- Alisa Costa and Linda Morris Kelley, Working Cities Pittsfield
We have an abundance of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, arts and culture, affordable living, and some very talented people in the Berkshires. Especially during the summer months our rich variety of attractions brings visitors from far flung locations to our shops, restaurants, and hotels and has done so for generations. With all its wonderful attributes, you’d think the Berkshires would be thriving. Yet like most other old post-industrial and family farm regions in the country with once prosperous pasts, the towns and cities in Berkshire county fell behind. We are now challenged to create a smart, thriving future. The opportunity embedded in this challenge is to learn what makes our region’s rural communities and urban hubs work. Pittsfield has embraced this challenge. Berkshire Bridges - Working Cities Pittsfield, a cross-sector coalition of civil society, business, government, and citizens is working to create a city and county that works for everyone.
Alisa Costa and Linda Morris Kelley
As Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” In that same article, Jobs went on to say that many people have insufficient diversity in their lives. “They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The better one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.” (Wired, February, 1996) That’s one of the things we do best at Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Pittsfield, connect things, people, experiences, dots, and more, so that working together, project by project, initiative by initiative we are busy creating a city that works in a county that works.
One way we are doing this is through Working Cities Wednesdays. Many businesses participate in a day of service programs. These are valuable opportunities for companies to build comraderie and give back to the community by working on specific projects. Working Cities Wednesdays are something different. Leaving people’s titles and associations at the door, these monthly open and inclusive community gatherings give people an opportunity to propose an initiative that’s important to them and connect with other people who are also motivated to work on that issue. It’s a lively and fun way to actually get things done, and in the process have the potential of making our little corner of the world better. This is the kind of conceptual, creative thinking to solve real problems and open real opportunities that Dan Pink, author of Drive (2009), has found to be the most motivating and rewarding for people.
Because Berkshire County’s population isn’t very large – just over 130,000, relatively small, manageable initiatives can increase people’s ability to participate in the county’s economy, ones that can create and fill jobs and so lower unemployment. Our lives and the well-being of our communities are deeply intertwined. If we can help Pittsfield thrive, where a third of the county’s population resides, we can have a huge impact on the entire region. So, what makes a city like Pittsfield work and its residents and businesses thrive?
Economic development experts have been working to learn the magic combination for decades. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (the Fed) looked into just this by studying cities similar to Pittsfield that have bounced back from the loss of major manufacturing and economic downturns. They learned that “the critical factor was not a city's industry mix, demographic composition, or geographic position. Instead, resurgence resulted from the ability of leaders in those cities to collaborate across sectors around a long-term vision for their success.”
With this knowledge in hand, the Fed then challenged Gateway Cities (those old post-industrial cities) across the Commonwealth to collaborate and change the way they work together in order to turn around their economies. The City of Pittsfield and its residents answered this challenge. We started by listening to residents share what their hopes are for their community and what gets in the way of those hopes. We held fourteen facilitated community conversations around the city that created a real space for us to learn a great deal about how the city is working and not working for residents.
Some things we learned did not surprise us, like how lack of reliable public transportation keeps under resourced residents from getting to work opportunities and isolates them from the rest of our community. Residents also shared a disturbing trend about how they do not feel welcome in many spaces and in many cases, they feel disrespected. They shared stories about feeling “less than human” when seeking services at local agencies and government offices. They said they were tired of being promised change by initiative after initiative and not seeing anything happen.
Who was listening? More than a two dozen leaders of area nonprofits, businesses, civic institutions, and city government decided they would not stand by and allow a story of division and resignation to be the story of Pittsfield. We knew things needed to change at the core; real systems change that could bridge connections between under resourced residents, jobs, and the institutions that are supposed to serve them. The change we seek puts residents, all of us and those we serve in these spaces, at the decision-making table. Thus, Working Cities Pittsfield was created for this purpose.
Together, leaders and residents describe a future Pittsfield that is just, thriving, and safe. We aim to create more welcoming spaces for people of all backgrounds, including diverse incomes and ethnicities. In the next ten years, we envision a city with increasing median income levels in our poorest neighborhoods by ten percent and increasing full time employment by five percent. But how do we get there?
Working Cities Pittsfield adopted a community change model called Bridges out of Poverty, a national program supported by anti-poverty experts, by which we will bridge the divides and foster understanding between workers and employers, and between residents and government and human services. In a community where the haves and have nots appear particularly distant from each other we will need to learn how to work together better.
Working Cities Pittsfield now sits at many tables in order to bring the voices of people with lived experience to decision makers in economic development. We’ve learned a lot about the Berkshires’ job match conundrum. Employers who say they cannot find good, reliable workers and workers who report not being able to find good paying, consistent jobs where they are treated with dignity and respect. In addition, competitive demands and technological advances have made it so that workers need more training and education than ever in order to earn a living wage. One of the stumbling blocks here is that the traditional model of work and employment people have used as a guideline requires workers to adapt to fit the professed needs employers but seldomly inviting significantly related input from the experiences of potential employees. With the current low unemployment rate, employers are finding it difficult to hire reliable workers and people who want to work yet have been left out of the job market. As a result, businesses come up short and potential employees are unable to find work. It’s time to ask if these businesses might be overlooking people who are rich in life skills, competent in managing with less and in creative problem-solving, but may not fit the standards for new employees that they have used in the past.
Our models of work and support services most often have been designed and run by people who typically do not really relate to the lives of employees or would-be employees who live in chronically under resourced situations. When you don’t have enough resources to meet your daily or monthly needs, with a little left over to save for emergencies, it is destabilizing. An inconvenience for someone with sufficient resources, such as a child getting sick or a car breaking down can wreak havoc on someone who is just getting by. Missing a day of work could mean having to do a lot of juggling to be able to pay a bill or meet other basic needs. Missing a day of work has an impact on the business as well. Multiple occurrences take a toll on productivity. Turnover and training can become extremely costly. The Bridges Out of Poverty program provides businesses and their employees with a foundation for understanding important differences and a common language for creative resolutions. Building a basic appreciation of needs from both sides can help put in place systems that stabilize workers, decrease turnover, and increase productivity significantly. Once again, creative collaboration yields improved results. Step by step, initiative by initiative, Berkshire Bridges – Working Cities Pittsfield is working to connect people with people, people with information, and people with resources in ways that make this city and this county all around better.
If you love the Berkshires and Pittsfield like we do, we invite you to join us and help to develop its real potential as a just, safe, thriving place to live and work. You can start by coming to a Working Cities Wednesday, pitch a project you want to see happen here, meet engaged and engaging people who like you want to make a difference by solving problems, creating opportunities, and connecting the dots between needs and resources.