Community activists are working to pass local ordinances in the sanctuary city model in communities in the Berkshires.
A collection of different Berkshire grassroots organizations have come together with a very specific mission: get individual communities in the county to pass their own versions of a trust policy.
“A trust policy is a local ordinance to promote trust, safety, and inclusion for all people in a community by passing a local ordinance called a trust act or a trust policy to ensure that local police equally and equitably respect the rights of all members of the community, and specifically don’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target and deport undocumented immigrants outside of criminal cases," said Jeff Lowenstein. He's a community organizer for Berkshire Interfaith Organizing — or BIO — and a Berkshire native. “And I’m one of BIO’s representatives to the Trust Policy Partnership, which is a group that formed as part of the campaign to pass the Great Barrington trust policy last year, to working to pass these kinds of policies in cities and towns throughout Berkshire County.”
Lowenstein says the movement emerged from the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“In the wake of the 2016 elections and the campaign which lead up to it, which brought out a lot of very strong feelings about immigrants and about our immigration system and race on both sides of the aisle, that campaign lead to a lot of fear, a lot of insecurity in the immigrant community,” Lowenstein told WAMC. He says BIO heard the concerns of the Berkshires’ immigrant community, and felt that action needed to be taken — as did one of their closest allies in the county.
“So back in the day, there used to be Welcome Massachusetts, and Welcoming Towns, and so there’s already a precedent of something like this, but then yes, after our recent elections, the sanctuary city movement came up, and that was really a thing to do with the anti-Muslim ban and also deporting immigrants," said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and Co-Founder of Multicultural BRIDGE. The Lee-based nonprofit works on cultural competency training, describing itself as “dedicated to catalyzing change and integration through promoting mutual respect and understanding.” For the two groups, there was a logical place to try out the county’s first trust policy.
“So the town of Great Barrington on their own had set up a welcoming charter, which many other towns in Berkshire County have done, and it was just a statement," said VanSant. "Because I’ve been doing work with Great Barrington for a long time — because BRIDGE actually started in Great Barrington — I knew they could do more, and some other community members were asking questions like what does this mean, what does this commitment mean?”
VanSant said the examples of trust policies the partnership encountered outside of the county didn’t apply easily to the Berkshires.
“But when I looked at models from other cities, they were not Berkshire-friendly policies," she told WAMC. "It was really written for urban settings where there’s a lot of tension with police, and we are in community with our police officers, so I wanted to have something that was covering all diversities and really honored building up the relationship with our police officers.”
With the 2017 Great Barrington town meeting looming, they had only days to create the policy. VanSant and Lowenstein said they worked with a broad coalition of community members, from municipal leaders and the police department to members of the immigrant community, to craft language appropriate for the town. A version of the policy made in collaboration with the town’s selectboard was voted into law by Great Barrington residents at the town meeting. Now, Lowenstein says they’re undertaking the process in another Berkshire community.
“And what we’re working to pass in Lee — a welcoming resolution — is essentially a first step in working to pass a trust policy," he said. "It’s a local bylaw in which a town expresses an intention to treat all people with welcome and with equity, and to ensure that all folks are welcome in the town without regard to class, race, ethnicity, health status, hunger, homeless status, or any other demographic characteristic.”
Lee is a different animal from Great Barrington. While Lee has around 6,000 residents to Great Barrington’s 7,000, census data shows that the Mass Pike-adjacent Lee is whiter and has twice the poverty rate of Great Barrington.
“I think right now those profiles are very different," said VanSant. "So there ends up being class issues with those profiles. And some of these things are just perceptions. Some of them are not actually true. People do tend sometimes to choose Lee for more of a homier, down to earth feel, versus Great Barrington, where they perceive is kind of catering to the tourists and sort of more upscale, right? There are communities in both of those places that would be the opposite of what I just said.”
She says Lee’s concentrated immigrant community makes it an obvious next step to attempt to instate a trust policy, and that the partnership driving the process has identified the town’s police chief, Jeffrey Roosa, as a key player in the community. For his part, Roosa tells WAMC he received a draft of the resolution from the Trust Policy Partnership, but wants to meet to work out issues he has with the language before committing any support to the measure.
For VanSant, from town to town, the goal remains the same: “I think a lot of it would be similar as long as we capture the communities that are vulnerable."