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About the Founder

Virginia E. (Fisher) O’Leary, Ph.D. Professor Emerita Auburn University

Pittsfield Native and Resident

“My childhood memories of Pittsfield are dear to my heart. I learned to swim in Pontoosuc Lake, to ride a bike in our driveway on Williams Street, to climb “the family tree” on East New Lenox Road. I went to first and second grades at Dawes School, third through fifth at Egremont and sixth grade at Plunkett. Because my home was on Williams Street, I went to South Junior High.

I hiked up Mt. Greylock with my youth church group, ate picnic suppers with my family besides the two lakes, attended performances at Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow and saw plays in Williamstown and Stockbridge. My girlfriends and I shopped at England Brothers and once we got our licenses drove up and down North Street on Friday nights, checking out the boys in the cars alongside us. As we drove through town, I proudly pointed out the buildings my father, a local architect, designed -- the Girl’s Club (now the Gladys Brigham Community Center), The East Street Medical Building (now the East Street Professional Building), and Adams Supermarket (now Miller Supply) among others. Pittsfield was prosperous in the 1940s and 1950s. But it was not perfect.

Virginia O'Learym Ph.D.

When I left for college, I declared that “Pittsfield was too small for me.” I wanted to see the world, and I have done that. My academic career took me to a number of universities in the northeast, Midwest, and deep south. Ten or twelve years ago, I returned for a week of music and dance in July. I had not been back in several decades and I wept when I drove down North Street as it looked so deserted and impoverished.

I have been back in Pittsfield permanently for over three years. It feels like home, despite the many changes across the last six decades. Things have improved dramatically, although there is still much to be done!

Given my professional background and my renewed commitment to seeing Pittsfield thrive, I am determined to launch an effort to change the narrative that has cast a pall over my hometown for 35 years. I am a retired Social Psychologist and spent over four decades teaching both graduate and undergraduate students about Attitudes and Attitude Change. I spent more than 10 years reading and writing about people’s responses to adversity. Responses that range from despair to resilience and thriving.

When I hear, as I do all too often, that local teachers urge their students to leave the area as “there is nothing for them here” or seniors who say they can only attend matinees at Barrington Stage Company because they are afraid, or folks from South County opine that “there is nothing in Pittsfield,” it is like a gut punch.

General Electric Company’s departure from Pittsfield was a traumatic event for both the individuals affected and their families as well as the local community. Indeed, the entire region was affected. Not surprisingly the initial reaction was one of shock and decline. People left the area and businesses followed. Four decades later the pall that fell over the community at that times persists. But we can now capitalize on the upward trajectory.

In 1995 my colleague, Jeannette Ickovics, and I published a paper on resilience and thriving in response to challenge. In that paper, we called for a paradigm shift away from an emphasis on mere recovery and maintenance to using the challenge as the impetus to grow and thrive.

                                                     O’Leary & Ickovics (1995)

The model posits for possible individual responses to challenge: succumbing (drastically impaired functioning); recovery (survival with impairment); resilience (returning to pre-adversity baseline levels of functioning) and thriving (marshaling one’s internal and external sources of strength to grow beyond the pre-challenge point). Until the 1990s the majority of psychological research on responses to challenge focused on the causes and consequences of impaired functioning. Across studies, some 70% of people who face challenges struggle and either succumb or perhaps recover. But, 30% are able to use the challenge as the impetus for growth. O’Leary (1997) suggested that the reactions of individuals to challenge could be extended to organized groups like communities and even nations.

One important factor that promotes thriving is the ability to find meaning in the struggle to contend with the challenge. Finding meaning may require the reinterpretation of the negative event in the context of opportunity for change.

Among the individual factors that can be marshaled to combat impairment are personality characteristics such as hardiness, coping and a sense of coherence (O’Leary and Ickovics, 1995) and an optimistic outlook (Scheirer and Carver, 1992). Optimists cope by positively reframing events, acceptance, and humor. Pessimists resort to denial and disengagement. Cognitive factors such as threat appraisal, perceived personal risk, generalized expectancies for good and bad outcomes and self-efficacy are all potentially important resources.

In 1955, Warner and Smith identified four factors that either lowered risk initially or ameliorated risk in a study of 700 children born on the island of Kauai. Four central characteristics common to young adults labeled resilient were: an active approach to problem-solving; a tendency to perceive or construct their experiences positively, even those that caused pain and suffering; the ability, from infancy, to gain the positive attention of role models or champions; and a strong reliance on faith.

Social resources have been found to be as important as individual ones. Role models, mentors or champions provide one source of external support. Similarly, sources of social support within one’s community can be critical. The ability to obtain and utilize social resources effectively changes over time and with experience.

O’Leary and Ickovic’s model is not limited to individuals but may be usefully applied to understanding families, communities, organizations and even nations. Overcoming many of the significant problems that affect people’s lives (poverty, prejudice, political oppression) requires action at the collective level. Collective efficacy (Bandura, 1997) is defined as group-shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action necessary to attain desired goals. The perception of mutuality is central. It does take a village to ensure that a community not only recovers from a trauma such as the departure of a major employer but moves beyond recovery to thrive. The ability to be creative and to impose order during chaotic or high-pressure situations such as a diminished population or struggling schools is critical to moving forward.

The purpose of Pittsfield Prospers is to engage the community in changing that narrative to foster pride and to ensure that Pittsfield thrives. Pittsfield CAN Prosper and we will know we have succeeded when we identify our home as Prosperous Pittsfield. If we work together, we can change the narrative. Join me!”

- Virginia (Fisher) O’Leary