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Before returning to her native California, OLLI Executive Director Megan Whilden looks back on two decades in Berkshire County

Mark Tomasi
Megan Whilden

Since moving to the Berkshires in the early 2000s, Megan Whilden has been a ubiquitous presence in the county. Her long resume of local involvement includes becoming Pittsfield’s first cultural development director in 2005, involvement in the county’s NAACP chapter and co-founding the Four Freedoms Coalition after the 2016 election.

She has also been on the board of county economic development group 1Berkshire and the Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods group that elevated local female office-seekers, plus more.

In 2014, Whilden became the executive director of OLLI: The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, an adult education organization that “provides exciting educational, social and volunteer opportunities designed especially by and for people over 50 years old.” By way of disclosure, OLLI has been a WAMC underwriter.

On March 25th, Whilden will step down as she prepares to move back to her native California to be closer with her mother. Whilden sat down with WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes to look back at her life in Berkshire County, starting with her move to Pittsfield in 2003, which sparked her interest in community involvement.

WHILDEN: That really started with moving to Pittsfield because there was so much opportunity to help create positive change. You know, at the time there was a, I believe it was an all-white, all-male, dysfunctional city council. And that is right when WHEN started, which stood for, officially stood for Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods. But it was always said that it stood for We've Had Enough Nonsense. And that was a fabulous group, which I only was a very small part of. But you know, those kinds of community efforts, where people come together for a common cause can really make a difference, and have, because you can see that, you know, Linda Tyer is our mayor. She was one of the first WHEN candidates, and Tricia [Farley-Bouvier] is our state representative, also one of the first WHEN candidates. So what I really love about the Berkshires and have loved is that it's small enough that you can really make a difference working with others. You can help move your community forward. And that's not always possible. And so that's something that has been so fulfilling and so wonderful to be a part of in the Berkshires.

WAMC: In a lot of ways you may be best known in the Berkshires for the many years you’ve put into the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. When did your involvement with that start, and can you walk me through how you built it out into the institution than it is today?

So when I was the Cultural Development Director for the City of Pittsfield, one of the first folks that came to meet with me and introduce themselves were actually from OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And I was always really intrigued by them and what they did, and I actually led a cultural tour of downtown Pittsfield for them. So when I was ready to kind of make a change, that position opened up. And I was really excited to take it, because it had a lot of similarities to what I was doing before. It was a small, semi-autonomous program that worked with all kinds of people and created all kinds of wonderful programs and really kind of moved the needle on what was possible in the Berkshires, and I also knew it was a hidden treasure, that a lot of people didn't know about it. So I was really excited to be able to start really telling the story of OLLI and of older adults and the incredible knowledge and experience and ongoing curiosity and passion for community that they have. So helping to broaden OLLI’s these programs, broaden our partnerships, has helped to bring in more people and helped older adults to have a greater impact here in the Berkshires and to raise awareness of how important they are.

Are there any memories from the OLLI experience that standout as, okay, that was a time where we got it right, we did something, and you'll be moving on with that as a feather in your cap, so to speak?

Everything that I've ever done in the Berkshires, and certainly with OLLI, has always been collaborative with other people and other organizations. And that's really the joy of it, is working with other people to make good things happen. But I was thinking about that, and I think that the, we had a day-long dive into changing the culture of aging and looking at the future of aging. It was a day-long program with a wide variety of speakers held in person at BCC before the pandemic. And that spawned a group of OLLI members to continue to do programming like that, and that has had a really wide ranging effect. We just finished a six-part series called The Science of Aging that featured researchers from all over the country, thanks to the magic of Zoom, telling us about what they're working on and what to expect in research on aging. And the other thing that really meant a lot to me that was part of that changing the culture of aging conference was, we created an exhibit of photography of just over 20 Berkshire County community members who are over 65 and doing interesting things. And the photography, which was gorgeous, was done by older adults. And then there was a little essay write-up on each person that was also done by older adults. And so it was really a beautiful affirmation of how growing older can look so many different ways and encompass so many different things. And that show went to the statehouse in Boston, where it was very well received. And it was on display at the Williamstown library, and then COVID hit so it's been in under wraps. But we are planning to – I mean, I won't be here for it, but – we're planning to exhibit it again at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts this June which I'm really excited about. So the whole thing about changing people's perception of older adults is huge for me.

Looking back over the 2- odd years you've spent in Berkshire County, how has this community changed since you first got here?

I think it's definitely changed for the better despite, you know, the challenges that we have. I think that creativity in the Berkshires has been celebrated and people understand what a vital part it is, both of our economy and but also of our culture, the Berkshires culture that we're this fabulous place of beautiful natural resources and amazing cultural resources. People have to remember that most communities don't have world class theater and world class dance and world class music and world class art in a rural area. It's really quite extraordinary. And I think it's important to continue to lift up local groups and local artists as well to keep the Berkshires as a creative ecosystem. The other thing that I'm really proud to see is how many more women there are in politics. We have Mayor Linda Tyer, we have Tricia Farley-Bouvier as our state representative. We have Leigh Davis on the Great Barrington select board, and we have our first female DA, Andrea Harrington, and not only is she female, but she is a progressive DA that is really moving the county forward in a great direction. So I think there's been a lot of change in the past 20 years. I think there's been kind of a more flexibility and more openings for people to make a difference and get involved. And I think that's huge.

Before returning to her native California, OLLI Executive Director Megan Whilden looks back on two decades in Berkshire County

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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