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HomeLife In the BerkshiresInterview with Chris...

Interview with Chris Tucci of Railroad Street Youth Project, panelist at ‘Weed Is Here, Now What?’ forum

"Recreational cannabis means that we are talking about cannabis. That’s a good thing. Young people are asking unsolicited questions, neighbors are talking to each other. ... We developed norms ... We’re starting to talk about what does safe use look like for adults? What is the norm?" --Chris Tucci, Railroad Street Youth Project deputy director

Chris Tucci began work at the Railroad Street Youth Project two and a half years ago. He’s now its deputy director, and will be a panelist at the “Weed Is Here, Now What?” free public forum Wednesday, March 13, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 7 to 9 p.m.The aim of the forum is to answer citizens’ questions about new rules, regulations and norms relating to recreational marijuana, and to perhaps, as Tucci expresses in this interview, start a conversation about setting those norms together as a community. The full panel will be Tucci; Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington; Southern Berkshire Regional School District School Resource Officer Tricia Zucco; Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh; Great Barrington Selectboard member Ed Abrahams; and David Lane, Psy.D. the clinical director at the Center for Motivation and Change.

Among other roles, Tucci oversees the South Berkshire Community Health Coalition, made up of youth and adults representing school, health, law enforcement, cultural, social service and social justice organizations, all of which are working “for a community-wide approach to reducing risk factors and enhancing protective factors that reduce the high rates of alcohol and drug use among South County teens.” Students from Mount Everett and Monument Mountain regional high schools serve as co-chairs, along with Erik Bruun, longtime community volunteer and founding board member of RSYP. 

The Coalition’s work—parent outreach series and groups, a recent video series, and the March 13thevent, among other things—is funded through a grant from the state Substance Abuse Prevention Council. The coalition helps implement and analyze results from the bi-annual Prevention Needs Assessment Survey(PNAS), a health and behavior survey given to all eighth-, 10th– and 12th-graders in Berkshire County public schools, tracks drug and alcohol use as well as the risk and protective factors that affect it.

The Coalition meets the first Friday of the month at 8:30 a.m. at one of the two high schools.

Chris Tucci: The Coalition has been around a long time [Since 2002, with active and inactive periods. I was an early director.] We’re building on the work that came before.

This year’s youth coordinators, Mae [Whaley, of Monument Mountain] and Megan [Smith of Mount Everett], recruit the young people to the meetings. When they’re invited by their peers, and when they see their peers leading the meetings, they’re most likely to participate. It’s a group of people who volunteer to gather together to tackle real problems in the community, and so to be in that space together to do hard work. I’m always impressed, surprised, excited, when we’re in a full room, and they’re digging into the data together.

Construct Inc. executive director Jane Ralph.

Sheela Clary: If we’re going to solve any of our problems, how we can be less depressed, or overcome our history of racism, or address income inequality, it has to start with people getting in a room and having difficult conversations.
CT: We luck out in that the people who elect to be there have such extraordinary resumes and they bring those skills to the table. Jane [Ralph], who is the executive director at Construct, has also been doing this Difficult Dialogue Series, and is now running one around guns. To have a selectperson who’s providing perspective from the town, for them to be able to hear directly from young folks about issues that are affecting them …

SC: How did you end up here?
CT: My wife and I were directors of camps in Northwest Connecticut, and we would come up here in the summers and do camps. We fell in love with the region back in 2004. We made our way up here and, on our days off, we were trying to fill our days with as much experience as possible. And this place has a high concentration of things to do in a small area.

When my wife and I said, “let’s move here,” we put the word out to all of our friends, and said, “who knows about opportunities out here?” Through Facebook, I got a message saying Railroad Street was looking for, at the time, the director of empowerment, running the apprenticeship programs. The history of the organization excited me—the youth-driven mission, the intergenerational communication. A lot of youth programs can sometimes be focused on the service that they provide or the program they run. RSYP’s mission also offer youth leadership and development. Things being directed by the youth voice is more interesting to me than looking at every problem through the lens of the solution that your group works on.

Railroad Street Youth Project executive director Ananda Timpane

[Of the RSYP staff] only three of us, Sabrina [Allard], Ananda [Timpane] and I are out of the constituent age range [18-25]. Ann and Dylan run YOB [Youth Operational Board]. Sara Rawson is our “411 in the 413” intern, so she coordinates the countywide conference for youth. In addition to that, in the summer, we have the skate park and basketball coordinators, and two staff members under them.

Water fills the gaps where there’s a hole. When young folks identify where the needs are, that’s where resources get directed.

SC: What makes you hopeful?
CT: That there is conversation around difficult subjects. That dialogue is possible. Sometimes it can feel as though the internet is really loud on our community boards, but what’s reflected there is often not what’s reflected in the conversations I have with other parents in the community, with administrators.

I see it in the schools, working alongside the ones providing services at the high schools, the middle schools, in both Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills. We also work alongside town officials on town committees and programs. When you can see all the ways that community support is woven together, that there is a lot of people who care deeply about the well-being of young folks, who care deeply about the health of their community, that’s what gives me hope. All those things you don’t see if you’re not in those rooms. I see the extraordinary work that happens in the Opioid Prevention Council, in the Fairview [Hospital] working group. I’m working with folks at VIM [Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires] and CHP [Community Health Programs], and other health professionals volunteering to develop a free health clinic at the high schools and at Railroad Street.

These have been long conversations. It sometimes feels like, “Well, no one is doing X.” What I have hope in is I know there are a lot who are doing the deep, difficult work to improve the community.

SC: Who aren’t just complaining and throwing up their hands.
CT: You have to complain and throw up your hands sometimes, right? It feels good! The danger is to read, see or experience bad news and say, “Somebody should do something about this.” Working in a world that’s designed to improve the lives of others, I know lots of people doing that work.

Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D. Photo courtesy Center for Motivation and Change

SC: What are the Coalition’s top two or three concerns that need attention?
CT: We are working on parent education, increasing the capacity of anyone who works or lives with or loves a young person to have difficult conversations around substance use. That shows up in the parent education videos we did together with the Center for Motivation and Change and its director, Jeff Foote. They are PSA-style videos to help people have those conversations. It’s also the ongoing biweekly support for parents who have young folks they believe might be struggling with substance use.

Then there are our larger public panels, that we are doing this month and the following month. Our direct program with young folks is the Community Voices collection, run by and with young people collecting stories about substance use in the community and developing ways to tell them so the young people can make informed decisions around alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Iona works with Megan and Mae. They run focus groups, take the PNAS data and develop education and outreach around that.

SC: What would you say to parents about why this March 13 forum would be worthwhile to attend?
CT: My 11-year-old asks me questions based on what he sees in the community now, similar to the experience I think a lot of parents have had, who drive on Route 7 and see the long lines of people waiting for legal recreational cannabis. “Why is there a long line there? Who are those people? What is that building?” There’s a visual in our town that wasn’t there before. I’ve had lots of experiences in homes of friends of my son, where the conversations are around it.

SC: Is that a recent development, has the conversation shifted?
CT: Recreational cannabis means that we are talking about cannabis. That’s a good thing. Young people are asking unsolicited questions, neighbors are talking to each other. We have a lot of cultural understanding around alcohol. We grew up with it, and we were informed by how our parents behaved, by how our peers behaved. We developed norms—like, “That’s not OK, I don’t want that for my child. I don’t want my young person at that house because it’s unsafe.” We’re starting to talk about what does safe use look like for adults? What is the norm?

I just talked to a parent who was at a birthday for a really young person and adults were smoking cannabis outside. If you came to my house and lit a cigarette and started smoking in my living room, that would be really unusual, right? We’ve developed norms. We don’t have those about the different ways that cannabis is consumed, conversations around edibles, vape pens, dabs, tinctures. I think it’s really important that we’re having these conversations. I think that that’s what this panel is for. A starter for everyone is we want our young people to be healthy; we all want what’s best for them. But we haven’t developed what that means.

If we start from that place together, “We want a healthy community, we want them to have the most opportunities to succeed, whatever that looks like for your family and your young person,” what does that mean, now that weed is legal?

Wouldn’t it be great if your young person asks you what the law is, what’s OK and what’s not OK? You have direct from the DA, direct from the chief of police, direct from someone who works in substance use and disorders. There’s so much misinformation, so much that’s biased one way or another. We’re all going to look at it through the lens we come with, but I think the more we’re at the table together, the more we can define the vision we want for South County.

It’s also important to know that this is an ongoing conversation, so if folks want follow up, it’s easy. I live here; you can talk to me at the post office. People can always join the coalition, too. Meetings are the first Fridays of the month, from 8:30  to 10 a.m., at alternating high schools, Monument Mountain and Mount Everett. In April, we will be back at Monument.

SC: Will the 2019 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey results be discussed at the forum?
CT: I’ll touch on some of the data in my remarks, but we’re working with the Berkshire United Way and Northern Berkshire Community Coalition to do a community-wide sharing sometime in the next month or so. We’ll do a larger invitation to youth-development professionals, interested stakeholders—principals, vice principals, superintendents, adjustment counselors—parents would be invited, and that would be the first: “Here’s what the data is showing us countywide, here’s what are seeing.” We might use it to inform the next initiative or strategy for the coalition.

There’s no endgame here. We’re going to continue to raise young people, and they’re going to continue to have experiences that we want to hear about.


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