The Rural We: Toni Buckley
Photo by Erin Murphy
In 2016, Berkshire Community College (BCC) was one of three colleges to receive a grant from Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities for a pilot project — Berkshire Immigrant Stories. The goal was to collect and share the stories of recent local immigrants (1965 and later) and their children and grandchildren through an online exhibit and archive developed by the Tenement Museum of New York. The project was expected to pave the way for a Public Humanities Center at BCC, but after losing government funding, plans for the Center have gone dormant. Berkshire Immigrant Stories, however, will live online indefinitely and an exhibition is up through the end of the month at BCC’s South County Center.
Toni Buckley, the Project’s former coordinator and story collector, is now BCC’s Director of Alumni Relations. An immigrant herself, having moved to Pittsfield, Mass. from Germany three years ago, Buckley has made a name for herself by being an active community organizer.
Berkshire Immigrant Stories has collected 43 stories and most were done in the last year in workshops called “writing parties” and collaborations with the Darrow School, the adult learning program, the Norman Rockwell Museum and through ESL programs.
I actually did my story nine months before I started working for the program. I was born and raised in Germany by two Syrian parents, so I’m 100 percent Syrian and I was born and raised as an immigrant. I lived in Germany for the first 30 years of my life, but in 2010 I traveled to New England for the summer because of Murder, She Wrote [set in a fictional town in Maine] and the author John Irving. I love his books and I had to see the house in New Hampshire where part of The Cider House Rules was filmed. I met my husband and we dated for four weeks. I went back home and a week later I said, “If you want, I’ll move.”
When I first moved here I wasn’t able to work because I was waiting for my green card, so I had a lot of free time. I co-founded The Hoping Machine with Sarah Lee Guthrie and we’ve done a few fundraisers together. We sent a busload of musicians to The Peoples Climate March, where they marched and sang for 9 hours in 94-degree weather. We held a fundraiser for Puerto Rico with Jana Laiz and Manos Unidos at The Whitney Cener for the Arts and raised more than $6,000. Mariam Orengo, a member and co-leader of Manos Unidas who originally comes from Puerto Rico, was able to go there and buy supplies to help people rebuild.
In Germany I was a freelance photographer for 11 years, but through Immigrant Stories, I changed my career path. I always wanted to be a photographer but it never made me entirely happy. Immigrant Stories was the first time in my life that I was doing something that made me 100 percent happy. The work I do now at BCC isn’t that different.
What I really loved about Berkshire Immigrant Project was all the networking, the events, the marketing part of it, and reaching out and connecting with people. I still do that with my job now, and I volunteer with the Berkshire Leadership Impact Council. I’m involved with Pittsfield Moves, a collaboration with Jacob’s Pillow where people from all different backgrounds are trying to improve our lives through movement. I’m a part of the Four Freedoms Coalition Steering Committee and we’re organizing our second anniversary event on Jan. 27 at BCC. We’ll be celebrating freedom with performances, music and community art projects.
Right now I’m planning the first ever BCC alumni meetup — a networking event for alumni in the Berkshires — on Jan. 24 at Framework in Pittsfield. In the future, I hope to work more with our MSSO (Multicultural Student Service Organization) and reconnect with Immigrant Stories.
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