Ten Minutes With Shirley Edgerton
A community leader with no plans to retire
Photograph by Jane Feldman
Shirley Edgerton will most likely have to get back to you about how much she is enjoying her retirement—when she’s not so busy. A strong voice for the county’s African-American youth, the Pittsfield resident is utilizing her “down time” to steep herself in the community that she has helped to build. Edgerton is the founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle and the Youth Alive Step Team. She also co-chairs the Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival, a summer-long celebration of African-American heritage in the region. The festival is holding activities through August 22. Visit liftevryvoice.org for details.
How long ago did you move to the Berkshires? About 24 years ago. I was born in Hemingway, South Carolina—a very small town, much smaller than here—and then spent the rest of my childhood in Mount Vernon, New York. Two very different lives.
In those 24 years, what changes have you seen in this community? Well, the mass migration of our young people out of the area is concerning to me. It is concerning not to have that hue and vibrancy that we need. For an educated young person who wants to come back here after they graduate from college, finding an entry-level career is challenging. And diversity here is still very limited. We forget to allow them to be different. We need to give them the leadership roles now.
Did you ever have doubts about raising your children here—especially given that lack of diversity? When my kids were growing up, we took them to places beyond the Berkshires. Places where their ancestors are portrayed as positive people. They would see people of color in leadership positions. We need to make more of an effort in our county to begin to design our communities like that. There’s room for everybody, and I’m hopeful. That’s why I’m still here.
Is the Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival a necessary part of that design? It seems to have grown wings in the last five years. The rich culture of African-American history in the Berkshires is kind of like buried treasure. Even adults living in this place a long time still don’t know about the legacies of W.E.B. DuBois, James VanDerZee, James Weldon Johnson. It’s an opportunity to bring awareness and knowledge to people, all people. It’s also another way to unify the community. I am still amazed at how many arts, education, and grassroots organizations have become involved. I’ve been watching the young people from Youth Alive as they are taking it all in. It’s emotionally overwhelming for all of us.
How is life different today for the youth that you mentor, compared to how you grew up? I was born in the 1950s in my grandmother’s home, not in a hospital, and that was because of the color of my skin. For me, being African-American in the South was—it was just part of my everyday life. It was central to my existence. For young people today, their perspectives are different because of social media. They are more about the human experience. When they try to process something like what happened in Charleston, they don’t have the historical perspective that my generation has. There is a historical disconnect with this generation. So many of them haven’t been taught black history and so they don’t understand the generational impact of language that lingers from years of oppression. This isn’t coming out of nowhere for us.
So how do you provide perspective for them? When we were driving to a Lift Ev’ry Voice event at MASS MoCA, the kids wanted to play their music on the ride up. So I let them play it. It was just … “n”-word this and “b”-word that and … Phew. When I got out of the van, my head was on fire. They were arguing that the more you use those words, the less power they have. I told them that no matter what time you live in, those words are the ultimate insult that reduces a human to nothing. The “n”-word will always be demeaning. I started saying the words to the songs they were listening to, and they said, “Miss E., stop saying that. It sounds so wrong.” I repeated the words for shock value. For that moment, they received the message.
What do you do here that’s different from your life, as you remember it, in South Carolina? Like I said, I grew up in a very small town, smaller than here, smaller than Mount Vernon. I was raised to speak to everybody, it doesn’t matter whether you know them or not. You say “hello,” you make eye contact. It’s a matter of acknowledging another human being. People don’t do that so much around here.
You’ve done a great deal for this community, received countless awards. What, in your eyes, is your greatest accomplishment? My three children. I’m infinitely proud of the people they are and their choices and how they are engaging in the world. They are all giving back.