Two Pittsfield, Massachusetts high-schoolers are finding ways to educate their community about prejudice.
Tuesday night, the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield played host to One City, One County, One World.
“Basically, it’s about understanding people of different cultures and origins and their backgrounds, and all that comes with it so that we can have a more accepting environment," said Kamea Quetti, one of the event’s two organizers.
“This kind of just started out as a thing that my best friend Olivia and I — we’d been talking about cultural competency and everything like that, and about wanting to start a club at our school, and that was our own little thing," Quetti told WAMC. "And then someone reached out to us and had us do a workshop about it at MCLA, which then moved into today, what we’re doing. It’s the same idea, but we have two hours today, so we’re trying to get more in-depth and basically open the eyes of people in our community and try and bring our community more together.”
Olivia Nda is Kamea’s best friend and co-organizer. They’re seniors at Pittsfield High School.
“In this day and age, people kind of overlook stereotypes and labels and kind of dust it under the rug like it doesn’t necessarily happen all the time," said Nda. "It’s kind of a subconscious thing, so we’re just kind of trying to help people be more aware of their subconscious thoughts and even their conscious thoughts in generalizing a group of people.”
The event was organized by Toni Buckley, who works with Berkshire Immigrant Stories, a Berkshire Community College project funded by Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It is trying to show people what students of color here in the Berkshires and probably all over the country have to go through every day,” Buckley told WAMC.
Both students have experienced bigotry.
“I remember — I think I was 12 years old and I was about to go on vacation. I was somewhere in the county, actually, at a restaurant, and a man called me the n-word and he told me to leave," said Quetti. “I knew what the word was, of course, I was 12, I wasn’t that young, but it just — I never heard it directed at me, and it was just so hurtful and it made me feel sick, and I will never forget that feeling. And it’s an awful feeling.”
Federal population estimates from 2016 put the county at 93 percent white, with African Americans comprising 3 percent of the population, Latinos 4 percent, and Asians less than 2 percent.
Nda says that their experiences frequently go unrecognized.
“Basically just everyone kind of sometimes says, like, ‘Oh, Olivia, you act white because you’re around white people. Or, Olivia, just because you’re black, I’m surprised you do this or that or the other thing.’ It’s just kind of something I’ve brushed over my shoulder these past few years," she told WAMC. "But I’ve just kind of become more comfortable with who I am, so it doesn’t really bother me much. I just kind of think about it as something that I go through every day, but it just kind of is part of my identity now I guess, and only I can really define who I am, so.”
“I think a lot of people in Berkshire County are accepting," said Quetti. “Many people who aren’t of minority groups — they don’t understand the extent of how much these things still affect us. They think things are fine, and it’s not that they’re not trying to understand, buy maybe they don’t recognize the things that go on.”
She says the first part of the process is listening to people.
“We all make judgements on people when we meet them — which is natural to do — but really, how you get to know someone is by talking to them, asking their story, and trying to understand them as a person,” said Quetti.
Nda says looking inward is a vital step in correcting prejudice.
“Part of our activities that we’re doing today is just kind of being OK with who you are and just kind of recognizing your self-identity and reflecting on other people’s identity, and realizing that we’re not that much different,” she said.
As far as the day to day, it’s simple.
“Just say hello, type thing," said Nda. "Don’t close yourself off to a group of people just because you think you know who they are. Just open yourself and be ready to meet someone new.”
While Nda and Quetti are about to head off to college, they’re working with juniors at PHS to kick off their Cultural Competency Club next year.