By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff
On a holiday weekend celebrating the birth of the nation, local groups, joined by Gov. Deval Patrick, celebrated the diversity of its people and an organization helping the increasingly diverse local population.
Multicultural BRIDGE held its first Cultural Competency Celebration on Monday afternoon at Shakespeare & Company's campus. Various public and private sector groups -- from Great Barrington officials to Legacy Banks -- were honored for their efforts to help the local immigrant community.
The ceremony was filled with multicultural dance performances, and state officials discussed the need for greater integration of immigrant communities into the state's social and economic sectors.
Patrick praised the leadership of Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, BRIDGE's executive director, calling her a "treasure to Berkshire County and this commonwealth."
"[BRIDGE] is doing a lot of important work welcoming immigrants and welcoming new Americans -- which I think is so important -- and dealing with issues around tolerance and working to build a stronger community," Patrick said.
BRIDGE administrators privately met with Patrick before the luncheon, and VanSant said she came away feeling there will be opportunities to work with the governor's office in the future.
"Gov. Patrick is supportive of Multicultural BRIDGE's work, and he knows the basis is about moral systems and value systems, and how important
that is to have that as a foundation to move forward," said VanSant.
Patrick, who was also honored at the event, said government and constituents needs to lead and live by values where people "treat each other as they wish to be treated."
Pointing to examples of Jim Crow laws, the rise of Nazism and recent gay bashing, Patrick urged those in attendance to not let similar lapses in values affect attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policies.
"If we don't check this in our behavior and in our governing, it will be true of immigration in our own time today," Patrick said. "We must remember our values, and lead by them and live by them."
Patrick later said he would like to see comprehensive immigration reform through secured borders and a path to citizenship -- and a possible fine -- for those who have already entered the country illegally.
But in his brief remarks, the governor told the crowd of more than 100 he would not follow the path of tough new Arizona immigration laws.
"As long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no Arizona-type law here in the commonwealth," Patrick said.
And while Patrick noted the need for national reform, Richard Chacón, executive director of the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants, discussed the need to better integrate immigrants on a social and economic level within the state.
Chacón has been working on a set of 131 recommendations, titled the New American Agenda, for state agencies to bring immigrants into the greater population. The most important of those, he said, would be increasing access to English as a Second Language courses.
There is a backlog of 17,000 people seeking the courses across the state, he said.
"Without national comprehensive immigration reform, it is a must as a state to come up with a plant to integrate our immigrant population," Chacón said.