Brooke Mead has been the Program Coordinator at the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield since 2002. She was named Immigrant Advocate of the Year by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in 2009. Recent accomplishments include becoming an Accredited Representative for the Board of Immigration Appeals and being chosen as one of Berkshire Magazine’s “Berkshire 25” in 2014. Brooke and her husband both have roots in the County so they are enjoying raising their daughter and his son in this beautiful, safe place, close to their extended families
WAM Theatre: How did you find your way into immigration work?
Brooke Mead: I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, but my family moved to the Berkshires when I was just one and a half, so I did grow up and go to school here. Then I spent my junior year of high school in Venezuela, where I became fluent in Spanish. I also did a lot of theatre in school, so I went to USC and earned my undergraduate degree in theatre. Then I moved down to Mexico for a year before returning to the states to do my graduate work at Middlebury College. Then I sat back and thought, “Hmmm, what can I do with skills in theatre and in Spanish?” I tried teaching and that was not a good fit. Then I found this job at BIC. It allows me to combine my love of working with people to make a difference in their lives, and to use my Spanish. Also, because so few people are aware of immigrants in rural Western Massachusetts, I am asked to speak a lot, which lets me use my theatre skills. I am really passionate about social justice and immigration. I think they are what makes America great!
WAM: When did you first hear about WAM and get involved?
Brooke: I actually heard about WAM through its work with its beneficiaries, and thought it was so cool to find an organization that shared my love of theatre and of social justice.
Then we came to a point at BIC when we realized we needed to figure out how to continue to grow, to understand how we could sustain our dynamic program, and our board chair Ethan Klepetar recommended I talk to Kristen van Ginhoven. The two of us emailed for two months and then I took her out for coffee and was really impressed with her work and all that WAM has accomplished. I didn’t expect her to be interested in BIC as a beneficiary, but I didn’t realize she is an immigrant herself! And she’s the daughter and wife of immigrants too! We tend to assume people aren’t immigrants if they are our friends.
WAM: Immigrants are virtually invisible here in the Berkshires. What do people need to know and understand about our immigrant neighbors?
Brooke: Immigrants play very important roles of our communities – they are business owners, doctors, professors, they care for our elderly and disabled, and they fill many jobs in the service industry. Massachusetts is the 12th oldest state in the nation, and Berkshire is the oldest county in the state, but our population is aging and declining so immigrants are vital to our economy. Currently, immigrants make up about ten percent of the County’s population. And we have the most diverse immigrant population in the state, with people from more than 70 different countries living here. But at BIC we constantly ask how can we do better? How can we attract more great people from abroad to come live and work here?
Pittsfield, Lee, and Great Barrington have the largest immigrant populations, largely due to the availability of affordable housing. About 50-60 percent of our Berkshire immigrants are Spanish speaking, but there is also an enormous west African population in Pittsfield, along with strong Brazilian and Indian communities. The Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce just named Vijay Mahida, an Indian immigrant, as their businessperson of the year. And one in eight people is the child of an immigrant or immigrants.
WAM: Describe your job at the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
Brooke: My duties are manifold – I wear every conceivable hat. In fact, I was the only full-time employee until last October. I do case work and consultations for people interested in bringing additional family members to join them in the United States, or changing their immigrant status. I know what other agencies in the region do and I make referrals. I am an accredited representative of the USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Services) and can practice immigration law. In the community I create workshops and do outreach with non-immigrants. Usually when someone starts out with us they come to trust us and come back to us throughout their journey of resettlement, and we are glad to continue to help them however we can.
WAM: Tell us specifically how BIC will be using the money WAM raises for you.
Brooke: Everyone wants to know where their money is going, to put a face on their donation. We see so many people who are really vulnerable, but there’s only so much you can do, so we are constantly working to find the money to change people’s lives. One group that slips through the cracks of the system is women, often with young children, who are fleeing domestic violence or war. They can be our most time consuming cases, and therefore our most expensive. Unfortunately BIC is not funded to assist these clients; they are often among the most vulnerable and regardless of whether an attorney is involved or not – often require the most help and are unable to compensate the Center for their services. We are dedicated to continue helping these women and their families navigate a path to permanent residence and safety in the United States. The WAM monies will go specifically towards this goal.