hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2018


Strengthening a city in transition

Pittsfield project fosters new ties in ‘civic infrastructure’

Alisa Costa is the director of Working Cities Pittsfield, a grant-funded initiative that seeks to bring together local people from a wide range of backgrounds in helping the former industrial city to reinvent itself. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


When researchers for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston set out a few years ago to figure out why some faded industrial cities were able to reinvent themselves while others struggled, they found that success wasn’t just dependent on geography, demographics or the local economic mix.

Instead, the researchers concluded that the cities that were most successful at revitalization for a post-industrial age were those with “strong civic infrastructure” – local leaders and institutions capable of developing a vision for renewal and pursuing it across many economic sectors.
The next question was whether the Boston Fed, which aims to foster growth in New England’s low-income communities as part of its mission, could help to strengthen the civic infrastructure in the region’s many smaller cities that are grappling with the transition away from an industrial past.

In Pittsfield, which has had its share of struggles since General Electric Co. ended nearly all of its local operations in the 1980s, cutting 12,000 jobs, the Fed’s effort led to the creation of “Berkshire Bridges – A Working Cities Initiative,” a broad-based coalition of local government, nonprofit organizations, individuals and businesses.

The local project was established in 2016 with a $475,000, three-year grant from the Boston Fed and a network of other organizations, including local matching funds. The money was awarded through the Working Cities Challenge, a competitive grant program to support cross-sector, collaborative leadership and initiatives to improve the lives of people, especially low-income populations, in small cities in New England.

“As a community, we have to get together and work for common goals to reach where we want to be,” explained Alisa Costa, the initiative director for Working Cities Pittsfield. “The underlying goal of Working Cities is to foster and support a common dedication and buy-in to make Pittsfield thriving, just and safe.”

To achieve these broad goals, she said, the program pursues a multifaceted, community-based approach. The program sponsors some activities and provides certain services itself. Its larger mission, though, is to provide a framework to aid partnerships and projects carried out by other local organizations and residents.

“People and organizations in Pittsfield have many ideas, and this is a way to test them and see how they work,” Costa said.

“The point of the grant is to allow us to learn how to bring about positive system change,” she continued. “This basically provides an opportunity to do different things, collect data, and see what sticks. If something doesn’t get the desired outcomes, we don’t lose the grant money. It’s a different way of looking at things.”


Moving together
One emphasis is on direct input and participation of residents, especially people with limited resources who are served by nonprofit organizations and government aid programs. Another aspect involves building alliances with the region’s many arts, cultural and social-service organizations.

As an example of this approach, Working Cities and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival have partnered on a program called “Pittsfield Moves!” in which dance professionals undertook a yearlong residency in the city, helping local people to develop and rehearse an original performance piece.

Pittsfield Moves! has involved the local chapters of Manos Unidas, the NAACP and Angela’s Pulse, an interdisciplinary community-building program that creates and produces collaborative performance work based on local stories.

Over a six-month period, members of Angela’s Pulse visited the city and talked with residents about their lives and concerns. They also held workshops to create the performance, which was presented in July at Jacob’s Pillow in Beckett and at the Gather-In Festival in Durant Park in Pittsfield. (The long-running neighborhood festival is organized by the local NAACP.)
“Pittsfield Moves!” is continuing through the end of the year, with additional workshops and activities. The performance project has a unique aspect that reflects a larger approach of Working Cities: Jacob’s Pillow budgeted funds to pay local participants in the project for their time and input into the creative process.

In a larger sense, the local Working Cities program has created venues to foster communication and interaction among nonprofit groups, government agencies and the general population. These range from formal programs to social events and other activities.

“This is part of the Federal Reserve’s economic mission,” Costa explained. “Working Cities is a program to encourage economic development on the ground level within communities.”
The inaugural round of Working Cities Challenge grants was offered in 2013, with six cities selected. Pittsfield was one of five Massachusetts cities to be awarded a multi-year grant in 2016.

Habitat for Humanity is the local sponsoring organization for the initiative. Habitat administers the grant, but the Working Cities program is largely autonomous, with its own steering committee.
The project has a core network of supporters and participants that includes the city government and organizations such as Habitat, United Way, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Community College and others, as well as individuals.


Building bridges
By its nature, the Working Cities program’s activities are fluid, and participation is open-ended, Costa said. Many activities are projects of individual sponsors, with Working Cities helping build alliances and partnerships with other organizations in the community.

A centerpiece of the initiative is based on a model created by aha! Process, a company that helps employers, community organizations, social service agencies and individuals pursue a comprehensive approach to addressing poverty and related issues.

Based on this model, the local Working Cities program sponsors Bridges Out of Poverty, a training program that fosters improved communications and understanding between service providers, employers and local people who are struggling economically.

Costa explained that people and organizations tend to look at life and have expectations from the perspective of their own backgrounds and experiences. In addition to factors such as race and gender, this includes their economic background.

“This program is designed to increase cultural competency through an economic lens,” she said. “We’re all somewhat limited in our perceptions and expectations by our own geography, race and class. We can change and broaden those expectations when we interact with people who have different experiences and perspectives.”

The training sessions bring people together so they can discuss and understand these differences and come up with their own solutions based on mutual interests and requirements.
For example, Costa said, a business owner who has always been financially comfortable might not understand how different pressures drive the behavior of their employees.

“An employer may not know about the challenges faced by lower-income workers,” she said. “An employee may have problems with being late or absenteeism because they are coping with transportation problems or pressures of child care or health issues to an extent that people with middle-class incomes do not face.”

On the other side, employees may not be aware of the expectations and needs of their employers in terms of dress and behavior on the job.

Similarly, organizations that help people in need may have systems and approaches that inadvertently create barriers and problems for their customers or clients, Costa said. This may include paperwork, intake and other processes, or methods of service delivery that add to the difficulties of the people they serve.

“The lack of mutual understanding also happens on an institutional level,” she said. “A service organization may have been created with good intentions to help different populations. However, they may be set up and run by people through a middle-class lens that may not necessarily address the actual needs and situations of their clients.”

As an example, she said, community health care services may not account for the particular pressures and needs of people with low incomes and inadequate access to medical services.
“It’s one reason health clinics in low-income neighborhoods have long lines and full waiting rooms,” she said. “Their operations and design may be based on models for clinics oriented to middle class people with full coverage, who may only require a short visit with a doctor for routine care. Someone who cannot afford regular care, or whose health may also be affected by different factors, is likely to require longer visits.”

Costa emphasized that these training sessions are designed to foster greater communication so organizations can develop their own solutions.

“Every organization wants to do better,” she said. “They might use data, but they also need to talk to people they serve. We offer methods to encourage that interaction, which the organization incorporates into its own practices and policies.”


Targeting poverty
Another program called “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting-By World” is oriented toward self-help for people trying to overcome poverty and its related challenges.

“It’s for individuals who are struggling to get ahead but have difficulty figuring out why they’re not succeeding,” Costa said. “Poverty is very isolating. This provides a supportive environment and a framework for dialogue and guided research. It enables participants to clarify their situation and develop a specific plan. It helps people help themselves, without telling them specifically what to do.”

Costa added that members of the Getting Ahead group determine what topics they’ll discuss and pursue. Although many of the participants have low incomes, she said the program also addresses the needs of people who are financially self-sufficient but may be dealing with other barriers, such as mental illness. Active participants receive a $20 stipend for each session completed.

“We offer that because the participants are also providing us valuable insights and information,” Costa said. “People with low incomes are very resourceful and ingenious at problem solving.”
In a related program, Working Cities residents of targeted neighborhoods are trained as “community navigators.” Their role includes distributing fliers and information about activities and services available. They also survey neighborhoods to determine specific needs.
The community navigators also provide individual counseling and assistance to residents who need help finding services and resources or handling the paperwork or other processes involved in obtaining social services.

Another program is Working Cities Wednesdays, a series of public meetings held on the fourth Wednesday of the month at rotating locations around the city. These sessions bring the public together with representatives of local organizations, businesses and city government to discuss current projects. The sessions also allow individuals or organizations to make a short “pitch,” suggesting new projects they’d like to pursue.

“These ideas might be something as straightforward and focused as organizing a cleanup of a local park -- or an idea for a larger program or project that will enhance neighborhoods and the overall city,” Costa explained. “After the pitches, everyone breaks into self-selected groups to discuss the ideas that interest them, and then reports back at the end of the meeting. ... A lot of connections are made and have led to actions.”


A living legacy
The three-year Federal Reserve grant expires next year. Costa said it is possible additional grants will be available for specific activities. But one goal is to raise funds from other sources to continue Working Cities’ programs and activities.

“We’ll assess exactly what we do as we move forward,” she said. “Our basic goal has been to provide training and open up dialogues and stimulate programs that are picked up and adopted by organizations and agencies on their own.

Working Cities already has had an impact on many levels, she said.

Some 236 people, for example, have taken part in its Bridges Out of Poverty training sessions.
In addition, a recent evaluation of the Getting Ahead program reported that 53 people had graduated from the program. Among them, four people have been placed on city boards and commissions, four have been hired by the city, eight got better jobs or were promoted, and six reported improving their finances without getting a new job or raise.

“The most important part of Working Cities is that it has brought together many people and residents to find ways to get the whole city of Pittsfield moving together,” Costa said.