An unusual program at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield hopes to document the stories of immigrants coming to western Massachusetts.
On any given afternoon at Park Square in downtown Pittsfield, you can find community activists protesting government policies, institutional racism and environmental issues.
Toni Buckley is a frequent participant – usually accompanied by The Hoping Machine. It’s a folk music group she co-founded with Sarah Lee Guthrie to inspire social movements.
The Hoping Machine landed Buckley a job at Berkshire Community College coordinating its Berkshire Immigrant Stories program.
“With the Berkshire Immigrant Stories, we aim to highlight immigration and migration stories of the past and the present. Each story reveals one person’s family experience and collectively the stories tell the Berkshires’ and America’s story and they highlight the patterns that bind us together no matter where we are from or how long we have been here or there,” Buckley says.
Chris Laney is BCC’s Interim Dean of Humanities and the program’s supervisor.
“It’s a way for us to reach out to the immigrant community in the area to develop humanities-based programing that is of interest to people in the immigrant community, but also that can help tell their stories to people who are not immigrants, or who don’t think of themselves as immigrants,” Laney says, “even though maybe their grandparents came here, you know, or something.”
The program, which started in September 2016, is funded in part by two Mass Humanities planning grants totaling $31,000, and some National Endowment for the Humanities funding. BCC has partnered with the Tenement Museum in New York City to add to its online database Berkshire immigrants’ stories and images.
“But the ultimate goal is for three community colleges in the state – BCC, Middlesex, and Holyoke – to use this as a springboard to develop a public humanities center at each of those colleges,” Laney says, “with the special goal of serving underserved populations in the area, and finding ways to meet their needs that maybe not all humanities projects do.”
Since October, Buckley, the program’s coordinator, has been bringing different communities together to open a dialogue about the challenges of being an immigrant in Berkshire County. The hardest part, Buckely says, is getting people to be proud to just tell their story – like she has.
“I was born and raised in Germany by two Syrian parents,” Buckley says. “I lived there for the first 30 years of my life and then I decided to spend the summer in the Berkshires and I fell in love and I went back to Germany and a week later I decided I have to move to the states.”
She says she fell in love with Berkshire vistas and culture, job opportunities and her now-husband Wes Buckley, a local musician and member of The Hoping Machine. Buckley acknowledges that not every immigrant has such a rose-colored story.
Brooke Mead, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, says immigrants face discrimination and racism, and many are fearful of being identified as immigrants. Headlines about federal immigration enforcement officials arresting and deporting undocumented people have heightened tensions. There are 15,000 immigrants living in the county — 10 percent of the population.
“I would point out that the issues facing immigrants 100 years ago are in large part the same kinds of issues facing people now,” Mead says. “There is always this myth that we want to fall into that this generation of immigrants are different and they just faces most of the same issues.”
Participants can be anonymous, Buckley says, if they fear retribution for sharing their struggles. She’s organizing parties for immigrants to write down and share their stories.
“I think by doing that, they inspire others to do that as well,” Buckley says. “It is very important right now that we share those stories and that we show that it’s, it’s hard.”
“If people can see that their story – even if it’s from 150 years ago, their family’s story – the similarities to the stories being told by immigrants who have come over more recently then that in itself we have done a good thing if we can make that connection,” Laney says.
People can learn more about Berkshire Immigrant Stories at “We Need To Talk Day” event at the Berkshire Dream Center on February 24th.
Meanwhile, Buckley and The Hoping Machine are teaming up with local author Jana Laiz and the Manos Unidas Multicultural Educational Cooperative to raise funds for Puerto Ricans still reeling from Hurricane Maria nearly four months ago.
“There is still tens of thousands of people that don’t have a roof on their house,” Buckley says.
A sing-along fundraiser is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. on January 23rd at The Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield.