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“The voice that they have is worth listening to:” Berkshire Immigrant Center’s new director lays out mission for Pittsfield nonprofit

 BIC Executive Director Melissa Canavan. Photo Credit_ John Dolan.jpg
John Dolan
Melissa Canavan.

This month, the Berkshire Immigrant Center of Pittsfield, Massachusetts named and installed its new Executive Director, Melissa Canavan. The 30-year-old replaces Michelle Lopez, who left the Center in 2022 after three years at the helm. Canavan was most recently the Advancement Manager and manager of the Spanish-language Community Advisory Network at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. A Southern California native and child of Mexican immigrants, Canavan came to the Berkshires in 2015 for an internship at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket. She’s the founder and director of her own dance company, the Melissa Martinez Project, and volunteers with the Berkshire group Latinas413. Canavan spoke with WAMC.

CANAVAN: Right after my undergraduate degree in dance, I came to the Berkshires to have an internship at Jacob's Pillow. So, that was kind of the beginning of my nonprofit experience. And from there, I was at the Pillow for five years in different roles and in different departments, essentially trying to find the right fit of what I was interested. So, I had various experiences with marketing, business, and then lastly, the educational realm. And so really, starting to engage with donors, starting to engage with artists, different types of people from different places. So, kind of understanding even a bigger picture of how nonprofits function. And then I wanted to go back to school, so I left the Pillow to start at the Mahaiwe with a part-time position in development, and then simultaneously completed my master's in arts administration from Boston University. And that gave me an even more, larger scope to the higher-level thinking of how nonprofits function. And within my time at the Mahaiwe, I was also able to explore the development side of a nonprofit, but then also started to learn the community engagement vernacular, if you will, and really started engaging with our community, with the arts, and then specifically through the Spanish-language Community Advisory Network, started to really connect with many of immigrants that live in the Berkshires. I am Mexican Americans, so I do speak Spanish, so, really connecting in ways that maybe people are more comfortable with, speaking in their own language, things like that. And so, I kind of found myself enjoying that work and really trying to apply what I had learned with school and I've always been someone who likes to think on the larger scale, on the kind of business ends of the nonprofit work, observing leadership, observing department heads and how they go about things, and really kind of keeping note and track of, how would I want to do these things if I were put in those positions of leadership? And maybe, what are the things that I would like to improve upon, so that way, we can have the most successful organization possible?

So, with that in mind, what is your vision for the center? What do you want to bring to it?

What attracted me to the Berkshire Immigrant Center was the fact that it has so much potential. They recently became a nonprofit, or received nonprofit status, but they've been in the community for a long time now. And I think the Berkshire immigrants need and deserve an organization dedicated to them. And I see how the foundation that BIC has built, and I really see where it could potentially go. And I have a strong board, I have a strong staff, strong volunteers, and I really can see us collaborating and working really well to figure out the next steps, because they're moving quickly in their growth and I want to be able to take them to those next steps depending on where we're at. But I need to have larger conversations with them first.

Now in your interactions with the Berkshire County immigrant community, what sort of stories or needs are you hearing from those folks? Obviously, it's a group that's pretty woefully underrepresented in local government, it's a group that sort of rarely has their day in court to express some of their needs. So, what are you hearing from those people?

Generally speaking, it's just to include them in the conversations that all these agencies in the Berkshires are having. We, of course, are doing our best to advocate on behalf of them. But sometimes, maybe they want to be included a little bit more in those conversations, and rightfully so. And I think, from my experience so far, that we, there are organizations starting to already do that, if not already doing that. And I think it's just maybe pushing a little bit more to include them in the conversation so that we really are accurately representing the needs that they're expressing. And there's a variety of different types of needs from different types of people. So, it's about understanding that we as organizations need to also grow to better include those kinds of needs. And of course, the basic needs. It's the barriers that this entire county is already experiencing like transportation, cost of living, so it's really now having to hone in on those things that maybe collectively it's going to be easier to achieve versus individually.

How do you feel like the national climate and federal policies around immigration are impacting the Berkshire community at this time?

I mean, right now, they’re conversations. Everything is so hypothetical, or sometimes it's very much scary to say that these things can become a reality. Luckily, we live in the state of Massachusetts. So, I think there is a more open dialogue. In the Berkshires, it's very, from my perspective, very willing to have those conversations to better help the immigrants that are living within the Berkshire County, and also on the outskirts I'm sure too, because there are people who, from my understanding, use BIC as a resource for them to be able to live the best possible life they can. Some of the conversations are scary, and some of the conversations are not ideal. But they need to be had and we need to take them seriously. So as a community, we need to think about how we can help each other.

You talked about it growing at a healthy rate- You feel like you're coming into this at a good time for the organization?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, Michelle Lopez left, I think, the organization in a great place, and everyone's very eager and energized to keep moving forward. So, I think, with BIC being a much-needed source of affordable and local legal immigration services, I think it's very important to maintain the standards, the mission that this organization has established so far. And there are only a couple of private immigration attorneys in the area, and many of our clients can't afford them and don't have cars to go farther away for services. So, what we're doing is really important work. And I think as long as we continue to push forward with the mission, my hopes are that Berkshire County continues to rally around the work that is being done and hopefully BIC can continue to be that trusted source of information, because it's been in the community since 1997. I'm very passionate about the work that has already been done, and I hope I can help others feel passionate and want to participate in the same way, if not more.

Is there anything about the Berkshire immigrant experience you feel like is underdiscussed or underreported?

It's so exciting to see how many immigrants in the Berkshires have their own businesses, to see how they're participating in different aspects that make the Berkshire so- Our culturals and arts. I think the voice that they have is worth listening to. If people are doubtful or have concerns of their own, I don't think they should, because this region is just full of people who want to participate and want to engage. And like I said, you can see that in the businesses that are have been opening up and the work that so many have been putting into this region by immigrants. So, if you haven't seen it, encourage people to take the time to look, to learn, to just experience it for themselves, because it's all over from South County to North County. You'll find it.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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