FEBRUARY SPOTLIGHT   /   Community Engagement 

Resident-researcher Ranisha Grice (center right) in conversation with staff from Berkshire County 
arts and culture organizations earlier this month

A Closer Look at Community Engagement
One of the Berkshire Taconic region's most important assets is its dynamic mix of people, and the time and talent they bring to their communities. Pitching in to enrich civic life has been essential to our common story for generations.  
Yet demographic, political and economic trends are testing this tradition of involvement in rural areas like ours. Throughout the region, overall populations are flat or shrinking at the same time that income inequality -- which can drive down participation -- is on the rise. Many worry that community involvement is declining, while others report feeling excluded from vital aspects of public life.

That's why  increasing community engagement is a strategic priority for Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation as we look to help create a more vibrant future for residents.  We know that when people come together to tackle an issue or solve a problem, they build relationships, strengthen networks, and boost levels of trust and reciprocity. We remain a broad-based funder helping donors with varied interests commit to a range of causes; in addition, we are dedicating time and resources to unique efforts that will help bridge differences, connect individuals to institutions and promote leadership.  

What We're Learning
Our communities are clear-eyed about their own challenges and opportunities. As they weighed in on pressing issues over the last few years, residents have shared perceptions of declining engagement, with aging leadership and younger generations constrained by the economic and social demands on modern families. They described growing divides -- between rich and poor, long-term residents and younger and newer residents, including a swelling second homeowner population in some places -- that raise concerns about levels of involvement in organizations. Clearly, these shifts create uncertainties for institutions and communities alike.

At the same time, residents frequently named the region's arts and culture institutions as among the most important assets, which distinguish our region from other places. They also cited the critical role of the creative economy, which employs more people here than in other parts of the country, contributes to quality of life, and helps attract and retain residents and visitors.

>> A question for Berkshire Taconic emerged: could we capitalize on a major strength to help reverse worrying trends? Through our partnership with the Boston-based Barr Foundation, we are beginning to find out. << 

Researchers captured their survey work in photos
To learn more about barriers to engagement in the robust arts sector among local populations, we funded a team of resident-researchers to conduct community-based participatory research in Pittsfield this summer via surveys, interviews and focus groups, reaching a diverse sample of over 450 full-time residents. [Read a summary here.] Their research surfaced a series of findings that inspire action, including:
  • 80% of surveyed residents want to be more involved in the arts.
  • Only 1 in 5 respondents reported feeling connected to the arts, with people of color reporting comparatively lower rates of feeling included in the arts.
  • 60% of respondents reported barriers to participating in the arts with cost, or cost plus a related concern (e.g., transportation, time or lack of awareness), most frequently cited as barriers.
The researchers identified a constellation of other barriers related to social discomfort , including not feeling welcome, a dearth of engaging cultural content, language access, and scarce family-friendly programs and audience diversity.

What We're Doing
Our new Arts Build Community initiative combines research, grant support, network and capacity building, and donor engagement to increase levels of involvement in the arts and creative process among year-round residents and organizations in Berkshire County. It is specifically focused on creating stronger connections among arts and community-based institutions and young people, people of color and immigrants, and low-income communities. Key highlights include:
  • New Grants: With a total investment of $200,000 through a funder collaborative, we seek to  spur innovation among Berkshire County arts and cultural nonprofits and community-based organizations as they launch new projects, expand existing programs and collaborate with other organizations.
  • New Programming: A group of seven arts and culture nonprofit organizations in Berkshire County are participating in a new  yearlong learning program with a curriculum designed to help them address barriers to participation in the arts, foster resource-sharing and experiment with new approaches through a grants program. Together, these organizations will receive an investment of nearly $120,000. 
  • New Networks: BTCF, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission are joining forces to create a  shared vision for arts educatio n that will ensure equitable access to cultural resources for all students, increase the use of arts-based strategies in student learning and create paths to employment at cultural institutions.
The inaugural Board Leadership Forum last fall
In addition, we want to ensure that the nonprofit sector as a whole is stronger by promoting effective board leadership and helping boards to benefit from diverse perspectives. We are focused on leadership training through the biennial  Board Leadership Forum [ read a recap], with seminars on critical issues for board leaders in alternate years, starting later this spring. 

Working Together
Our strategic priorities are the building blocks for a stronger region. They help us sharpen our direction, identify and fund community projects, and create partnerships for lasting change. We invite you to join us. 

Spotlights are an occasional series of e-newsletters focused on Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation's strategic priorities. You can update your email preferences by clicking on the Update Profile link at the bottom of this email.