On the Bridge: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn feels Polish pride | By Emma Sanger-Johnson

wynn

PITTSFIELD – Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn is a man of color, and his skin color masks his Polish heritage, as his career masks childhood difficulties. His background and Polish heritage are important to him and contribute to his success.

Born in Pittsfield, Wynn also lived in Southern Berkshire County in Otis and Lee before returning to his birthplace for high school.

“My family, my brother and I in particular, had a typically American upbringing because of our mixed heritage,” he said. “Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter — every holiday — but with a Polish twist.”

Wynn was raised primarily by his mother and his mother’s family, and he spent time with his grandparents, uncles and aunts. His great-grandparents separately emigrated from Poland and met once they were in the United States. The essence of being Polish, for Wynn, is the tradition and family. He cherishes cultural artifacts like food, clothing and language, he said, which remind him of his childhood and his heritage.

Wynn believes the best way of understanding and learning about someone’s background is to ask about food.

“If I described the Thanksgiving meal at my grandmother’s house, you could easily see my heritage,” he said. “The table setting included pierogi, kielbasa, kapusta, golompki.”

Though he enjoys Polish foods, he said, most people cannot identify this part of his heritage.

“Most people can figure that out [that I'm Polish] from hearing those foods,” he said. “They might be shocked looking at me that there wasn’t collard greens on the table.”

Wynn experienced difficulties growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle class household. But good mentors and his love of learning led him to pursue higher education.

After spending three semesters at the Naval Academy, he transferred to Williams College. During his time at Williams, he faced social pressure — he had to choose between his Wrestling Team and the Black Student Union, he said, ultimately deciding to stick with his teammates on the team.

His experiences as a child and young adult informed his later career. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1993, Wynn did “what any other recent college graduate would do” he said — he returned to Pittsfield. He knew he wanted to pursue federal law enforcement as a Federal Agent, and he needed law enforcement experience.

“There was an opportunity to go to work for the City of Pittsfield,” he said, “working for the Police Department, not in the Police Department — on one of their first community outreach centers. One of my first assignments was recruiting people to take the police exam. I thought it would make sense to know what I was talking about, so I took it. I was then selected to go to the Police Academy.”

Wynn decided to stay in local law enforcement. With guidance from his commanders and supervisors, he became a certified police trainer and then began to work in the Police Academy. He became a Sergeant and a fellow with the Drug Enforcement Agency with its Leadership Development program. Following rapid departmental shifts, Wynn became chief of police.

As part of his current work, Wynn trains police officers in cultural diversity and bias crimes, a job that calls upon his own background.

As someone who has been misunderstood, he empathizes with other people who have felt misrepresented. Now he leads trainings (including partnerships with Multicultural Bridge), and he talks about his experiences.

In one conversation, Wynn met a mother angry about her son and adamant that Wynn could not understand her. Her son was experiencing horrific treatment in the school district. Wynn reassured her that he did understand.

“When you share your commonalities with people, it makes it easier to make progress,” he said.

Diving beneath skin color, names and clothing reveals less-examined facets of peoples’ culture and heritage, he said. To see the Polish table setting Wynn described, a guest would have to join him at a meal at his grandmother’s house.

“It is uniquely American that you can have these cross-cultural experiences that are hidden,” he said.

As a Pittsfield native, he recognizes different neighborhoods. Southeast Pittsfield has houses made of concrete, concrete fences and concrete grottos, markers of the Italian stone masons who historically lived in that area. Fences and lawn ornaments are different in other parts of the city because of the ethnic groups who once occupied those neighborhoods.

Physical markers express the history of Pittsfield, but the character and identity of the city comes from more than architecture. The idea that areas off of Wahconah street are typically Irish neighborhoods and Seymour Street was the Polish neighborhood is not necessarily relevant in modern Pittsfield, he said. Industry has changed in the city, altering the population. Practices like street markets and festivals define a community. Wynn knows where he can get a certain cut of meat on one block, a certain kind of bread across the street.

The past does not have to shape the future, he stressed.

A year ago he spoke at the graduation ceremony for the the Women of Color Giving Circle, a network to support women of color, to build self-esteem and fund education. He worried about how to approach the audience, he said.

“I’m seen as a political figurehead,” he said, “and instead of talking about what greatness we expect from them and whatnot, I talked about my own history.”

His central message to them was clear — seize every opportunity and do not worry about the difficulties.

“If I could do it, a kid of mixed heritage and a single-parent household,” he said, “then anyone can.” This profile is part of On the Bridge, a series written in collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge, to bring many voices into this magazine. For more, visit berkshrieeagleblobs.com/onthebridge

Reclaiming and Resistance (III) | By Margot Welch

Kuukua and her Students

Kuukua and her Students

Kuukua is one of two-dozen contributors to a wonderful anthology, African Women Writing Resistance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). With three other women, Jenny Browdy de Hernandez, edited an inspiring and vibrant collection of women’s first-person narratives and wise reflections about lives, cultures, history and politics in the vast, diverse and resource-rich continent of Africa – about which so many of us in North American know so little.

Writing from fifteen African countries (Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda, Botswana,  Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Zambia, Botswana, Rwanda) focuses on a range of critical topics – including but not exclusively diaspora experiences of leaving and loss, adjustment and adaptation, domestic, cultural, and political violence, degrading trauma, resilience, and the enduring determination to make the world safer and kinder for all.

In her preface, Jenny draws from contributors’ words to explain how these women think about writing as an essential form of “resistance.” It is not only a struggle against something oppressive and harmful, but also a fight for what is better. It’s the process of challenging traditions and values that have always placed women below men. It is a way to document the struggle for dignity and empowerment, reconciliation and education that benefits oneself and others. Writing makes people more aware of what holds us back, fostering inner strength and uniqueness.  In distinct but common voices, these women writers vow to reclaim, celebrate and share their own identities, power, and perspectives – for the sake of their nations’ futures – and their own.

The pieces in this book document the large- and small-scale ways that colonialism and violence oppress, violate, and limit lives. However, in the ways these women write about their particular experiences, taken together, their grief, struggles, and dreams are transformed into universal phenomena –reflections that touch and reveal common, universal features of “this being human” (Rumi).  While individual trauma is different from national disaster, reading closely one comes to understand the power of what we share. If we have not been physically raped, our borders have been crossed in surprisingly fearful ways. If we’ve not been viciously beaten or abandoned, we’ve been spanked, slapped, pushed hard, discarded when we hadn’t expected it. If we individually have escaped life-changing illnesses, few of us live in families that have been immune from these devastating experiences.

To at least some degree, I’d bet that women are always aware of climates in which we live – the degrees to which they are respected or destroyed, violent or safe, trustworthy or uncertain, loving or alienating.  How much are loss and attachment, loneliness and connection, resignation and the dream of something better part of our consciousness all the time?

We travel roads of common passions, loves, and dreams for better times in the immediate and global communities of which we are a part. Read slowly, each piece in this anthology calls every one of us to be active – on behalf of others and ourselves. And if we listen carefully, read, take notes, share what we are learning as we go, we are resistors, sustaining and fostering hope for better worlds.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” My son once gave me a large yellow button to wear with this old proverb. It’s not always easy to believe but sometimes it feels true:  that there is nothing quite so precious as the privilege of being able t0 hold a pencil in your hand. (567)

Reclaiming: Learning from Kuukua and her Sisters (I) | by Margot Welch

Kuukua

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe

 
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe – Residence Director, counselor, mentor and writer at Bard College-Simon’s Rock (Berkshire Eagle: June 12, 2014) – grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Her mother, a hospice nurse, moved first to Liberia to find more work and ultimately moved to Columbus Ohio. When Kuukua was eighteen, she came to Ohio to join her mother. But, until then, she was raised by her maternal grandmother – a mulatto woman with British roots who forever lamented the fact that her daughter – Kuukua’s mother – had married an African from a very dark-skinned tribe.

“Not European enough,” Kuukua explains, in her memoir, The Coal Pot: One African Woman’s Journey to Self-Discovery. In this work, she also describes a process of “reclaiming” that began when she decided, in spite of her grandmother’s anxieties, that she has a right to cherish certain “god given attributes” – her naturally nappy hair, her beautiful “chocolate black skin,” and her wonderful African name – that were her birthright, features that helped to make her the person she was.

In post-colonial Ghana, she and all her Catholic school friends were given easy-to-pronounce Anglicized names. Today – nobody calls her “Melody Ann” any more. Growing up with self-confidence and a sense of one’s own worth is a challenge for many, the difficulties are compounded when a child is advised to change who she is. Kuukua remembers vividly.

“‘Scrub that body!’ she (her grandmother) would scream. ‘Maybe eventually some of that black will come off and you will look and act more like your Mom and me.”
And, she continues, “Little did I know then that I would grow to hate the very vein that carries that hint of British in me.”

For many reasons – social, political, economic, and psychological pressures within families and peer groups – many in our world are forced to hide essential features of their identity – their sexuality, for example, and features of physical and mental health, too often misunderstood and stigmatized.

The world is too complicated, Kuukua told me, for any of us to be spending energy hiding, or pretending we are not who we are. Ithe strength of her voice.

About seven years ago she was diagnosed with bipolar illness which, as she told me, makes a difference in who she is. Kuukua wants people to know.

“It’s important to know and to say that medications and talk therapy make a difference. My worst times are documented. I still live. And the kind of woman I am now is partly a result of struggle with an illness that is a stigma people don’t want to talk about – especially African people.It’s something that can happen – something you don’t have any control over.”

While she’s found her ‘calling,’ she says – teaching dance, cooking, writing, and supporting students in ways that help them finish school – she urges young people to trust the same kind of honest self-reflection that she’s certain will makes us strong. (496)

 

On the Bridge: Ghanaian writer leads her community | By Margot Welch, Special to Berkshires Week and the Shires of Vermont

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, residence director at Bard College  of Simon’s Rock, keeps a blog, supports students and builds connections in Great

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, residence director at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, keeps a blog, supports students and builds connections in Great Barrington. (Photo courtesy of Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe)

On her first trip from Ghana to Columbus, Ohio, Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, working today as residence director at Bard College-Simon’s Rock, had never known such cold or seen snow. Raised in a suburb of Accra — lush, green, warm year round, with yards full of fruit trees — she had never been to America.

“Big trees were bowed down with ice,” she said. “And Columbus was so different in so many ways — organized, with street names, and so many white people! At home, churches are everywhere, right next to houses, and worship is active — everyone singing, dancing, hugging, shouting and praying together.”

She came to the U.S. to pursue education.

“By the time I was 18,” she said, “I understood that education was what gave people access to money, power and control. At Ohio Dominican College, I took human resource courses. But I’d always loved writing and ended up majoring in English.”

Yomekpe grew up an ardent, literal believer in the Roman Catholic faith. After college, she enrolled in a master’s program in theology at the University of Dayton and began working in Student Affairs as graduate assistant in campus ministry during her first year there. But her journey took a new turn.

“I believed some texts were sacred, written by God, and not to be questioned. And I was a Bible Quiz champion — even went to national competitions,” she said. “We were looking at faith through many lenses. There were gospels I’d never known about, which had been excluded from the Bible. It was unbalancing. I decided to leave graduate school.”

A professor who knew her convinced Yomekpe to continue her studies. She completed her English master’s degree with an emphasis on postcolonial and adolescent literature, studying in Morocco for a semester. And as assistant to the English department chair, she attended an international writer’s conference in Egypt, where she met and heard powerful voices of African women writers.

“Though I did not yet feel I was a writer,” she said, “I started believing I could be part of something important — something bigger than myself.”

Student Affairs took her next to work as the first black rector at the University of Notre Dame. It was gratifying to deliver a range of important supports, advocacy and counseling services for all the students, she said, and she started new programs, providing health information to sexually active young people, organizing an African dance group and offering Bible study for gay and lesbian students who were quietly struggling to align belief in the Bible with their 21st-century identities.

She had found her calling: To help young people discover themselves safely while they learn about the world and move toward adulthood.

From Indiana she journeyed west to complete a master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union in pastoral counseling and psychology, with certificates in women’s and LGBT studies, before beginning another master’s program for an MFA in writing at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Her thesis is a memoir, “The Coal Pot: One African Woman’s Journey to Self-Discovery.”

When a Student Affairs opportunity at Bard College Simon’s Rock came along, she traveled east. Here, in addition to counseling and advocacy, she has taught African dance and cooking and started a writing group for girls who, like her, are finding their own authentic, integrative voices. For students of color, she said, Great Barrington is conspicuously white.

“Light-skinned or bi-racial people seem more easily accepted around here, but there aren’t many of us dark ones,” she said. “People usually stare, and it can feel lonely: We wave when we see each other. In Ghana, I never thought about being black — only about the reality of being a woman in a world where men have power and control. A special feature of my calling is for students of color to know that people who look like them and me can accomplish, succeed and overcome any obstacle.”

Now securely identifying herself as a writer — memoirist, essayist and writer of social commentary — she has a blog, “Musings of an African Woman” (ewurabaempe.wordpress.com). She is working in a “secular setting,” enjoying the challenge of developing non-religious ways to supporting students’ spiritual growth.

“In many ways this job is what I dreamed of doing when I began studying theology,” she said, “because it means working in a communal setting like a village where, together, we are all helping to raise children as responsible adults who find ways to do what they themselves are called to do.”

Eiko Brown: Portraits on the page and on the skin | By JV Hampton-VanSant

JV Hampton-Van Sant, Special to Berkshires Week and the Shires of Vermont

Eiko and Brian Brown

Eiko and Brian Brown, Photo By JV Hampton-VanSant

DALTON — It’s midway through a bright Monday. The sun is giving us a preview of the summer to come, and a slow gentle breeze floats refreshingly. On a day like this, it is easy to see why someone would return to build a home and raise a family in Dalton, warmed by the feel of a safe and close knit community.
Red-Karpet Tattoo on Depot Street holds the pleasant aroma of candles. The walls are decorated with portraits inside ornate bronze and antique gold frames. Burgundy velvet rope barriers section off the tattooing area. The same burgundy velvet, outlined by intricate bronze back frame, covers an antique settee where Eiko Brown sits during the interview.

Portrait by Eiko Brown

Portrait by Eiko Brown

Brian and Eiko Brown moved to Dalton in 2012.
Brian is a native of Dalton, but Eiko comes from a small town in Japan called Tsu, in the Mie prefecture, close to Kyoto and Osaka. Eiko’s family was open-minded, she said, and appreciated the benefits of travel and adventure. Eiko’s father was a member of a group who did volunteer work in countries worldwide. Eiko was drawn to the openness, the freedom and the artistry in the U.S.
“I loved the language and the music and knew that was where I wanted to go,” she reflected.
At 15, she came to America for the first time as an exchange student in Chicago. She immersed herself fully in learning English. When she came as an exchange student, she remembers filling out the form and checking off not wanting to be in a large city where she would run the risk of falling into a specific community.
“I chose a place with very few Asian people,” she said. “I wanted to make it possible for me to learn the language and practice only English. I find it’s the best way to learn a language: to be completely immersed in the culture.”
When she returned to Japan to finish high school, she felt differences between the U.S. and Japan.
“In Japan they teach you to work in groups, and there is less of a focus on individual performance. If you fell behind, there was an entire group to support you,” she said.
Eiko has always been artistic, but when she came to the University in San Francisco for business management she began more and more to practice drawing the world around her. There she met her husband, Brian, who inspired and encouraged her to practice the photorealistic style she’d been using and to consider portraiture.
When she and Brian moved to Dalton, they opened their tattoo parlor. He is the tattoo artist. She draws portraits at the shop.
She spends hours focusing on all of the miniature details, down to each hair on the customer’s head. She said a lot of the work she does with portraits is memorial, so accuracy is the highest priority for her.
She also designs tattoos.
Eiko’s own tattoos are exquisitely detailed. While her family is open-minded and expressive, Eiko said there was not much acceptance of tattoos in Japan.
“There are still places out there where you cannot use the public pool if you are tattooed,” she said.
In traditional “old-school” Japan tattoos were very large and some were associated with the Yakuza (originally peddlers, traders and gamblers, now criminal organizations).
But that has changed.
Now more people have tattoos, she said, and they hold deep meanings and in many ways reflect the person who wears them. A lot of detail and precision goes into custom tattoo work, she said.
“In Japan, each tattoo covers the full body and tells a folk story,” Brian said. “The tattoos are not selected by the client beforehand but determined by the artist after long conversations.”
Symbols carry intricate meanings in Japanese language and writing, Eiko explained: The pictogram for one word may hold a story.
“In Japanese, when we write the Kanji for the word ‘person,’ we know it is a simplified version of a much more traditional piece of art,” she said. “The traditional symbol for person resembles a man standing, being held up by another man, and the reasoning behind that is, you can’t have just one person. We, as people, hold each other up. So every time we write this word, this is what it means.”
Though Brian was raised in Dalton, both Brian and Eiko experienced culture shock returning to the Berkshires after time in such a diverse place as San Francisco. Eiko said the Asian community in the Berkshires often feels comparatively disparate and small. It is strange not to have easy access to certain shops she might see in Chinatown in a larger city, such as Asian clothing stores, or hair stores, or Ramen bars. The numbers are growing, but the group tends to stay in its individual subgroups (Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.), and she sees less unity here among them than she found in the city.
Reflecting on her experience, Eiko said, “When I first arrived, I was pretty sure people knew me mostly as ‘Brian’s Asian Wife’, but as time went on, people got to know me through Red-Karpet and through my art. The Dalton community is very supportive, but I would love to see more diversity.”
In the future, Brian and Eiko hope to start a family, and they hope to raise their kids in an environment that embraces many languages and diversity. They look forward to spending more time in the Berkshires, celebrating the various cultures that exist around them.

What Does the Berkshire Immigrant Center Do? | By Margot Welch

Image 31

            Located on the second floor of the Baptist Church in Pittsfield (88 South Street; tel: 413-445-4881) the Berkshire Immigrant Center  (BIC) is a light, bright, color-and hope-filled place. whose essence, for me, is caught on its walls, like emblems.

            * A World Map, entitled “Where Do We Come From,” decorated with colored pins stuck in        homelands all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America;

            *A photograph of the Statue of Liberty;

            * A framed certificate of outstanding performance, dedication and commitment issued               to BIC by the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).

            * A multi-colored African Welcome Poster next to four beloved Norman Rockwell        prints – all hung with Tibetan prayer flags;

            *A plaque given to the Center by the Berkshire Immigrant Community that reads:

            In Recognition Of The Wonderful People, Like Angels On The Path, Who Are Fighting With      Love For Our Wellbeing.

            Four people – only one of whom is full-time, staff BIC. Its wonderful Director has to spend endless time writing grants to keep BIC alive. And once you start grasping everything BIC you know it’s a place where everyone works over time – and loves what they’re doing.

            It’s simple to summarize BIC’s services:  orientation to community resources and referrals, immigration counseling and support, citizenship assistance, advocacy, community education and outreach. (Interview with Hilary Greene, Berkshire Eagle, March 27). But this does not begin to capture the extraordinary role that BIC plays for all kinds of people, with all kinds of needs.

            Some things are more straightforward than others – like finding literacy programs (there’s one at the Lee Library, for example) tutoring, preparation for citizenship exams, and help understanding and completing very complicated federal applications for documentation and resident status. Jennifer Smith, BIC’s Educational Coordinator, sometimes sees as many as ten or twelve students in her ten-hour a week job. It’s varied work – because students arrive with different levels of literacy. Volunteer tutors help a great deal.

IMG_0692

            Other requests are more complicated – when, for example, immigrants need legal or social advocacy for themselves, their spouses, their children, their parents, and when they need safety and protection from violence in their home lands and right here, in the US.

            BIC’s collection of nineteen narratives, drawn over the past few years, from fourteen homelands (Brazil, Central Asia (a country from the former Soviet Republic), Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, India, Liberia, Republic of Congo, Peru, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka) illustrates the variety of challenges people bring with them.

            Twenty-four years old, J was a youth organizer and community worker in El Salvador before he decided to pursue his education, became targeted by kidnappers working for a new government, and nearly died escaping. N, a child in Liberia in the 90’s arrived in the states with her young daughter, borne in a refugee camp in Guinea.  D came into the US on a Temporary Exchange Visa, working for a year before facing the punitive prospect of returning home, to a former Soviet Republic Central Asia as a gay man who would never stay be able to live in his homeland and stay alive. B, a promising girl who would have been first in her family to graduate from college, became the target of Congolese guerilla fighters and was gang-raped – while her uncle was forced to watch.

            Don’t misunderstand. None of these people come to BIC as victims. All are determined to build safe, free lives here, be good citizens, and find productive ways to express their deep gratitude to this country. But with such histories, it’s easy to grasp how much difference kindness, understanding, and supports can make. And many also thinks  of our ancestors – who, may also have emigrated bravely from one place to another, to give their children better futures. We are all neighbors, all kin.  The Berkshire Immigrant Center makes all our families stronger.

IMG_0701

Hope: The Berkshire Immigrant Center | By Margot Welch

Image 31
At at the speaker’s table at Great Barrington’s Library, I sat with four writers looking out at about fifty faces – differing ages, stages, abilities, genders and colors. How lucky! It was our chance to share what we’ve learned, since 2012, from interviewing and writing about Berkshire residents whose diverse enrich us all.

Meeting on the Bridge was one of fifty-eight events during the joyful, month-long Berkshire Women Writers’ Festival. From North Adams to Sheffield, attending panels like ours, workshops, readings, book talks, and amazing performances, more than 3000 people shared work, hopes, and challenges. The festival’s theme – women write to right the world – unified participants as they shared deep concerns about the long-term cultural and environmental well being of our country, our world, and our planet.

On the BRIDGE, a partnership between Multicultural BRIDGE and the Berkshire Eagle that portrays Berkshire residents in the newspaper and an accompanying blog (berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge) has given me precious opportunities. My interviews, often spotlighting immigrants, have mad me feel useful because I’ve long believed if Americans really knew what immigrants’ lives are like today, the country would pass meaningful immigration reform. Because these immigrants – courageous, hard-working, exploited, anxious, loving, and determined – are our neighbors, the ones whom we all depend on to maintain our homes and yards, grow, prepare and serve our foods, clean our houses, stock greenhouses and clean store floors, care for our children and elders.  We need each other.

IMG_0711

 

Last month, I profiled Hilary Greene, Director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. (Berkshire Eagle, Thursday, March 27). After our interview, we shared discouragement about prospects for significant immigration reform under Obama. It’s heartening to know how vigorously immigrants, families, and advocates, of all ages and faiths, are meeting with legislators, circulating petitions, even hunger striking. But recently the New York Times ran two discouraging pieces  (“Yes He Can!” April 6; “More Deportations Follow Minor Crimes, Data Shows,” April 7). Obama has deported nearly two million people – more than any president in the history of this country. Intense partisan gridlock shadows Congress and any strong possibility for reform.

What’s the truth?

*Immigrants pay more in taxes than they ever get back in public services.

            * Immigrants pay more in taxes, than they ever get back in public services.

    * Immigrants do not take jobs away: they make them.                               

    *Immigrants commit far fewer crimes than native born Americans.                

    * Immigrants want to play by the rules and legalize their status. 

    *Immigrants make significant contributions to our communities.       

     *Immigrants come here like most of ours did: for their children’s futures.

Searching for a dose of hope, I called my friends at the Immigrant Center, where Marge Cohan, long-term Board Member is unpacking donated spring clothes and fueled by gratitude.

“Hey, I just grabbed the fifteen minutes of sunshine we’re getting today. Get yours!” she commanded. “This Immigrant Center is great! What’s more, I go all over the county teaching Multicultural BRIDGE’s great diversity training and even if a lot of people in our audiences are required to participate – they’re public service workers, civic and community institutions staff, school students, teachers, and administrators –they’re getting the information, have a chance to reflect about difference.

“In Pittsfield,” she continues, “Twenty-seven percent of our school kids are black, Latino, or Asian – sitting right next to and rubbing shoulders with white kids every day. Everybody’s having different experiences from the ones they used to have. Listen. When I came here, there was one mediocre Chinese restaurant. Now North Street is bustling with excited immigrant enterprise! And Jake McCandless, our superintendent, submitted his 2015 budget proposal to the School Committee with a $100,000 line for minority recruitment. Everybody – I mean everybody! – loves those amazing Ghanaian kids on the Basketball and Lacrosse teams! I think Obama’s doing a fine job – and don’t need the New York Times to tell me what’s wrong!”

After a long winter, spring – a time for hope – is here – and Marge, so perfectly representing the Immigrant Center and Multicultural BRIDGE, has the voice we need!

Meeting Russia: Hilary Greene finds home abroad and helps newcomers find it in the Berkshires | by Margot Welch, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Hilary Greene shares memories.

Hilary Greene shares memories. (Eagle file)

PITTSFIELD — On the second floor of the First Baptist Church, Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, sits at her desk — stacked high with files, papers and photos of her family and a horse she loved growing up in Hancock. When she was 9, her parents, both teachers, moved the family there from Brooklyn.

Thirty years ago, Greene’s 10th-grade Monument Mountain Social Studies teacher paired her class with Russian pen-pals in Petrodvorets, a small town near St. Petersburg. Greene wrote to Olga. Months later, Olga’s reply arrived — whole lines blacked out by a Cold War censor. Both girls wanted to master each other’s language. Greene has always loved history and languages.

For six years she and Olga exchanged long letters. Just before Greene’s senior year at college, where she majored in Soviet and Russian Studies, the two young women and Olga’s family met at St. Petersburg’s Pulkova airport. Greene had come to study there for her senior year.

After she graduated — in 1991, two years after the Soviet Union dissolved — she and a friend set off to live in Olga’s world. Foreign businesses were flooding into Russia, she said.

“Everyone wanted to practice speaking English,” she said. “Every day was an adventure. I walked everywhere, rode buses and trains to last stops, explored neighborhoods. I had this deep sense of history, beauty, amazement that I was actually there.”

She explored antique shops and old neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts where old women had set up stalls on street corners to sell pastries they had just baked in their kitchens.

Having discovered Prague’s new English Language newspaper, she and an American friend created a publication in St. Petersburg, collecting arts, cultural and sporting events and job opportunities.

“It still exists,” she said. “It’s even online now — sptimes.ru — with our winged lion logo. But we handed it off to other expats and started another business, Personnel Corps — placing English-speaking Russians in new jobs.”

But for many Russians these times were miserable.

“Much was rationed. Everything was very expensive. Heating and plumbing systems broke down. I saw people standing in bread lines for hours, leaving with nothing but a broken egg. Highly educated professionals — doctors, teachers, lawyers — were earning less than the equivalent of $100 a month. Not enough to live on.”

The country had survived two World Wars and decades of the Cold War.

“Resilience, adaptability and strength seem ingrained, deep in Russian culture,” Greene said. “I saw such generosity — in Olga’s family, and everywhere. If something broke, or someone needed something, there were networks, always someone to help, trade resources, make do with and share what they had, trust their capacities to fix things without the government.”

Greene came home in 1996, determined to find ways to keep using her Russian and make a positive difference in people’s lives.

“I have strong memories, deep feelings about the people who took care of me in a foreign country, helped me, wanted to get to know me,” she said. “It’s important that I continue to do that for others here.”

She was hired by the Jewish Federation’s New American and Refugee Resettlement Coalition, serving Jewish refugees leaving the Soviet Union. In 2002, when U.S. policy shifted focus to Somalia, the Sudan and other war-torn countries, the local program became the Berkshire Immigrant Center.

Greene and three colleagues all work long hours at BIC, with love. Client numbers are higher than ever; they’re at capacity in the numbers of people they can serve.

“What I hate most,” Greene said, “is when people come with problems for which there is really no solution.”

People leave home for their children’s futures, she said. They need citizenship preparation, tutoring, or applications for visas, changes in status, legal appeals — tasks requiring time, money, transportation and clarification, assets often inaccessible to immigrants working two jobs. Many, having fled wars, prisons, kidnappings, refugee camps, and violence, need safety, work, housing, health care, legal assistance, literacy and legitimacy.

Searching for funding never stops, she said. Immigration reform prospects seem dim. People desperate to bring in a spouse, sibling, child, parent, grandparent face heartbreaking facts: Some petitions take 12 years.

Berkshire County’s population and labor force are diminishing. Dependence on immigrant workers is increasing, she said. BIC’s trainings have addressed anti-immigrant feelings. But in slow economies, immigrants are vulnerable.

Every day new Americans are working hard, buying homes, paying taxes, starting businesses and strengthening communities.

“I love that every day is different,” Greene said. “Finishing a day’s work, I love knowing that because our organization exists, someone else’s life is a little easier. Watching devastated people get back on their feet, understanding courage — it’s a privilege. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

 

This series is a collaboration between this magazine and Multicultural Bridge to honor voices from all backgrounds.

For more, see berkshireeagle

blogs.com/onthebridge

 

Related events …

Williams College will look at Russia in the past and today. For more see williams.edu

 

Historical perspectives on Russia and the Ukraine

2:45 p.m. Tuesday, April 8

‘From Stalin to Sochi,’ Dan Healy, professor at Oxford University, speaks on LGBT Russia,

4 p.m. Wednesday, April 9

‘The Gulag Doctor’s Notebook’ Professor Healy will speak on medical services in Stalin’s forced-labor camp

On the Bridge: Coming home again to Irish soil By Kate Abbott, Berkshire Eagle

20140311__0313IrishOTB_500LEE — In 2009, Ann LaBier of Lee first went to Ireland, on a 10-day trip in March, and she spent St. Patrick’s Day in the town where her grandmother was born.

Her grandparents — her father’s parents and her mother’s father — came from Ireland to Brooklyn, N.Y., in the early 1900s.

Her grandmother came from Balinrobe, County Mayo in Western Ireland.

The town is about as large as Lee, a downtown area sorrounded by farmland and sheep. LaBier saw the holiday parade there. St. Patrick’s Day, she said, is a national holiday in Ireland and a religious holiday. Many people go to church in the morning after their chors are done.

“There are parades everywhere,” she said, and people dressed in costume, holding banners. The processions had themes like the recession, events shaping the town and communities.

“It was breathtaking,” she said, “to be standing on a street with 2,000 people and wondering how many were my relatives.”

At the South Mayo Family Research Center she asked about her maiden name — Dulin, from the Irish town of Doolin — and family names, O’Malley and Feerick.

O’Malleys, she was told, “were block deep.”

She and her husband went to Doolin too, on the Atlantic Coast near the Aran Islands. She remembers stone walls marking field borders, thatched roofs, piles of peats drying for fuel, and the bright colors of the houses, vibrant purples and yellows and green. Those colors, she was told, show independence.

“The government owns the houses,” she said, “and once people pay them off, then they can paint them.”

Ireland has gone through difficult times since her grandparents left, though their entry into the EU has helped recently.

“Their stability is based on people coming,” she said.

Jo Grossman of Housatonic has been coming often, for many years. She works for a foreign literary rights agency and travels often — and Ireland draws her back constantly.

“It envelopes you,” she said. “It makes you feel you belong there.”

She fell in love with the idea of Ireland when she was 12, she said. She has no Irish blood she knows of — her family is Jewish from Hungary and Germany — but she has loved the country for decades and visited many times.

On her first trip, in 1993, many of the most famous sites were open, and she could walk right up to them. She saw the green mounds at New Grange, she said, earth domes over passage graves. A small rock window sits above the low door, and at the summer solstice the sun shines through.

Now tourism is growing, she said, and people are coming in. In Dublin, she learned to say “thank you” in Polish from a young man who filled her car with petrol.

But she likes the country and the smaller towns.

“You battle sheep,” she said. “They think they own the road.”

It mists often but rarely rains hard, she said, and “even when it rains, the colors look brighter.”

In June, the days stay light until 11 p.m. in the long, northern dusk. Music at the pubs starts late, she said.

On the road, she finds herself stopping to explore what catches her eye: old, thatched houses, one with an old stove and flowers growing out of the thatch.

One woman saw her looking at her house and invited her in. Another helped her in a downpour to find a B&B so hidden the woman didn’t know it existed in the town where she was born. She and Grossman are now fast friends.

Grossman has talked with caretakers at medieval abbeys and at the old armory in Kinsail, overlooking the water. She has talked with guides giving tours, a librarian who told her that more than 5,000 Jews emigrated through Ireland in World War II, a man on a bicycle who recommended the town’s Chinese restaurant for dinner.

LaBier savors the memory of Irish food — lamb stew, fresh eggs, blood sausage, fruit breads with sweet butter, strong tea, nd the seafood.

“The fishermen are out catching what you’re eating that night,” she said.

She had not known her grandparents. She is the youngest in her family, and her grandmother died the year she was born.

Her mother’s father, she said, came to the U.S. when he was about 14, at the turn of he 20th century. He worked odd jobs, she said, and during Prohibition he ran a speakeasy.

But her family has not handed down stories about her grandparents’ lives.

But she thinks about them: about how brave they must have been to leave everything they knew and come to a city neighborhood when American businesses used to hang signs outside saying “Irish need not apply.”

And something of Ireland seems to have come down to her. She has red hair, a Shamrock bracelet and an insistence on respect. And the country draws her back. She remembers how she felt when she stood there for the first time.

“It was a sense of the first time you felt like you were home. When we landed” –” she took a deep breath and let it out slowly — “something felt like where I want to be.”

 

On the Bridge

Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.

Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.

4th Annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers | By JOE DONAHUE

Listen here

The Roundtable
11:40 AM
FRI MARCH 7, 2014

4th Annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

 

The annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is a collaborative, multi-venue event sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock with many local partners, celebrated county-wide in the month of March, Women’s History Month.

In 2014, the Fourth Annual Festival will feature more than 150 women of all ages and from many backgrounds, sharing their talents through readings, lectures, workshops, performances and screenings held at 36 Berkshire County venues from Sheffield to Williamstown.

 

Here now to tell us more are Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, the Executive Director of Multicultural Bridge; Carmen Maria Mandley, Actor and Educator at Shakespeare & Company; and Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez is an associate professor of comparative literature and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Jennifer is the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.