'Berkshire Immigrant Stories' run deep

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Photo Gallery | Public Humanities Center at BCC

PITTSFIELD — There's a deep, rich history in Berkshire County that belongs to immigrants. You can see and hear it in the Irish surnames of multigenerational families in Dalton and the Polish surnames in Adams. You can spot it on maps, where markers show how the Underground Railroad ran through Jacob's Pillow in Becket, to help usher African slaves to freedom, or where Jewish synagogues were established by Eastern Europeans, first in North Adams in 1893.

On Monday morning, Berkshire Community College announced a call for the community to acknowledge its past heritage and document its more contemporary one through a pilot multimedia documentary project, "Berkshire Immigrant Stories."

Established through a $16,000 grant garnered from Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project's goal is to collect and share the stories of recent local immigrants (1965 and later) and their children and grandchildren through an online exhibit and archive called "Your Story, Our Story," developed by the Tenement Museum of New York.

Should it prove successful in engaging citizens, the Berkshire Immigrant Stories Project is expected to pave the way for the establishment of a physical Public Humanities Center at Berkshire Community College. BCC is one of only three colleges in the commonwealth — the others include Holyoke Community College and Bristol Community College in Fall River — chosen to advance what's known as the Community College Public Humanities Centers (CCPHC) initiative.

Mass Humanities received a $74,835 planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch the latter initiative which, "promises to transform the cultural and civic landscape of Massachusetts," according to an April 2016 announcement about the humanities centers concept.

Charles Park, assistant professor of English at BCC, is directing the Berkshire Immigrant Stories project with support from Christopher Laney, the colleges interim dean of humanities. Park has been working with Mass Humanities for about a year, planning what BCC's project focus would be.

Said Park, "The center will be a place for people who are longtime residents of the Berkshires as well as people who are new to the Berkshires, to have the opportunity not only for celebration of but to become more connected to the deep and rich history that the Berkshires have to offer. A lot of people don't know about it, and only see a small part of the rich and deep history that the Berkshires have."

Speakers at Monday morning's announcement of the project and plans for the center included BCC President Ellen Kennedy, Mass Humanities Director David Tebaldi, Director of the Upper Housatonic Natural Heritage Area Dan Bolognani, BCC Interim Director of Student Engagement Eleanore Velez, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. Together, along with other student and alumni speakers, they shared their own personal and anecdotal stories of how immigration affects not only individual lives, but also the livelihood of the communities they live in.

"These stories should be preserved and collected and shared so people living here can understand to how we got to where we are," Park said.

Back in August, Laney previewed the project with the Berkshire Bridges: Working Cities group members whose mission is to ensure Pittsfield's future as a safe and thriving community. Members there resoundingly supported the Humanities Centers initiative and asked how they could take part in the Berkshire Immigrant Stories project.

While stories can be shared online now, at yourstory.tenement.org, using the tag of "Berkshire Immigrant Stories," Park said workshops offering guidance on how residents can develop and share a story, or work with a translator, will be offered this spring. Already, seven stories tagged as Berkshire Immigrant Stories appear on the national Your Story, Our Story website.

Park said he hopes the project also helps breakdown misconceptions about immigrants in the Berkshires. "There's a richness of various ethnic groups who decided to settle in the Berkshires, Jewish, Polish, among others. Most people, when they think of the word "immigrant," think Latinos and Spanish-speaking immigrants, but we've had migrants from Eastern Europe and Central Europe who have also made this region incredibly diverse."

The professor said there's also another value in preserving these stories and images. "So often we're told that the Berkshires is aging. What that means is our stories are dying with the aging population."

In addition to the workshops, the grant will also help fund speakers and literary events this spring, as well as celebration of the people and stories that present themselves during this first year of the initiative.

"We need all of these different stories to help us understand who we are as a community. [They're] a piece of a larger puzzle that gives us a better perspective and idea of this," Park said.

Learn more at berkshirecc.edu/immigrantstories.


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