Caught in a time warp

The NAACP’s Will Singleton says Pittsfield’s municipal government doesn’t reflect the community’s changing demographics

Members of the Berkshire County NAACP, with Will Singleton in center in drawstring pants.

Will singleton didn’t know what to make of it. The retired Pittsfield native had been back in town for years, and he never saw any African Americans working in City Hall. People of color account for nearly 15 percent of the population in this western Massachusetts city of 45,000, but they are largely invisible in city government. Only 4 percent of the city’s workforce is black, Hispanic, or Asian.

The 70-year-old Singleton grew up in Pittsfield. He has fond memories of spending time at the Boys Club, the YMCA, and the region’s lakes in the summer. He went on to a career in education, retiring more than a decade ago as the superintendent of a New York school district. Seven years ago, Singleton’s siblings suggested the widower return to Pittsfield to care for their elderly father, a retired General Electric employee. What Singleton found was a city caught in a time warp.

Pittsfield is a predominately white city in overwhelmingly rural and white Berkshire County. Yet over the last 20 years the makeup of the city has begun to change. Between 2000 and 2010, the black population grew about 40 percent and the Latino population by nearly 140 percent. Immigrants are moving to Pittsfield, with significant numbers of people coming from Ecuador, Mexico, and Ghana.

Yet as the demographics of the city began changing, the makeup and mentality of City Hall remained largely the same. The city’s affirmative action hiring plan, crafted about 20 years ago, was forgotten and ignored. Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi, a former city councilor, says he never heard any concerns about minority hiring during the decade that he represented an African American neighborhood. When the job of cultural development director opened up recently, Bianchi appointed a search committee made up of three men and one woman, all of them white.

To Singleton, seeing the city with fresh eyes, the problems were easy to spot. “When I was growing up here, even though we didn’t use the word diversity, I had the sense that if you were willing to work hard and you were honest and straight-forward, you had a chance of opportunity, especially when General Electric was here,” he says.

Singleton’s nostalgia for the GE days is not unique. Many black and white Pittsfielders of a certain age share his view. They remember a time when jobs were plentiful. African Americans were mostly clustered in low-level positions, but those jobs catapulted them into the middle class, enabling them to buy a home and send their children to college, just as Singleton’s father did. During that golden age, residents say, there were more black business owners catering to these workers and more black teachers in the schools.

But with GE gone and not coming back, Singleton says it’s time to take a more proactive role on diversity. He restarted the long-dormant Berkshire County NAACP chapter in 2012. In November, the group filed complaints with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the US Department of Justice, and the US Department of Labor alleging that the city had disregarded its own affirmative action policies and discriminated against African Americans in recruitment and hiring. The NAACP wanted the affirmative action policy reactivated, municipal employment monitored, diversity training launched, and minorities included on search committees.

The NAACP’s complaints haven’t generated any official response yet, but city officials have dusted off the affirmative action policy and begun talking about diversity. Some think the matter could become an issue in the mayor’s race next year, although Bianchi doesn’t believe residents are really interested.

But after two years trying to elevate the discussion about race and employment, Singleton, the NAACP chapter president, is impatient with City Hall—and with Mayor Bianchi. “My problem with the mayor is that he seems to have an attitude that he is not going to be told how to go about selecting the people he wants to work for him. We are not telling him to hire x person or y person.

“We’re saying that the employees should reflect the diversity in the community,” Singleton says. “Because of past discrimination, because it was intentional, not benign or accidental, I’m saying that you have to be pro-active in getting black people into these positions.”

Isolated city

Pittsfield is the biggest community in the Berkshires, but it’s the most isolated city in Massachusetts. According to Nat Karns, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Pittsfield region has more in common with northern New England states such as Vermont than it does with western Massachusetts cities such as Springfield or Holyoke. And Boston might as well be at the edge of the universe.

Several factors fuel Pittsfielders’ sense of being a world apart. There is no dedicated Pittsfield exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike; there are just two scheduled buses a day to Springfield and Boston; and the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s limited schedules makes car-free, county-wide travel a time-consuming headache.
To Singleton, seeing the city with fresh eyes, the problems with minority representation were easy to spot.
According to the 2010 census, the city’s population is nearly 45,000. Nearly 86 percent of residents are white. African Americans are the largest minority group (5.3 percent), followed by Hispanics (5 percent); Asians (1.2 percent); and multiracial people (3 percent).

Of the city’s 700 employees, more than 95 percent are white. There are 17 black employees, 12 Hispanics, and 2 Asians, according to 2013 statistics submitted by the city to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Only two of the town’s 36 managers are minorities. Police Chief Michael Wynn, an African American and a 25-year veteran of the force, is Pittsfield’s only minority municipal department head.

Eleven people were hired by the city last year, according to the EEOC figures. One of those employees was Hispanic; none were African American.

Pittsfield’s public school students are a diverse group, but the teachers are not. Minority students make up nearly 30 percent of the district’s 6,000 students, with African Americans the largest percentage at 11 percent, according to 2013-2014 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics. By contrast, only three of the district’s 400 teachers are African American, three are Hispanic, and two are Asian.

At an April NAACP educational forum, minority students talked about their experiences in the mostly white schools and described difficult interactions with some white teachers. Shelia Atiemo, a 15-year-old Pittsfield High honors algebra student, says her teacher called her “retarded” after she asked a question during a test. Atiemo says the teacher then told her they should meet with Atiemo’s guidance counselor and the school psychologist “to see if there is something wrong.”

Filling City Hall jobs

In the anteroom to the Pittsfield mayor’s office there is a magisterial portrait of William Pitt, the 18th century British prime minister the city is named after. Another important figure in Pittsfield history is also in the room, but a visitor has to move aside a black lampshade to see the photograph of Rev. Samuel Harrison, a former slave, who became the chaplain of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the country’s first all-black military units.

Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi: “If a person of color or minority candidate is right for
the job, I would have no hesitation hiring somebody.”

Like Harrison, African Americans have been mostly out of sight when it comes to filling municipal jobs in Pittsfield, a situation that has put a spotlight on Mayor Bianchi. Sitting in his spacious office, the slim, grey-haired man who sports half-rimmed glasses, is eager to talk. A former city administration and finance director, he was first elected as mayor in 2011 and re-elected unopposed last year. He served on the city council from 2000 to 2010, representing a ward that included the West Side, a neighborhood where many African Americans live.

“When I first came into office, I wasn’t cognizant of the number of the minorities we had in the municipal sector,” Bianchi says. Had he heard anything about minority hiring or any other racial issues from his African American constituents during his tenure on city council? “Honestly, no, nothing,” he says.

Bianchi doesn’t believe that there are barriers to municipal employment in Pittsfield for African Americans or other minorities. He notes that, historically, blacks have not been part of the informal employment networks that whites use. But he pushes back against a question about whether patronage has been a factor in determining who gets City Hall jobs. “I’ve really tried to go for the most qualified people,” the mayor says. “It’s never been about ‘I got a pal who needs a job.'”

Bianchi says Pittsfield is on the right track. “We have raised the consciousness of our managers with regards to hiring,” he says. “If a person of color or minority candidate is right for the job, I would have no hesitation hiring somebody.”

The mayor is the city’s affirmative action receiver. The receiver has overall responsibility for the direction and oversight of Pittsfield’s equal opportunity and affirmative action policy, including adhering to good practices in recruitment, hiring, and training. John DeAngelo, the city’s personnel director reports to the mayor and acts as the affirmative action officer who implements and reviews the program.

Last year, the city restarted its affirmative action advisory committee to monitor employment. The committee has retooled the city’s affirmative action policy, originally written and last revised in the early 1990s. The advisory group meets quarterly and counsels city officials; it has no enforcement powers.

The committee also proposed that the mayor hire an independent receiver to oversee the affirmative action policy. Bianchi rejected that proposal and took on the job himself.

In the first half of 2014, there were three department head-level vacancies in Pittsfield: the executive director of Berkshire Works, a state-run career center, for which the mayor of Pittsfield has appointing authority, the director of administrative services, and the director of cultural development.

An all-white search committee of three men and one woman interviewed four people for the cultural development position. According to Bianchi, the search team gave its top recommendation to Jennifer Glockner, a white tourism coordinator in the cultural development office, who had previous work experience with the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and in media and public relations.

Under the city’s affirmative action policy, the city’s affirmative action officers “will assure that an appropriate number of protected group members are represented on hiring committees.” The protected groups include minorities, women, people with disabilities, and veterans.
The committee wanted an independent receiver, but the mayor rejected that approach and took on the job himself.
With the debate on public sector minority hiring percolating around him, Bianchi did not consider any African Americans or other racial or ethnic minorities for the search team. “I didn’t see the relevance of having somebody of color, because whoever I had on that committee would have looked at all candidates reasonably,” he says.

One of the 29 people who applied for the cultural development director job was Shirley Edgerton, a well-regarded African American community leader. She was the only minority candidate interviewed.

Long active in the Pittsfield schools and in youth performing arts, Edgerton established Youth Alive, a 21-year-old step-dance and drum team and the Women of Color Giving Circle, a group that promotes education, the arts, and civic engagement. The mayor also interviewed Edgerton for the position.

Bianchi says he wanted a person who could “manage the city’s cultural activities and understand the business aspects of arts and culture.” “She is a wonderful social worker, but she didn’t have that experience,” the mayor says of Edgerton, who currently works for the state’s Department of Developmental Services.

Reached by telephone, Edgerton says, “The situation speaks for itself.” She declined to elaborate.

By her own admission, Mary McGinnis, the city’s former administrative services director, did not have the most relevant qualifications for her temporary, year-long stint at City Hall when the mayor appointed her to the job. McGinnis, who is white, is a nurse and baker. “How can you be hanging IVs one minute, and the next be the director of administrative services?” asks McGinnis who left her City Hall job in May and now heads up the city’s all-volunteer affirmative action advisory committee.

African Americans sometimes wrestle with negative views about their capabilities in the workplace. In 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights pioneer who hailed from Great Barrington, said: “Men are used to seeing Negroes in inferior positions; when, therefore, by any chance a Negro gets in a better position, most men immediately conclude that he is not fitted for it, even before he has a chance to show his fitness.”

Rev. Ralph Wesley Howe of the First United Methodist Church of Pittsfield says “African Americans are reading the signs very clearly. They see systematic behavior that they know has an adverse effect on the rights and opportunity of people of color,” says Howe, who is white and has been living in Pittsfield for a year. “White folks, by and large, are not really conscious of the way in which color, gender, or economic status privileges them. There is a belief that affirmative action is a stupid thing that would benefit people who are under-qualified.”

Some improvements

No one in City Hall, including Bianchi, knew that an official affirmative action policy existed until Singleton nudged municipal officials to track it down. But since the policy has been uncovered, Pittsfield has made some improvements in its hiring and oversight practices that have benefited all potential job applicants, including minorities.

“When it was brought to [Mayor Bianchi’s] attention, he said ‘Let’s get this affirmative action policy up and going,” says Melissa Mazzeo, the city council president. “I want to give this mayor credit. He got on board with it. No one else before him did anything.”

The Pittsfield personnel department now sends all municipal job postings to Berkshire Works, online employment sites, and a broad range of community groups such as the NAACP and area colleges. Since February, Pittsfield has hired 10 people: Six white, three Hispanic, and one African American. The pool of applicants for jobs has increased, but the numbers of minority candidates remains small.
City Council president Melissa Mazzeo gives Mayor Bianchi credit. ‘No one before him did anything,’ she says.
Pittsfield Superintendent Jason McCandless has moved to diversify hiring in the school district. To fill one of three principal vacancies, district officials hired Gina Coleman, an African American Williams College associate dean. She graduated from Williams, holds a master’s degree from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Ph.D from the University of Nebraska.

The superintendent is also requiring teachers and administrators to attend cultural competency training to better understand the racial, ethnic, and economic dynamics at work in the city and the schools. McCandless notes that the school district’s informal networks are mostly white, mostly middle-class individuals, which may hinder efforts to find minority job candidates. “It’s hard to accept [that] we aren’t looking hard enough, [but] I think it’s probably true,” he says.

Police officers receive diversity training during their police academy stints, according to Chief Wynn. He also has sent members of the police department to recent diversity training sessions for school and city employees. “People don’t like change and cops like change less than anybody,” says Wynn. “There may be some grumbling, [but] they take the training. They understand the utility and the benefit of the training.”

Despite these steps, the city has some legal issues to work out. The NAACP’s complaints against the city with various state and federal agencies are still pending. There have also been a couple of individual complaints against the city. In 2013, Rosaura Roman, a City Hall legal secretary who is Hispanic, filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging that the city did not post a job notice for a position she was interested in. A younger, white male worker later got the job. The MCAD enforces the state’s fair employment laws and reviews specific allegations of discrimination through an administrative process.

This spring, Doreen Wade, an African American woman, filed a complaint against Mayor Bianchi with the city’s newly re-established human rights commission, alleging that he used racially inappropriate language during a meeting about small business loan opportunities for her online black newspaper. The commission, which has subpoena powers and can make referrals to federal and state agencies, investigates cases of discrimination and harassment in employment, housing, and other areas. The commission postponed hearing Wade’s case pending the outcome of several similar complaints she has filed with the Attorney General’s office and the US Department of Justice.

Questions remain about oversight of the city’s affirmative action policy itself. The mayor oversees the city’s affirmative action efforts but who oversees the mayor? Bianchi sees no problem with the current framework. “We’ve got enough elements to create the oversight and commitment that we need,” he says. Former mayor Jim Ruberto disagrees, and blames himself for not establishing an independent diversity director to monitor the entire process during his tenure. “From an organization perspective, that is what’s needed, to make somebody responsible for outcomes,” he says.

Under a recent city charter change, the winner of the 2015 mayoral election will serve a four-year term instead of the current two years. Bill Everhart, The Berkshire Eagle editorial page editor, sees minority hiring as a topic that is ripe for debate. “It’s going to be a big issue next year, which is good, because it is a subject that needs to be discussed,” Everhart says. Bianchi is running for re-election, but no other candidate has jumped into the race yet.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Some say the city’s changing demographics have put Pittsfield is at a crossroads on affirmative action, though Bianchi says most people aren’t interested in the subject. “I don’t think there is a general feeling in the city of Pittsfield that there is an issue,” he says.

But Singleton is frustrated with trying to break down barriers. “With affirmative action being looked on as almost worse than cursing your grandmother, people like the mayor of Pittsfield really believe that they don’t have to do anything in terms of diversity,” he says. “They can have their own people: If they happen to be white and male and, in some cases, white and female, if you don’t like it, too bad.”