneum's Goals
By Sabrina DammsiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass — The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has adjusted this round of its construction grant program, no longer aligning with the Berkshire Athenaeum's goals.
This grant round is really no longer a renovation program, library Director Alex Reczkowski said during a trustees meeting last week.
Interested applicants need at least two locations that they would be interested in pursuing as possible libraries or locations, not just the current library, he said. Acceptance of the award is once every 30 years.
Although the library has some physical upgrades to the building in its strategic plan, it does not have enough data for a bigger project than that, Reczkowski said.