3rd outing of Amherst Live explores geography of race, privilege and community

Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2014

AMHERST — Race and power, large airplanes and the state of education in Massachusetts were leading topics at the third and latest edition of Amherst Live — a performance event modeled on a magazine.

Host Oliver Broudy, billed in the program as the “editor” rather than host, introduced the evening as an exercise in seeing “if as a town we are capable of entertaining ourselves.”

Several standing ovations later, the nearly 500 people attending Saturday’s event at Bowker Auditorium on the University of Massachusetts campus seemed to answer in the affirmative.

Over the course of two hours, Broudy seemed to be trying to channel TV host Charlie Rose, with a cheeky touch of Stephen Colbert. He offered an evening that mixed local issues and politics with humor and music. Broudy founded Amherst Live in September 2013 and has offered two earlier programs, one at the Eric Carle Museum and the other at Amherst College.

After an opening monologue, Broudy sat at a table on the Bowker stage and interviewed three of his guests — Barbara Madeloni, the newly elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; Sgt. Andrew Briscoe, spokesman for Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee; and Alan Richmond, a UMass herpetologist.

The night also included two extended talks by other featured guests — Trevor Baptiste, recently elected chairman of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee, who spoke of growing up in New York City, and Lisa Amato, a psychotherapist, who reflected on the differences between Amherst and Holyoke, in a piece called “Over the Notch.”

The program, which has applied for nonprofit status, bills itself as the place “where big ideas and a small town collide.” When the second program became available as a podcast, the event’s site said: “Did you miss out on the show? Are you jonesing for the inside scoop on our small town? The comings, the goings, the fringes, the underbelly, the here, the there.”

Lessons of power

Baptiste told a story that began with his grandfather, William Bell, whom he called “a guardian of the community.” That community was New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s. Bell was a gangster, by some accounts, but also a generous man who bankrolled many of his neighbors’ small businesses. Through his numbers running operation, he became a source of capital in a place where it was virtually impossible for a black person to get a conventional bank loan to start a business.

Bell drove a canary-yellow Cadillac and sent his children to college.

Baptiste’s monologue at Saturday night’s performance centered on power and the lessons he learned growing up about how to beat back bullies. As a youth, he joined the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps. Like his grandfather’s gambling operation, it too was a response to the lack of services African-American neighborhoods received.

It was also a positive way for him to avoid the pitfalls of the streets, which his mother, an accomplished educator, called the “what’s up” culture of young people verbally challenging each other. Most of the time that was just intimidation, he said, but it could also lead to where “the knives and the guns would come out.” Victims would sometimes lie on the street for hours before an ambulance would arrive.

Now living in Pelham, Baptiste thinks a lot about power and how it is acquired in a community where troubled race relations in the schools are headline news.

“I wonder how my grandfather developed his mind-set,” Baptiste said. “He didn’t learn it from an elite academy but he definitely had it in common with folks who presume their own power,” referring to people who grew up with money, status and privilege.

Looking ahead, Baptiste said what he wants for his children, their friends and all children is to learn that “we all have power.” Guardians of the community, he said, “use ingenuity to protect and preserve the inherent power they have to shape their world.”

Corporate ed

Madeloni, who leads the state’s largest public sector union, sat onstage with Broudy for a discussion of education.

She spoke of how corporations have moved into education. “The public sector is a place where you can make a lot of money,” she said. “We send every child to school in this country.”

Pearson, for example, is an international company that is profiting by promoting standardized testing which, she said, ultimately undermines true learning.

“They are designing the tests that will measure student success and teacher success,” said Madeloni. At the same time, they are designing curricula that undermine values such as empathy and critical thinking.

A drive to profit from the public sector plays on aspects of American culture that admire individuality, competitiveness and acquisition of property, she said. “They took over the narrative.”

Madeloni said that high-stakes testing is “choking what is happening in schools.” She is also deeply concerned about funding disparities between districts. “If we really cared about our children, how come we are not furious that every single child is not getting a really high-quality education?” she asked.

The interview concluded with her saying, “I think we have to take really strong positions and think about the kinds of acts of resistance that we can engage in.”

Also in an interview format, Broudy interviewed Briscoe, the Westover spokesman, who discussed the C-5 transport airplanes that operate out of the facility. They are the largest airplanes in the United States arsenal and can carry six greyhound buses or a submarine.

The Air Force is reducing the number of C-5s housed at the base from 16 to eight, said Briscoe. Starting next year they are also going to be refitted with quieter engines.

“I work in the office that gets calls from Amherst and Belchertown” complaining about the noise the airplanes make when they are on training missions circling Chicopee, he said. Briscoe hopes to get fewer of those calls when the new engines are installed.

The mountain between

The evening ended with a performed monologue by Amato, the psychotherapist.

Amato spoke about living a comfortable life in Amherst while working with youths in Holyoke who are often in desperate situations. One of her clients was 18, had been homeless for four years and was trying his best to be a good father to his child.

She also spoke about the outreach workers in the South Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative, where she is on staff, and the inner conflicts she has about whether or not to invite them to her home.

“I didn’t feel comfortable doing it,” she said. “I didn’t want to call attention to the fact that I live in the beautiful countryside, literally on the other side of the mountain, I have a pretty safe and easy life,” yet the people she works with have very little prospect of escaping the cycle of poverty they are caught up in.

At one point, she said, a co-worker asked “in all earnestness … why don’t the rich people from Amherst, when their kids go off to college, give their big houses to a Holyoke family with six kids?”

“He didn’t call it communism or redistribution of wealth, but that’s what he was talking about,” Amato said. It made her wonder if she would ever be willing to give her house away.

Amato also spoke of a client whose mother was incarcerated when he was 15 years old and whose father was absent. The children in the family “banded together so that child services wouldn’t catch on,” she said. Drug dealers offered him money to “deliver packages,” which would give him the chance to bring in money to help keep his family intact and his younger brother in school.

One day he asked her what she thought of his life.

She felt conflicted in pondering her response. He “was perched, wide-eyed, waiting for an answer.” She told him that it is really important that he knows that he is not a bad person and that he not internalize societal messages about the kinds of choices he is confronted with.

“We are really not giving these guys a way into our economy,” she said to rousing applause.

The program also included three songs by the singing duo Radio on Mute. They are Sajo Jefferson and Deja Carr. Jefferson also talked about a project she is doing interviewing students at Amherst Regional High School, which she attends, on issues of race. She hopes to complete her documentary by early December. Carr is a student at Hampshire College.

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at eric.goldscheider@gmail.com.


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