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How neighbors got rid of ethnic, sexist slur in road name in Great Barrington

A group of neighbors in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, convinced the town — and each other — to change the name of their street because it included a racist and sexist slur against Indigenous people, and especially women.

Squaw Peak Road is now Woodland Hill Road. The change was approved by the Great Barrington Select Board last week.

Resident Jeff Rothenberg started talking with neighbors about making the change a few years ago after learning the word "was considered to be derogatory and pejorative to members of indigenous and tribal communities."

"And that was something that I hadn't been aware of, and I didn't feel particularly comfortable living on a street that contained an ethnic slur," Rothenberg said.

He said people on the street proposed more than a dozen possible new names for the road. Of the 18 homeowners on the street, 17 voted in three rounds of ranked choice voting. Rothenberg points out they organized the vote on their own.

"I see it as, frankly, a beautiful example of 'small d' democracy in action and neighbors coming together to make what is objectively a difficult decision, but making it together and moving forward," he said.

The town will change the road name on deeds. Homeowners will contact state and federal tax agencies, the Social Security Administration, insurers and businesses, like Amazon, to get the name changed on records and documents.

Rothenberg said the voting was logistically complicated.

"But it was the right thing to do so that everyone felt a sense of agency and ownership in this process, even if someone wasn't initially in favor of the name change," Rothenberg said, adding that neighbors got to know each other better through the process.

The town of Great Barrington has ordered a new road sign, but doesn't know yet when it will arrive

Besides these residents getting rid of the name, the Trustees of Reservations changed the name on a peak on nearby Monument Mountain.

And the Department of Interior removed the name from about 650 sites across the country this year.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.