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Berkshire Groups Use Women's March Anniversary to Talk Next Steps
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
04:37PM / Sunday, January 21, 2018
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local civic and advocacy groups are looking at how to build on the progressive movement launched by the massive Women's Marches last year. 
 
The fight to raise people up from poverty, provide economic equity, health care and education, and ensure safe and welcoming communities, has to start at the grassroots level and include the voices of those most affected. That was the takeaway from Saturday's forum sponsored by Indivisible Pittsfield. 
 
"We need to have everyone at the table," Shirley Edgerton of the Four Freedoms Coalition said. "Everyone needs to be making decisions about their own lives."
 
As millions once again took to the streets for marches in some of the nation's — and world's — cities, Indivisible Pittsfield, part of a statewide movement born in reaction to the 2016 election, hosted a resource fair and panel attended by several hundred people at the Colonial Theatre. There were also some short performances on the stage prior to the panel.
 
Moderated by Drew Herzig of Indivisible, the panel was comprised of Edgerton, Geraldine Shen and Ali Benjamin of Williamstown's Greylock Together; James Mahon of Williamstown, a founder of the Democratic organizing group Berkshire Brigades; Russell Freedman of Lanesborough, representing the Progressive Democrats of American; Michael Wise of the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee; Ciara Berkeley of Berkshire Immigrant Stories; Ralph Howe of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations; Rabeh Elleithy of the United American Muslim Association of the Berkshires; Jeff Lowenstein from Berkshire Interfaith Organizing; Pittsfield City Councilor Helen Moon and Pittsfield School Committee member Dennis Powell, also president of the local NAACP chapter; Kristen van Ginhoven of WAM Theater; and state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
 
In a round of questions of how local residents and groups can make change happen, Shen said her group, Greylock Together, has been figuring out what it can do on a smaller scale. Some of that has been advocacy in writing postcards and making calls, but also building coalitions. 
 
"There's so many fires to put out," she said, adding that activists need to focus on what they can do. Benjamin said it was a matter of not getting discouraged or tired, and needing to speak with the people who are not in the run -- especially those who are not in what are considered progressive areas. 
 
Mahon said it was up to the press to hold elected officials to account for their words and actions and for people to come together to take action on what it means to be a community. Using the example of Habitat for Humanity to address a host of issues, he said, "we need to look at what needs to be done in the community ... Making our cities and our countrysides accessible and livable. That's where we all can come from."
 
While he said Democrats have to go beyond "vague terms" like "stronger together" or "I'm with her," one woman objected that the expression of solidarity with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had meaning for many people, including herself. 
 
"It had me thinking about all of the women who are so important in our lives. It mattered to me," she said. "Stop blaming the Democrats for poor messaging because it was about women."
 
Despite that one criticism, the audience and panelists seemed to agree that action, not just messages, that would make the difference. 
 
Mark said spoke of some of the efforts in the State House, such as the so-called Fair Share Amendment, which need pubic support. Berkeley said it was important to listen to people's stories, and Elleithy that acting locally didn't mean waiting for things to happen but making things happen, even if it was shoveling a neighbor's driveway. Lowenstein said they needed to be a community that values relationships and Howe described it as giving poeople hope: "We need to stop punishing people and invest in their lives."
 
Herzig said they'd already made a start by bringing elements of North and South County together for this event. 
 
Freedman said the 50 richest people in Massachusetts have a combined worth of $133 billion while more than 8,000 Pittsfield residents are on SNAP, and a children born in poverty have little chance of bettering themselves
 
At the same time, he'd been to Washington to see hallways filled with men in $1,000 suits influencing legislation.
 
"We need to fill these halls with sovereign citizens," Freedman said.
 
In response to a comment that there were faces missing among the attendees, Moon said it was necessary to go to those groups, not expect them to simply show up. She referenced her own actions during her successful campaign in Ward 1 in knocking on every door and listening to residents no matter who they voted for or what their background.
 
"We need to cross that line instead of expecting them to come to us," she said. "We need to have different leadership in local elections ... we ned to build that pipeline with poeple who want to see real change happen." 
 
Powell, however, said there was a real absence of those in position to further community building and that, too often, it's the same people. 
 
"Where are the lawmakers, where is law enforcement, where are the people responsible for creating so much of what we're exposed to?" he said. "We need action, not talk. We continue to sit around and talk, I'm tired of talking."
 
The event was recorded for later broadcast on Pittsfield Community Television.
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