Mayor Ethan Berkowitz opened his office door dressed in a fleece jacket and jeans and fired off a slew of Spanish greetings. His approach is open and welcoming; it mirrors what he wants to see in Anchorage, and he’s implementing new projects to get there.
“The city belongs to all of us who live here,” Berkowitz said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here or how loud a voice you’ve historically had, this is our city now, today.”
The Mayor’s passion for social justice stems from his childhood and his extensive travels. He grew up in San Francisco in a diverse community filled with immigrants from around the world, including his grandparents and mother who arrived from the Netherlands.
“I thought all grandparents had accents,” Berkowitz said. “I thought that’s what it meant to be a grandparent, they just happened to come from different parts of the world.”
He learned Spanish from his best friend, who was from Puerto Rico, then honed his skills when traveling around Central and South America. He worked on a Chilean freighter as a youth, and recently volunteered in Nicaragua with his family. Over the years he has been to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico.
Berkowitz, a lawyer, a business owner, and a politician, arrived in Anchorage in 1990. His wife, Mara Kimmel, is also a lawyer and co-founded the Alaska Institute for Justice. Their two children attend the Anchorage School District’s Spanish immersion program, which Berkowitz said forces him to maintain his language skills.
Language is also a key element of the administration’s projects to unite the community. According to Myer Hutchinson, the mayor’s communications director, within the next few months, every municipal department, including emergency services, will have access to Language Link. It is the phone-in language interpretation service that is currently used by the Department of Health and Human Services and provides access to interpreters for more than 240 languages.
“It doesn’t matter what language you’re yelling for help in,” Berkowitz said. “Someone should come.”
The administration is also trying to boost the local economy by making sure that immigrants and refugees are connected to jobs that meet their skill sets. Some people come to Anchorage and are trained in skilled professions but do not know how to access jobs that fit those skills.
The program enables newcomers “to realize the American Dream more rapidly than they would other wise be able to,” the Mayor said. “It helps Anchorage take advantage of the economic opportunities that exist. A lot of time we feel like we need to import outside expertise. A lot of time that already exists here, we just need to connect people with opportunities.”
Berkowitz said an intern will focus on the initiative, which is part of a larger movement for Anchorage to become a “Welcoming City.” Welcoming America oversees the program. The organization’s website says the governments of Welcoming Cities commit to institutionalizing strategies that integrate newcomers into the economy and the community as a whole for the longterm. This will be ensured through the $28,000 grant that the city will receive. The first $12,500 will come from Welcoming America, the State will provide $9,500, and finally Wells Fargo will contribute with $7,500.
“I want to make sure we use all the human resources in this community,” Berkowitz said. “Not only to solve problems but to create opportunities.”
Berkowitz said his ultimate goal is to help everyone in the city from every background have equal access to opportunities and a quality education. But he said getting there requires participation.
“It’s not nirvana yet. But we all have a voice here. If people use their voices they can effect change, and that is what has to happen. People have to participate in the process if they want to change the outcome.”
The Mayor’s office holds monthly office hours that are open to the entire public, and members of his staff visit all 39 Community Councils on at least a quarterly basis. Berkowitz said if anyone has an idea for improving the city, he is open to hearing it in English or in Spanish.