Once in a rare while, we meet someone who has not let hardship hammer their soul into sharp little broken pieces but rather taken it to sculpt their spirit into something enormously beautiful, a work of art that inspires us and lifts our hearts and shines light where darkness might dwell. Such a person is Gwendolyn VanSant. Gwendolyn is a brave fusion of quiet intelligence, hard work, resilience, spirituality, perseverance, compassion and creativity. She is a leader who believes in serving it forward, advocates seeing and being seen, understanding and being understood, hearing and being heard.
She is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education); Chairwoman of Berkshire County on the Status of Women; wife and mother of four children; and creator of the beautiful new anthology, Berkshire Mosaic: A Multicultural BRIDGE Living History Project.
With the deadline imminent for the publication of Berkshire Mosaic, Gwendolyn had spent many late nights, early mornings and weekends poring over the final pages, sending changes to her saintly editorin-chief, Nik Davies, wanting pure perfection for this beautiful book, a culmination of her work, a work of love; highlighting the key BRIDGE elements of learning, integration, empowerment, collaboration and celebration of the humanity alive and thriving in Berkshire County through stories of the diversity of people and passions here – from youth to the elderly, new residents to veterans, including Polish, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Irish, Latino, and African Americans.
Those five key elements are thriving within the BRIDGE family among the caring, loyal and supportive people who work with Gwendolyn, from amazing administrative staff to concerned board members to compassionate writers to skilled translators to kind educators.
Some days Gwendolyn and JV and Emily can be found visiting a classroom of eight-year-olds, calming them with gentle voices, teaching them to ‘hook themselves up’ by clasping their hands and twisting them around and onto their hearts while they repeat an empowering affirmation. They learn how to fill their own and others’ buckets with a smile, a kindness, an apology; they listen, enraptured, to a story about Jackie Robinson or Amelia Earhart.
You may have met Gwendolyn, along with various staff and board members, at The Beacon or The Triplex at BRIDGE showings and community conversations of movies such as RACE – The Power of an Illusion (a three-part PBS documentary that teaches us about our myths and misconceptions of ‘race’ with the ultimate goal of building a more just and equitable society); The Fix, The Anonymous People (both relevant movies to Berkshire County about the tragic prevalence of heroin addiction); The Mask You Live In (about unilateral damage caused by macho culture); and the upcoming Cracking the Codes/The System of Racial Inequity to be shown July 21st at the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street in Pittsfield at 6:00pm.
Maybe you’ve walked across one of the many bridges that BRIDGE has built. There is the Youth Diversity Leadership Program which equips young people with language, resources, and leadership skills to better serve themselves and their peers on societal issues facing them - racism, teen pregnancy, gender, gender identity and sexuality – issues that are often the foundation of bullying, substance abuse and teen suicide.
There is the Women to Women Project, an empowerment and professional development program for immigrant women and women of color; and there is the Race Task Force, a network of local leaders dedicated to education, dialogue and actions that effect change and create a safe and inclusive community. BRIDGE has been cited as a best practice of a communitybased initiative in a Criminal Justice and Criminal Psychology book titled Understanding Hate Crimes by Carolyn Petrosino because Gwendolyn has effectively included community in all of her bridge building. Every voice and every perspective is brought in. There is no “other.”
BRIDGE provides workplace language classes as well as translation and interpretation services that help improve communication between staff and clients in all environments from educational settings to community-based organizations to local businesses. They also assist businesses, recruitment agencies, internship programs and colleges in better developing their diversity practices.
There is a myriad of needs being filled by the work of this organization, needs that are easily overlooked and unknown by the comfortable. However, it’s very apparent that when these needs are known, there are many, many people who would like to help and learn and empower, to collaborate, integrate and celebrate in Berkshire County. And, as we all know, none of this immensely important work can be done without our generous donors!
Thank you! (DV)