A nonprofit that serves Berkshire County’s immigrant population is undergoing a leadership change.
Friday marked Brooke Mead’s last day after 17 years at the Pittsfield-based non-profit Berkshire Immigrant Center. Mead – who became fluent in Spanish after a high school semester abroad in Venezuela – signed on with what was then known as the New American Citizenship Coalition in 2002 as an outreach coordinator. It was a shoestring operation with only enough funding to keep employees on the clock in short spurts.
“We were in one room," said Mead. "We were started as a refugee resettlement project by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. They were over on East Street. We were in this basement room. There were three of us, and I think we had 43 hours combined between the three of us. We had one computer, one email for all of us, one phone line, and we were serving about 200 people a year – primarily wrapping up a resettlement project which had officially ended and really concentrating on U.S. citizenship.”
When it became clear how difficult that process was for immigrants, the group realized it could have a greater impact focusing on citizenship.
“And at the same time too, because the immigrant population was growing and slightly newer we were finding that when we would make referrals to social service providers they didn’t necessarily have people on staff who spoke another language, they hadn’t necessarily done the planning to think about how they could best serve that aspect of our amazing immigrant population,” Mead told WAMC.
With that, they became the Berkshire Immigrant Center – now working out of St. Stephen’s Church in downtown Pittsfield.
“And we started to grow. And we grew to a point where now we’re serving 600 to 700 people in office, another 300 to 500 through presentations and workshops and community events around the county annually," said Mead. "I think it’s like 146 hours combined now – there’s six staff, three fulltime, three part time, we have a seven-office suite. It’s very different.”
The center estimates that Berkshire County is home to over 10,000 foreign-born residents.
Mead leaves the center as its executive director, a year after it won Best Small Nonprofit 2018 from the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. She stresses that the center’s greatest strength comes from presenting a Berkshire County with open arms to the world.
“The Berkshire Immigrant Center is a center that really is human being focused – connection between one human being and another," said Mead. "And we know how important immigrants – our new neighbors, our new friends, our new colleagues, or maybe not even new, maybe they’ve been here 10 or 15 years – are to this county, and everyone who works here – including, we have immigrants who work here – is really excited to welcome to them and gets how important that is to the future of our county.”
Mead says she’s currently exploring options for her next job.
Now, Michelle Lopez – currently the assistant director for study abroad at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts – will step in. Acknowledging the shoes she has to fill, she’s already getting her priorities in order for her new responsibilities.
“We want as many clients to come in to the center as possible, and let them know it’s a safe space for them to come and have their questions answered and seek the help that they need," said Lopez. "I know that things are a little bit more fearful now under the current administration than they used to be, and I’m sure that’s preventing some people to come in and seek help.”
Lopez experienced firsthand the difficulty of attaining citizenship through her Cuban husband’s efforts to settle in the States. She wants to see the center continue to expand its missions throughout the county.
“We’re a place that people see as stationary, and a place that people come to see us," said the new executive director. "But I would also like our voices and faces to be out in the community inviting community members to get involved and understand what we’re doing there and hopefully volunteer more and invite people to come speak and hear their stories.”