David Tebaldi said Mass Humanities will be seeking an implementation from to implement the humanities centers at three community colleges in the state.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Juan Jose Carrion-Almeida immigrated to Berkshire County from Ecuador in 2009.
Five years later, he was Berkshire Community College's first Latino valedictorian.
Carrion-Almeida said while his story isn't nearly as difficult as others who immigrated to the United States, he has faced significant challenges. After a few years of being encouraged to go to college and educate himself, he put himself in a better position than he imagined.
"We have a different perspective of the world. We have seen what it is to not be able to afford to buy food. I haven't lived that but I have seen it. We have witnessed a lot of how it can go really, really bad. Once we come with that perspective behind us, then we try really, really hard not to get there," Carrion-Almeida said.
"Luckily, this beautiful country, this awesome country, allows us to do that. With education, it is even better."
He said many immigrants feel excluded from the community and he hopes his story will inspire others to go to college. But he needs people to hear that story.
A new $16,000 planning grant from Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities is looking to create that medium with Berkshire Community College to share the stories of immigrants all over Berkshire County.
Following a handful of months running and evaluating different models and programs, Mass Humanities will then seek a three-year implementation grant which will open public humanities centers at three community colleges in Massachusetts — BCC, Middlesex Community College, and Holyoke Community College.
"NEH is very enthusiastic about this idea. They see this as a national model so we are doing something that could possibly have very beneficial and very widespread ramifications," David Tebaldi, director of Mass Humanities, said.
The stories are expected to be shared through the "Your Story, Our Story" exhibit developed by the Tenement Museum of New York. The stories will be collected, archived, and shared with the community, showing what it is like for immigrants in 2016.
BCC's Director of Student Engagement Eleanore Velez said the American landscape is like a river in that it is constantly changing and comprised of millions of droplets of water. But the landscape has been in a drought because these immigrant stories have not been captured and collected, contributing to that landscape.
"It is the drops of water that make the river. We are constantly changing. Probably in the landscape of American immigrant stories, we were experiencing a drought because we stopped writing those stories, we stopped honoring the stories," Velez said.
BCC will not only be collecting the stories but also holding a series of literacy events around the theme. A newly created committee to oversee the public humanities center will work on various programs to see what works to continue the project into the future.
"If this works, it is going to be a big project," said Christopher Laney, interim dean of humanities at BCC.
The project also includes a partnership with the Upper Housatonic National Heritage Area, which is also developing an oral history center at the campus to be coupled with the project. The group is looking to have a role in the public humanities center providing another layer of support to help lift the project off the ground.
"We are in the communities here in Berkshire County doing a lot of work behind the scenes that make those programs tick and move well," Director of the Upper Housatonic National Heritage Area Dan Bolognani said.
The theme of modern immigration will help Mass Humanities expand on the NEH's mission of fostering and promoting public understanding of humanities, according to Tebaldi.
"We are trying to get beyond your standard public television, public radio listening audience. Nothing wrong with those folks but we want to reach farther. We want to provide high quality and engaging humanities experience to folks who might not otherwise have that opportunity," Tebaldi said.
Community colleges are particularly positioned for such a project because so many immigrants attend the college in their pursuit of a new life. The college is in a good position not only to help collect the stories but also expand the audience hearing the stories.
"It is probably not that well known that at Berkshire Community College, the humanities, the liberal arts, are core to our mission. They are across all of our curricula. They are embedded in all that we do because we recognize the value and importance of a critical nature of thinking, communicating, and working in teams which are all core concepts of humanities," college President Ellen Kennedy said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said those individual stories compiled together will highlight the challenges and difficulties facing immigrants and in turn, that will help influence local, state, and federal policy on the issues.
"Immigration is our history. Immigration is our current reality. Immigration is our future. And immigration is challenging. There are so many challenges around immigration. We can look at the global level. We are having the greatest migration of humanity in our world right now in a century. Think about the millions and millions of people who are leaving their homes and very, very, dangerous conditions," Farley-Bouvier said.
"It certainly a huge issue nationally. This country has a very broken immigration system and that broken immigration system affects each and every one of us."
Farley-Bouvier said immigrants are increasingly the top students at the community and state colleges in Massachusetts and many immigrants are doing great things in the community, whether it be doctors or business owners — including many of the downtown business owners being immigrants. The immigrant population is one of the keys to turning around the Berkshires' population loses struggles, she said.
"If you are new to this country, you are welcome in Berkshire County. You are welcome here. You are welcomed to move here. You are welcomed to grow up here. You are welcomed to grow old here," Farley-Bouvier said.
Not only will documenting those stories be good for historians of the future but they will also help policy makers when addressing the questions around immigration, she said.
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