There’s a groundswell taking place within our snug corner on the edge of the New England corridor that, despite feeling overwhelmingly personal for our area, holds a mirror up to an entire nation feeling the anxiety of living affordably. Months into the unexpected era of pandemic lockdowns, families who had been working in the upscale neighborhoods of Manhattan began their northward trek into the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires. Many bought homes over asking price or paid cash, driving home prices through the proverbial roof and making life less affordable for those who grew up living and working in the Tri-corner. Today, as one crisis seems to be waning, another anxious scene is setting the stage in the Northeast for more middle-class economic stress. Lockdown-induced inflation has been escalated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on oil price and availability.
Beyond the rising prices at the pump, the area’s housing crisis has extended itself throughout the entire region, forcing local politicians to fervently come up with new ideas and innovative approaches to alleviate the burden facing those hoping to make our area home for life. Leigh Davis, vice chair of the Selectboard for Great Barrington, MA, was in a similar struggle that many residents are dealing with herself.
From defeat to opportunity
Davis, a native of Washington, DC, moved from Ireland to Great Barrington in 2009 with her three children. Upon arriving, she penned, Are We There Yet?, an op-ed column for The Berkshire Record. After five years of working odd jobs to try to make ends meet, she found herself struggling as a single mother. Feeling defeated, she wrote in the newspaper column about her intention to leave the town she’d grown to love and return to Ireland. Then something happened. A board member for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center who also happened to be a fan of her column read of her intention to leave. And from that chance encounter, she was offered a full-time position at the Mahaiwe. She hasn’t looked back since, but also hasn’t forgotten what that time of uncertainty was like.
In the summer of 2020, Leigh was appointed development director of Construct, the leading non-profit provider of affordable housing and supportive services in the southern Berkshires. Before that, she was hired as the director of development of Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC where she took a leading role in the $70 million redevelopment of the historic Eagle Mill in Lee, MA. In this position, Leigh helped to secure millions of dollars of federal and state funding for the mixed-use project from agencies such as MassDevelopment, MassWorks, the National Park Service, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Leigh has served on many boards and committees, including 1Berkshire, the Berkshire Leadership Impact Council, Saint James Place, Volunteers in Medicine, the Blackshires Leadership Circle, the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force, Muddy Brook Elementary School Council, the Great Barrington Community Preservation Committee, and the Great Barrington Economic Development Committee. She is currently wrapping up her third year as a member of the Great Barrington Selectboard and has recently announced that she is running for reelection in May. They say you can never go home again, and for Leigh, home is what can be made with a little determination. Today, she is working for the residents of Great Barrington to try to make it a home for all once again.
How did you make your way from Washington DC to Ireland and finally to Great Barrington? Has your journey translated into public service at all?
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in a suburb just over the DC border. Even though I lived and attended public school in Maryland, I regard myself as a DC girl through and through. Both my parents worked in DC and were dedicated to public service throughout their lives. This most definitely has had an impact on me. My parents are deceased. My mom was white, and my dad was black, and when they married in 1965, interracial marriage was still against the law in many states. My dad told me that when they moved into our home, two families moved off the street due to the color of his skin. Growing up as a biracial child in a white neighborhood had its challenges. I remember discouraging my father to come to school functions and then telling kids in my school that he was “from the Bahamas” instead of saying he was black. For some reason, I felt I had to mask his race, or try to lessen the blow. Was I teased or bullied? Was I afraid or ashamed to admit he was black? I don’t recall. Perhaps I’ve blocked that part out. But it saddens me to think I felt I needed to do that.
From the 1970s through to the 1990s, my mom was the right hand to Sargent Shriver, who was the force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, Job Corps, Head Start, and VISTA. Sarge also co-founded the Special Olympics along with his wife, Eunice Kennedy and he ran for Vice-President with George McGovern and then unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination. I have fond memories of that time though I was very young. I remember my parents having parties in our backyard and the Secret Service being there. The Shrivers were like a second family to me growing up because my mom was with them all the time, and by default, so was I. They were hard working and full of humility, and I admired them very much. Sargent Shriver attended both my parents’ funerals and spoke at my mom’s funeral. My dad was friends with Sarge from back in their Chicago days where he, and later Sarge, served as director of the Catholic Interracial Council, a group created to advocate for desegregation in Chicago schools. I am very grateful for my parents and for the positive role models they brought into my life during those early years.
Talk a little about your experience in film and theater. How did it inform your life experience?
After high school, I went on to Ithaca College to study filmmaking. I was fortunate to be hired straight out of college after winning a national award for my senior film. An Ithaca College alumnus who was producing an independent film had heard of me and asked me to work with him as the assistant to writer/director Jennifer Lynch. Her father was filmmaker David Lynch and I was a huge fan of his. It was a wild first film experience with Madonna signed up to star in the film followed later by Kim Basinger (both dropped out before filming commenced). After that experience, I switched to editing and became a union film editor joining IATSE local 700. That period of my life was very intense. I worked really hard during those eight years and was employed by nearly every studio. I was super lucky to be working as a film editor in Hollywood during the historical transition from editing actual film to editing digitally. Early on in my editing career, I was selected as one of the first apprentice editors that Paramount Studios trained on the new editing digital technology. This experience was transformational for me, and I was able to later pass it onto my film students in Ireland. The skills of editing, the ability to focus on one frame of film, 1/24 of a second, but also be mindful of the big picture, has proven to be an incredibly valuable asset. It has helped me in many aspects of my personal life and work life. I am able to stay highly focused throughout long periods of time and I handle stress well. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have this trait in me because sometimes it is hard to shut it off. I suppose that is one of the reasons why I don’t edit anymore. It triggers a part of my brain that I’d rather not wake up. Those were crazy times back when I was living in LA. I lived through the Northridge Earthquake, the OJ Simpson case, Rodney King / The LA Riots, and the Great Malibu Fire. It was quite the roller coaster ride. My last job in LA was with DreamWorks, which I ended up quitting – it was the second project that I worked on with Steven Spielberg who was the producer. The first one was at Amblin. When I think back now on quitting DreamWorks, I realize how headstrong I was. I quit the job and decided to move to Ireland because I had rescued a dog and my landlord wouldn’t let me keep him. I was over Hollywood by that time anyway and was ready to leave the rat race.
What was it like moving from LA to Ireland?
When I left LA for Ireland, what I really wanted to do, or so I thought, was raise sheep. Well, I didn’t exactly end up raising sheep, but I did rescue and rehome sheepdogs. And even though I had sworn off editing, I ended up working for American B-movie king, Roger Corman as a film editor. Corman had opened a film studio in Ireland to take advantage of the country’s tax breaks. My rebirth as an Irish film editor came after a weird turn of events. After being in the country for only a few months, I stumbled upon Roger Corman’s film studio in the middle of Connemara. As I was walking around this barren site, an American woman ran out of this big warehouse. We struck up a conversation, and from that conversation, she asked me if I would help edit this really low-budget zany space movie because the editor had just quit. Crazy as it was, I said yes and I ended up editing three Roger Corman films over a period of a few years. I even commuted for a time between LA and Ireland. I finally truly stopped editing after the birth of my son. A college in Galway then offered me a job as a film lecturer (professor). There, I taught film history, screenwriting, and editing and headed their post-production department. After lecturing for ten years, I became tenured. I absolutely loved teaching and had my personal circumstances been different, I probably would have stayed in Ireland. During that time period, I had two more children, and after a relationship breakdown, I ended up taking on the role of a solo parent to three while continuing to teach.
How did you make it to Great Barrington?
A snowstorm brought me to there. I was driving through the town while on a short holiday from Ireland. I got stuck in a snowbank and couldn’t move my car. I had to stay overnight in the Day’s Inn on Main Street and ended up walking around town the next day. I fell in love with Great Barrington. Something pulled me in. I can’t describe it. I remember having no idea where I was. I just kept walking, and I ended up at Lake Mansfield. It was snowing out and so beautiful. I watched as families skated on the lake and children dragged sleds around. It felt like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I was smitten. I moved to Great Barrington a little over a year later with my three children in a total leap of faith. Since I was tenured, my job was held for me back in Ireland in case it all went terribly wrong. I still needed to make money and provide for my children though so I did The Berkshire Shuffle. I worked a lot of odd jobs during those five years, from starting my own errand service business, to getting my realtors license, to working in a furniture shop, to writing a column for The Berkshire Record. My column, Are We There Yet? was published every other week in The Record. It was essentially a blog on living in the Berkshires as a single mom. I wrote about my personal experiences and used to get stopped by people asking me about what I had written or sharing with me their own experiences. It was a great way to get introduced to the Berkshires. A board director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center used to read my column. And in what I thought was my last column after five years of struggling in the Berkshires, I hinted that I was moving back to Ireland. After that column was published, I was contacted by the Mahaiwe and hired as their marketing manager. So, I stayed in Great Barrington and gave up my tenured teaching position in Ireland. I haven’t looked back since.
You are in the midst of doing some pretty bold work related to short-term housing in Great Barrington. How important is this issue to you?
Housing is a fundamental human right and I am very passionate about it. The work I am doing at the moment on a short-term rental bylaw in Great Barrington is a reflection of this passion. With a decline in the available housing supply impacting residents who depend on housing for work and for shelter, something needs to be done. I definitely can trace my passion about housing to my father. He was an advocate for fair housing and equal opportunity in employment his entire life. He was employed as a senior advisor in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) where he was credited with establishing the department’s first voluntary fair housing program and the first minority business enterprise program. My father had a very interesting life. He was born in Chicago and was given up for adoption at birth. He was raised in a Chicago group home run by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who he became very close to and regarded as a mother figure. After working for HUD, my father ran the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and later became known as the architect of Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday. He was very close to Coretta Scott King and she relied on him for many things. It was an exciting time to watch my father help make the King Holiday become a reality. I have a funny memory of my dad sitting at our tiny kitchen table talking to President Reagan on an olive-green wall-mounted phone. What I remember about that moment was not what was being said, but what doodles my dad drew on his yellow legal pad as he spoke. I was probably witnessing some historical moment and all I cared about were my dad’s doodles.
Tell us about how you came to begin volunteering in the Berkshires. How did you become involved with Construct?
As soon as I moved to Great Barrington, I began to look for places to volunteer. The first place I started volunteering for was HospiceCare in the Berkshires. I worked as a patient volunteer and spent time with hospice patients at Fairview Commons. It was powerful and very humbling. Both my parents went through hospice – they died in the living room of my childhood home in DC. The hospice volunteers were wonderful to our family and I wanted to give back in some way. The second place I volunteered for was with Construct. It’s funny to think how things have come full circle with me now being employed as their development director. Working for Construct, I see firsthand the struggles people go through to find and maintain housing they can afford. Regularly I will be on the receiving end of calls, texts, and emails from people living in cars or in tents or in motel rooms. It has been a big wake-up call.
As vice chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard, what are some of the more immediate issues you deal with respect to Great Barrington?
Before being elected to the Great Barrington Selectboard, I served for three years as a member of the finance committee. During that time, I became more attuned to the importance of economic development and also became more aware of the needs of entrepreneurs and local businesses. I was happy to have played a small role in the inception of Great Barrington’s successful Berkshire Busk last summer, and I am currently working on a few new initiatives which I am excited about. As a mother to three students who attended schools in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, I support an equitable and a sustainable education system, and will again advocate strongly for the renovation of our local high school. And I stand with the customers of Housatonic Water Works in their fight for clean water and vow to continue to do all that I can to help find a resolution.