Pittsfield — Rebecca Brien is a lifelong resident of the Berkshires. She was born and raised in Richmond, and both her parents were employed by local companies. When her father’s employer closed, and he was suddenly out of a job, Brien got a glimpse of how the local economy affected the landscape surrounding her. Brien ultimately followed in her mother’s footsteps, pursuing a job in the hospitality industry, and at the age of 13 was hired at a local bed and breakfast. Today, Brien is the director of sales and marketing at the Hilton Garden Inn Lenox Pittsfield; she is also one of 30 members of the 2019 Berkshire Leadership Program, a comprehensive course in local leadership offered by 1Berkshire and aimed at seeking, preparing, involving and sustaining leaders from diverse backgrounds who are committed and competent to address community challenges—namely, improving the quality of life in the Berkshires. For the BLP Class of 2019, their project will culminate Saturday, May 18, with “Berkshire Gives: One Day, One County” to benefit those at risk in our community.
“I thought I knew the challenges facing the region in regards to the economy, education, agriculture and in the arts,” said Brien, who initially applied to BLP as a networking opportunity; in the ensuing six weeks, she has found it to be so much more. “I was not aware of the number of small businesses that are here, who have been here for a long time, hire locally and thrive,” she said, which is due, in large part, to the thriving local economy. Brien’s story does not end there. The hospitality industry ultimately reeled her in, and she worked for both Canyon Ranch and Cranwell Resort, two very large local companies. When she changed career paths, she found her way to KB Toys in Pittsfield and Country Curtains in Stockbridge, where she was employed for 12 years. Both of which went on to close their doors.
“When a company of that size closes in Berkshire County, what does one do?” said Brien of Country Curtains, a Stockbridge staple for more than six decades. For her, the answer was simple: She went back to hospitality. “There is always a job working for a hotel or a restaurant [here],” she said in a follow-up phone interview, “but not necessarily what we want as the only option,” she added emphatically.
The BLP class is geared toward heightening awareness of key issues affecting the Berkshire region; enhancing creative problem-solving and team-building skills; offering interaction with prominent leaders who influence our community; establishing a professional network to be utilized beyond the program; and exploring specific, demonstrable competencies and characteristics of a successful leader. The class began in March with a two-day kickoff retreat at Jiminy Peak followed by a day-long economic development bus tour the following week. Participants toured all corners of the county, where areas of investment were highlighted across various sectors of the economy. Class members learned about challenges and opportunities facing the region, related to economic development in the Berkshires, and brainstormed ideas for the class project.
Their choice? “Berkshire Gives: One Day, One County,” a collection drive to gather much-needed food and supplies for area food pantries and shelters that serve the homeless, veterans, people living in poverty, and women and children escaping from abusive relationships. “[This] philanthropic effort … creates a point of entry for BLP class members to become valued ambassadors to the Berkshires,” said BLP participant Bear Sitzer in a recent statement. Class members were tasked with using the consensus-building and leadership skills they have gleaned to brainstorm, select, develop and deliver a full team project to be presented at graduation (which will take place Thursday, June 6, at Skyline Country Club in Lanesborough). The parameters were simple, making the options endless: the project, based on Berkshire County, should address economic development needs, immediate needs or other critical community needs. The scope and design of the project was completely up to participants. Sitzer weighed in, stating: “Berkshire Leadership Program has encouraged me to use the diverse resources available here in the Berkshires to help understand and navigate economic and cultural issues of the area.” Case in point? The myriad populations affected by poverty. All of the details, including suggested donations (such as toiletries, groceries and household items), the drop off locations (Fairfield Inn & Suites in Great Barrington and Dollar General in Sheffield) and the recipients of the collection (VIM Berkshires, Community Health Programs, Elizabeth Freeman Center and more) can be found at www.BerkshireGives.com.
Berkshire Gives stands to raise awareness, tangible items and a sense of accomplishment for participants. Cecilia Hirsch has lived in the Berkshires for 22 years; she joined the BLP to deepen her understanding of the area and to expand her connections for work. The takeaway, however, has been far greater. “I have realized there is still so much to learn about this area,” she said in a written statement. “And that there is unbelievable joint energy between all—business, creative, and tourism movers and shakers—to make the very best decisions to grow and sustain our special part of the state … We are excited to give back to our communities with the Berkshire Gives drive!”
To distill the work of 30 individuals over 10 weeks down to one article is ambitious, so the participants speak most clearly to the work: “What I have learned is that every aspect of the Berkshires is intertwined with another,” said Brien. “As we improve our schooling options, we create a better workforce, allowing us to fill more jobs that will support our farmers, arts and activities that are being offered. This will make us a better place for people to stay and relocate to, closing the circle to having more funding for our education system,” she explained. “The circle of life is alive and well in Berkshire County.”