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.

City recognizes entrepreneur Brian Hicks sees a medical void, fills it | By Kate Abbott, Berkshire Eagle,

Brian Hicks developed Clean Image, a 24-hour mobile medical lab.

Brian Hicks developed Clean Image, a 24-hour mobile medical lab.

On a sunny afternoon, Brian Hicks goes fishing with his older son at Onota Lake.

On a sunny and colder afternoon, he may drive to Ashley Falls or to Alford, on icy back roads, to help a house-bound patient under doctor’s orders to have blood drawn.

Hicks has two sons, 4 and 8 years old, who visit him in the summers. Last summer, he said, he took his older son to a Red Sox game to have his photo taken with Big Papi, and got his son baseball cards before the game, so his son would know all the players.

He remembers that carefully planned day with a glow of laughter and energy.

Energy and planning have brought him a long way.

This winter, Pittsfield awarded him Best of Pittsfield in the Medical Laboratory category. Hicks has an extensive background in medical laboratory sciences, 10 years in the field and two master’s degrees in medical laboratory science and in business administration.

And he has an unusual business model.

He saw a need — he saw doctors frustrated because lab tests results come back so slowly or because patients were slow to have the tests done — and he saw people who were in pain, or trapped by the snow, or unwilling to go to a doctor when they needed one. And he saw an innovative way to meet the need. He brings the tests to them.

In August 2012, Hicks founded Clean Image, a 24-hour mobile medical lab.

His is an unique kind of business, especially in the northern half of the country. He came to the Berkshires from Houston, Texas, and before that from Atlanta, Ga.

“I always had a passion for the medical field,” Hicks said.

Born in Tennessee, he volunteered at a local hospital in high school and worked as a rehab aide while in college in Atlanta. He worked in hospital maintenance, and he was accepted into a one-year medical technology program at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, covering the usually two-year internship at high speed.

Then he visited medical schools. He had always wanted to go to medical school. But as he considered the seven or more years of school he would have still to come, he decided he would rather start to work immediately — and travel — and work with people, and start his own business.

He began with a consulting business in Houston, which he still runs, often working with clients in New York. He earned an MBA and is working toward a doctorate in business with a specialty in health insurance.

Coming to North Adams on a chance assignment, he decided the Berkshires could be fertile ground to build a new business. Clean Image has grown quickly, he said, with a combination of inside knowledge and technology.

“I can do everything from my phone,” he said: schedule patients, take orders securely, deliver confidential results.

Because he is a medical laboratory scientist, hospitals will work with him, and insurance will cover his tests. The judicial system will refer people to him for drug screenings. Parents trying to get a child back will get screened to prove to family services that they are free of illegal drugs and alcohol.

Through diligent networking, Hicks said, he has expanded to cover a 50-mile radius outside the Berkshires, from Hartford, Conn., to Albany, N.Y.

He can draw blood samples, run screens for drugs, tests for STDs, allergy or breast cancer panels, pre-screenings for men’s health and more. He does not diagnose, he emphasized. If he sees anything out of the ordinary in a test result, he will promptly refer the patient to a doctor to look into it.

“I respect doctors,” he said.

Some people come to him for privacy, he said. Some come because it’s cheaper, depending on their health insurance. Some are house-bound by the ice, or from illness, and they welcome a lab that will come to them.

If he draws blood on a doctor’s order, he added, that service is free for the patient.

People can come with a doctor’s order or pay out-of-pocket, Hicks said. He offers discounts and payment plans — and he has helped people who have no health insurance, or not enough, to find care.

He often works with Porchlight VNA in Lee and with Jeffrey Kellogg, a physician’s assistant with Berkshire Mobile Medicine, who does house calls.

“When it’s your own business, you work harder,” he said. ”It’s your baby — and you have more flexibility.”

He has met obstacles, he said. Because his service is unique in New England, it is unfamiliar to many people. But he loves it, and he never gives up.

“It’s a passion,” he said. “It helps me to get up every day to have a go at it.”

 

On the Bridge

In honor of Black History Month, in this column we have chosen to introduce an entrepreneur and Berkshire innovator.

 

This series of profiles is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To hear more of these voices, visit www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.

 

To meet them in person, join us
at Mason Library, 231 Main St., Great Barrington, at 7 p.m. on March 10, for a conversation with Bridge columnists and people who have talked with us, as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

A Conversation With William Amado Syldor-Severino | by Siobhan Connally

 

William Amado Syldor-Severino and his 3 week old, Abi. Photo by Siobhan Connally

William Amado Syldor-Severino and his 3 week old, Abi. Photo by Siobhan Connally

 

 

 

Q: Where do you find the most inspiration?

A: I find inspiration in organizations like the Black Panther Party and EZLN (Zapatistas), as both of these organizations and those similar have shown me the grounded nature of my dream. They’ve proven to me that another way of building is possible. INCITE! Women of Color against Violence is also another source of inspiration, as they show that it is possible to be a successful non-profit while not having to accept the monies of your government or oppressive foundations. I find inspiration in those who have defied the supposedly impossible—of people more concerned with what must be done for true and loving liberation rather than what has been said to be possible. These people, folks like Paolo Freire, Andrea Smith, Gloria Watkins (bell hooks), Audre Lorde, Malcom X, Subcommandante Marcos, Cesar Chavez, MLK, etc., all work towards building a foundation set in a different way.

I don’t know where I find the most inspiration, as everything inspires me depending on where I am and who I am at any given moment. What inspires me are instances where people defy the idea that we must build using poisonous materials. I see this resistance every day in a variety of ways from a variety of people.

Right now, the Zapatistas stand out to me. For some reason they’ve fueled me the last few years in a way not many other organizations have.

 

Q: What do you think has been the most positive aspect about your work in the Berkshires? 

A: Serving for young people has easily been the most positive aspect of working in the Berkshires. Learning about their lives, their struggles, their dreams, has been a beautiful and difficult process. My work with BRIDGE is a close second.

 

Q: In your work you have really pushed some uncomfortable topics. Why is it that conversation so important?

A: It is a dangerous position to pretend as if issues of social justice do not impact or affect every living person on this earth. James Baldwin stated, “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for me that night.” I believe that we are all inextricably connected. And so when I am faced with a poisonous environment seeping the life either quickly or slowly out of my fellow people, I may not notice sometimes, but I am also dying as well. These issues are matters of incredible urgency. White supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, classism, sexism, are all incredibly dangerous constructions. I find those topics that make people the most uncomfortable are many times the most important.

 

Q: Where do you think this country is in terms of equality? Which leaders of the past have inspired you to either continue or to change that path?

A: I think this country is fine in terms of equality, and that is what terrifies me about this country. For me this issue is not equality, but rather equity, or massive and fairly accepted inequity. I imagine it as a massive pool many feet deep, and the groups and classifications of this country symbolized as people of different sizes and abilities trying not to drown in that pool. These people are all given the same platform, and that platform only holds a minority of those people comfortably above the water. The rest are left to fend for themselves. They are blamed for their poor swimming skills, regardless of how long they have been swimming. They are attacked on a regular basis by the lifeguards and blamed for their occasional aggression. They are pushed into a smaller and smaller section of the pool leading to infection and larger losses of life, and they are blamed for that. They try to build their own platforms, and are successful, but many of those platforms are then burned and many of the builders and engineers are persecuted and sometimes killed. They are blamed for this.

The US is a country built out of colonization, genocide, slavery, mass rape, exploitation, imprisonment, espionage, imperialism, and other horrendous trends. The leaders that inspire me the most are those who embrace this past in order to alter it truly and not in a way that strives to protect the idea that the American Dream was anything more than a terrible trick. To solve something we must first accurately identify it. People like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Assata Shakur, show me the way.

 

Q: Identity and its exploration are a big part of your philosophy, how do you feel about that as you embark on raising your child?

A: I feel terrified and equally emboldened. I know that already my child’s mind is being assaulted by this domination culture. I know that every year this child spends on this earth is another year farther from his parents and closer to these incredibly damaging social messages about men, about people of color. I am emboldened because while this world is scary, it is also unique and exciting in many ways. There are almost unlimited ways for us to mark this world with our individuality. Resistance is constant, and I am not concerned with where my child falls on the political spectrum. I only want my child to love himself, to believe in himself, and to always, always ask questions of what he is being told, no matter who’s telling him.

 

Q. Do you have any events planned that you hope people will attend or get involved with? Is there a website where people can interact with you and your work?

A. Soon we should be screening the upcoming film that I am in (If These Halls Could Talk). Railroad Street Youth project holds YOB every Tuesday at 4 p.m., where young people ages 14-25 can submit proposals and receive all kinds of support (staff, finances, space, etc.) to actualize it. It’s also a space for conversation and connection, and it’s open for those under 14 and over 25. It’s a wonderful space and you should stop by and check it out. RSYP also has Documentary Thursdays, where every Thursday at 4 p.m. we screen a documentary or film in the drop in center. There’s the RSYP Drop in Center, open Monday from 2 to 5 p.m., and Tuesday to Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. We have computers, video games, a growing library, a ping pong table, and overall a place to hang out in. I would advise folks to check out any events that BRIDGE is hosting, to check out their website: http://www.multiculturalbridge.org/, and rsyp.org for everything RSYP. If you want more information on the film (If These Halls) and Stirfry Seminars, their website is: http://www.stirfryseminars.com/

Will Amado Syldor-Severino speaks in documentary film to break silence and to heal By Siobhan Connally, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

It’s blessedly quiet as Will Amado Syldor-Severino checks on

Will Amado Syldor-Severino

Will Amado Syldor-Severino holds his three-week-old son, Abi. ( Siobhan Connally / Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont)

his newborn. His son, Abi, is three weeks old and sleeping peacefully as we chat.

“He’s a good baby,” he says with a smile, in sympathy with new-parent exhaustion.

Ordinarily, though, for Syldor-Severino silence isn’t golden. Silence is suspect.

Syldor-Severino is one of 11 scholars to appear in StirFry Seminars’ latest documentary, “If These Halls Could Talk,” filmed in 2010 and released last year. The film, by acclaimed director Lee Mun Wah, discusses diversity on college campuses across the country and the painful issues that are often left unsaid.

“It took me a while to realize it, but racism exists in a way that is unique to this county,” Syldor-Severino said. “The silence says more than the words.”
Now a senior fellow with Americorps Mass Promise, working locally as a jobs and careers counselor with The Railroad Street Y outh Project, he has focused on implementing a more holistic approach when assisting students as they transition toward young adulthood.

“It’s more than just resumes and how a person dresses. It’s also about identity and how that impacts their lives. It’s not just about getting in,” he said. “It’s about recognizing your own value as a worker and what importance you bring with you. I want people to see themselves as workers with value.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough job. One that he’s been taking day by day.
“It’s been harder and harder to feel as if the work I’m doing is sustainable,” he said. “I’ve seen people talk about moving forward in terms of social justice, but then racial politics does just the opposite. For instance, in the way budgets are prioritized or how initiatives in racial justice and social justice politics go nowhere. It seems as if racism is seen as an issue that can be put on the back burner.”
What he wants to feel is not only support in these endeavors but also a sense of urgency.
“What I found to be important is bringing people of color together and having them feel more affirmed in their experiences, and that they can speak to who they are and what they’ve gone through, especially for young people, without having to need to be academic enough,” he said. ” I’d like to see more unification across the county. I’d like to see more opportunity for people to be connected to each other.”
His own passion for social justice came as a result of his own upbringing in Brockton, and also from searching his own intolerances later in life.

“I think coming through Brockton and going to church with my folks … seeing different people from different places gave me a different perspective,” he said. “In college, I became aware of a variety of things that were happening on campus. I became interested in many social justice causes I think because I was aware of myself and the ways that my own ways of viewing the world were really skewed — racist and sexist and heterosexist — I wanted to be honest with myself, and I felt uncomfortable around an openly gay
man, and when I recognized I was dehumanizing a woman just because she was a woman, and the ways I assumed the stupidity of a poor person because they were poor, I knew that for my own self preservation and my own self worth I needed to figure out what was going on and how these processes affected society and led to violence and destruction.”

Ultimately, Syldor believes that the hard conversations have to be explored. “It’s about creating a space for this conversation,” he said.

While it is important to have gatherings that celebrate diverse cultures through food, music or other forms of artistry, it’s not enough. ”We need to have real conversations about race that are different from what people are used to,” he said, adding that only when people work through the toxic emotions — the rage, anger, bitterness and fear — will they come to a place of healing.

“The only way to really ensure survival and a positive life is to struggle,” he said. “I care about my kid, I care about their children and the communities’ children, and there’s no other way to ensure their safety beside struggling to make that a reality. To really shed a light on the deep impact on these isms (sexism, racism, classism) has on society.”
He plans to return to his studies in social justice at the conclusion of his fellowship. He points to his baseball hat, which shows the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional flag.
“I wear this hat every day,” he said. “The way the Zapatistas in Mexico do organizing has been really inspirational for me. They, above most organizations, show me that this work can be done in a loving way and that talking — talking can not only destroy things but also rebuild.”

On the Bridge

This column is a collaboration between Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week & the Shires of Vermont to bring people of all kinds and backgrounds to these pages. To learn more, visit our blog at
www.berkshrieeagleblogs.com/onthebridge

Nyanna Slaughter: Young star looks to the future | By Nik Davies, Special to The Eagle

Nyanna Slaughter looks forward to an adventurous career.

Nyanna Slaughter looks forward to an adventurous career. (Courtesy of Nyanna Slaughter)

PITTSFIELD — Upon meeting Nyanna Slaughter, the first thing you are likely to notice is her height. Standing at 5’10 in sweat socks, she has a statuesque form and flawless face more akin to a model then a star athlete. But then you’ll notice the gym bag packed and ready for a quick departure and the green and gold team suit that is a main staple of her wardrobe.

She was born and raised in Berkshire County and started in sports at the age of 4, when she learned to play soccer and basketball at the Pittsfield YMCA. From that tender age until today, sports have been a constant in her life. As a senior at Taconic High School she is the captain of the basketball and volleyball teams. She also plays for a travel team.

But sports are far from the only passion in this 17-year-old’s life.

She attends church nearly every Sunday with her parents and has also co-starred in a short play called “Enuf!” which was based on the true life stories of Nyanna and eleven other young Pittsfield women.

“[Enuf!] started out as simple writing exercises within my Rites of Passage group,” she said as she thought back a year ago. The Rites of Passage and Empowerment Program for Girls was founded in 2009 and emphases the holistic (mind, body and spirit) self-discovery of its participants. Enuf! was developed by playwright Yvette “Jamuna” Sirker and Spoken Word Artist Nakeida Bethel-Smith, inspired by an OBIE Award-winning play by Ntozake Shange.

Offered as a personal and poignant look inside the experiences of young women of color living in the Berkshires, the play opened to a packed crowd, and its popularity sparked a demand for more show dates throughout Berkshire County.

“The next thing I knew, we were collaborating and helping to develop a real play, and then we were on stage performing it. There was a scene about hair that [we] mostly improvised. It was a lot of fun just coming up with that,” she said.

Aside from her successful stint as an actress, Slaughter has a long list of accolades and awards as proof of her hard work and commitment, including a recent sportsmanship award bestowed upon her by referees and coaches throughout Berkshire County.

Although she has proven excellence in athletics, her academic standing is impressive also.

“I’ve made the high honors list every year since middle school. I’ve only missed one day of school since the third grade, and last year I received the Outstanding Algebra 2 Award,” she said, naming a few.

She has also received several Dean Merit Scholarships from various colleges and universities, including New Haven University, Curry College, A.I.C. and Western New England University. To say that her athletic and academic records are impressive is an understatement.

“I plan on attending the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven in the fall,” she said, “where I’ll be studying criminal justice for crime scene investigation. Dr. Lee was on the O.J. Simpson case and other high profile cases. When I’m in his class, I’ll have the opportunity to visit actual crime scenes. I’m very excited for that and I’m just [as] excited about working in that field. I can’t wait to go to college. I’m looking forward to getting a more complete view of the world.”

Criminal investigation shows on television sparked her interest in crime scene investigation.

“I originally started watching “Criminal Minds” but then I got hooked on ‘C.S.I.,’” she said with a smile. “Just this past Christmas my family wanted to watch the game but there was a C.S.I. marathon on. I watched it for four hours before my Dad made me change the channel.”

Before she could rush off to yet another practice session, she considered the question, where does she see herself in 10 years?

“In 10 years, I’ll be living in a beautiful home, possibly in Atlanta, Ga., with my dog. She’s an Alaskan malamute. I’ll be working in crime scene investigation, and people will call me Sargent Slaughter!” she said, laughing.

 

On the bridge

This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

 

To learn more about Nayanna Slaughter and many more Berkshire voices, visit the blog:

www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthbridge

On the Bridge: Jason Verchot finds strength, kindness in being out in the Berkshires | by JV Hampton-VanSant and Nik Davies, Special to the Eagle,

Jason Verchot talks about his life as a confident openly gay man in the Berkshires. (JV Hampton-VanSant, Special to Berkshires Week)

It’s never easy growing up feeling different. For many lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) teens, in addition to feeling different, they often feel disaffected and detached. Pittsfield native Jason Verchot remembers feeling the same as a youth.

“I came out when I was 18 and didn’t know anyone in school or anywhere that was gay. Being gay wasn’t something people talked about. I didn’t actually tell my parents that I was gay — they kind of suspected, but telling them was the easy part. The difficult part was coming out to everyone else. I came out to a select group of trusted friends, and I didn’t really tell anyone else,” said Verchot, who also serves as board president of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition.

Trusting a close knit group of supporters is a common theme among LGBT people. In fact, many supporting organizations encourage waiting until the age of 18 to officially come out, yet research suggests that the age of “coming out” has been dropping in recent years. Easier access to information and widespread availability of support services for LGBT youth, such as those provided by Berkshire Stonewall, have provided greater opportunities for socialization and self-affirmation.

Yet it wasn’t until after he graduated from high school and enrolled at Berkshire Community College that things seemed to change for Verchot.

“[By that time] I didn’t really care what people thought,” he said. “I dressed how I wanted, and it was quite obvious to everyone that I was gay. Then I went to the University of Massachusetts and found a great community there. It was an entirely different experience.”

After graduating from UMass, he stayed in Amherst for a while before returning to Pittsfield.

“At first, I was reluctant to come home. I just didn’t want to leave [that environment] and my safety net of friends,” he said. “But when I did, I noticed that things had changed. Downtown had changed with more of a focus on the arts, and I think it made it easier to find acceptance in this area.”

Going back to Berkshire Stonewall was a natural progression for him.

“I’d been a part of the organization since I was 17 as a member of their youth group,” he said. “I became a member of the board about seven years ago.”

Berkshire Stonewall was incorporated in 1997. Their mission is to promote the wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of the Berkshires. How they’ve done that has changed throughout the years depending upon needs. Today, they focus on getting information to the high schools and forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA).

“[At Berkshire Stonewall] we provide people with things to do and a safe environment so they can be comfortable being ‘out’ amongst people who they know aren’t judging them,” Verchot said. “But we find that people still feel that they are being judged on certain levels.”

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects released a collective report in May of 2013 on hate crimes against LGBTQ people. It noted that despite increased public and political acceptance of gays and lesbians, the number of crimes against LGBTQ people is the highest since 1998. The amount of physical violence, rather than just verbal abuse, has also skyrocketed — and, not surprisingly, younger people, transgender people and people of color are targeted the most and are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school.

For LGBT youth around the world, “fear is part of their daily lives. Fear of their parents finding out. Fear of rejection or of being thrown out of the house. For parents, it’s the fear of rejection from their peers. It’s fear in the workplace that they can’t talk freely about a gay, lesbian, bi or trans loved one. Everyone should be able to live free of fear,” says Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).”

Thanks to organization such as Berkshire Stonewall there has been positive change in regards to public feelings toward LGTB people in Berkshire County, and there is help and support to be found for LGBT teens, parents and their supporters.

“Today, it is a much different thing to be gay in Berkshire County,” Verchot said.

When asked what words of support he would give to youth still struggling with a LGTB identity, he had this to say: “I tend to go back to that old cliché, ‘It gets better.’ The world they live in is different than the world that I lived in, and is certainly different than the generation before me. All we can do is keep working to get things in an even better place for the next generation until the day comes when it won’t even matter if we’re gay or straight or whatever it is we want to be.”

 

On the bridge

This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more about Jason Verchot, visit our blog atwww.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge

Looking At Our Wars | by Margot Welch

Along with Thanksgiving, Veterans Day has come and gone during sweet November weeks when we’ve thought about how lucky we are to live where and when we do – and how deep our gratitude is for our allegedly free, fair world. But in writing this blog I’ve learned that Armistice Day – established after the World War I, “the war to end all wars,” – marked the death of over 37 million people. And Wikipedia easily tells us that as many as 70 million died in World War II – the occasion for renaming the holiday as Veteran’s Day. How totally staggering are these figures?

Numbers matter. Soldiers who kill themselves – 22 every day – outnumber more than those killed by the enemy.

“On any given night, nearly 63,000 veterans are homeless,” said Amy Goodman, on November 11. At the same time, CNN was reporting
that about 20% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans screen positive for PTSD or depression. In spite of the $6.2 billion dollars spent last year on all mental health services, vets returning from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan find long waiting lists before accessible services. Harold French (Berkshire Eagle, November X), a Stockbridge vet in his sixties who helps our local veterans returning from the military today, says they are “mistreated, misunderstood, and neglected.”

Ann Jones is a journalist who’s written compassionately about the realities of war for decades. Her recent book, “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story,” describes, among other things, her experiences flying in huge military transport planes with wounded vets as they are brought home from medical facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany for extended, intensive medical care. On one of these trips she was called over by an older Army officer who knew she was gathering information for her work and wanted to talk with her. He’d long served in the military and was now on his way home for psychological reasons – “caused by life,” he said. He’ll never return.

“’I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years and I can tell you, it’s a con.” And he talks about his two sons. “They won’t have to serve. Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself…. War is absurd…. Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars, it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”

Without diminishing our gratitude to those who have given themselves to military service, surely we must all look straight on at our American wars.

*Immobilizing injuries – limbless amputees, victims of spinal cord, brain and organ wounds and profound trauma – “an affliction of the powerless” – are epidemic. They have devastating, violent, under-reported consequences.

*When soldiers return, children, spouses and parents wonder what happened to the dad, the husband, the boy who went away.

*One in three women serving are raped; women and babies are traumatized; military sexual assault – about 70 incidents a day – seems almost inevitable to members of the military hierarchy.

*Drug companies have reaped enormous profits from marketing condoned painkiller drugs, without evidence of their effectiveness, creating a growing number of opiate addicts.

*Combat mode of survival prepares vets to return to war as private, for-profit contracted workers – in 2011 there were 145,00 soldiers on the ground, 155,000 contractors – who earn more money and join anti-government militias right here at home.

*For most soldiers – include immigrants, school drop outs, convicted drug users and felons, coming from small, poor towns in the South or the rust belt Midwest, or big city ghettoes where jobs are scarce and schools are failing – the military seems to be the only way up and out.

*Profound moral conflicts haunt soldiers – between the Right and Wrong they’ve grown up with, and the cultural and institutional priorities of military service today. Like us, most soldiers cannot tell you – or themselves – exactly why they’re fighting.

Let’s learn, speak, write, and act now. These are all our children. War is not the way.