Aseante Renee and Gwendolyn VanSant on the Purpose of BRIDGE’s New Pathways Action-Focused “Labs”
On Thursday May 21st, BRIDGE kicked off its New Pathways Labs series to supplement BRIDGE’s New Pathways Talks which went live earlier in the week. Gwendolyn VanSant (creator and curator of the series) and Aseante Renee (activist and clinical social worker), will moderate these community conversations May through June. Here, VanSant and Renee speak to the purpose of New Pathways Labs, how they work, and what they are looking forward to in these conversations in the upcoming weeks.
How did you each come to this work and how would you describe the purpose of New Pathways?
Gwendolyn VanSant: When COVID19 hit, many organizations decided to pull back on their equity and inclusion work, but I know that this is exactly the time to double down on it. New Pathways was born mainly out of this moment, but it was also born out of seeing and hearing the needs of community members on a grassroots level… seeing and hearing what leaders needed. I wanted to reassure leaders that, yes, they could navigate what was happening while keeping a focus on inclusion. I still want to do so.
Aseante Renee: I approach social justice work through the lens of true equity and inclusion. The way that runs through my work is that I'm trying to shift the narrative around our responses to incarceration and violence. I’m looking at new models for philanthropy and letting communities decide for themselves what they need to do with funds. I'm also big on building community networks of bartered care and cooperative economics. So I’m a social justice strategist. I joined this project because I understood the significance of that moment. There is no going back to normal! Right now we have the chance to build something new…
Often, when people are in crisis, they begin to really see what's important. When the house is on fire, what are the three things you grab as you head out, right? Right now, many organizations are choosing not to grab the DE&I suitcase. So it is important to make sure that this stays in the forefront. We can't go into the new normal without equity and inclusion. COVID has eliminated our excuses as to why we can't have more equity and [access to resources]... I also recognize that New Pathways is a BRIDGE series, which is perfect because that’s what we need to do: build bridges between different sectors, movements, campaigns, ethnicities, religions... in order to move the dial collectively as a nation. COVID-19 does not discriminate, but it is severely impacting particular communities. The only way we are going to get to our new normal (the true American dream) is when we create a new normal that is inclusive. That happens through the bridges we build, the connections, the changes in our tapestry... That’s why when I was invited to participate in this, the only possible answer was yes. New Pathways Labs are opportunities for authentic, genuine, real conversations about what's next.
I'm showing up as a moderator who is offering support and making sure that the conversation remains authentic. People are really good with words and can say all the right things: “We need...” and “We should...” I want to make sure people use active voice and focus on actions that are relevant and attainable. I’m also looking from the outside in, so I can ask questions purely from a place of genuine care and curiosity. I can say, “Help me connect the dots!” and “Help me understand.” This is how I’m staying aligned with the larger goals of this series.
What is the larger call to action or invitation with this series?
GVS: It’s short and simple. We’re inviting people to be inspired and to be held accountable to the work that needs to get done. I've also been talking with people about showing up to these Labs not only with clarity about work that needs to get done, but outcomes they hope to see. So the invitation is just to bring your full self to the table and have a conversation. Come co-create plans and collaborations that will support change. The invitation is, “Let's work together to not go back to things the way they were because nothing is holding us all the way we need to be held.” I just had a conversation with one of our speakers reiterating that everybody is a leader! I want leaders of foundations working alongside community organizers and recent college graduates. I want everybody sitting alongside each other.
AR: I think a leader is anyone who feels like they have any agency… I would say welcome to folks who are interested in participating. We need you. Please, be curious about these conversations. What do you have to lose?
How do you think New Pathways connects to other similar conversation series emerging across the U.S. and the world about creating new systems?
AR: It’s true that we are in the midst of the chaos and trauma of this pandemic. Everything is horrible. So let me preface what I’m going to say next by saying I'm aware that it’s a privilege to be able to even be in this space. But I do think this time is giving some people the permission to actually dream of something new... There are conversations happening about what life could look like if you were you were able to dream. “If you could start from square one, what would you build?” I believe, for the first time, some folks actually believe a better future may be attainable. Again, to even think this way, I know this is a privilege. All of my basic needs are met, and I’m in a mental space where I can actually think about what is next... But right now a lot of people are feeling like, “Oh, I actually get to create something new… there's something new here that may be sustainable and long lasting.” I think this is why folks are leading conversations with a certain level of veracity that they didn't have before. Actual change is possible because there simply is no going back.
GVS: Right. I would just add that there's also a sense of vulnerability right now.
People are reaching out to be in community and search for answers… I love Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Under the Blacklight” series. I send all of our activists, allies, and accomplices to go there every Wednesday night (or catch up on Crenshaw’s Intersectionality Matters podcast) because I think that's really helpful. The work of that unique series is keeping visible the structures that we ought to talk about, but don't talk about, and their real-time impact on all of us. I think this time of reflection and vulnerability is really what is unique and will remain unique about this time.
What did you both enjoy about the first New Pathways Lab on Thursday evening, “Whose stories are emerging?”
GVS: Thursday night, we had a conversation that built on Jenn Smith's New Pathways Talk “Whose stories are emerging?” with Jenn Smith, Setsuko Winchester, Dawn Meredith Simmons, and Susan Witt. I'm glad this one kicked the whole lab series off because it's what we've been talking about: multiple voices being important, not just the same leaders of the same organizations we see all of the time, but many, many leaders throughout our community.
AR: Yes! I’ll say it about this talk. “Take back the media!” This is all about narrative. To Gwendolyn’s point, “Whomever has the pen has the power.” We see this all of the time. We’ll see it with COVID-19, too... who came to save the day and who didn’t. Narrative is key in this time. This whole series serves as a reminder of this.
What are you looking forward to about Friday morning’s conversation, “Local and Sustainable Economies?”
GVS: This one is exciting because we're thinking about local agriculture, decentralizing the food system, and Indigenous wisdom in the land here in the Berkshires. We have Anna Gilbert-Muhammed coming from the Springfield area, and we’ll talk about urban gardening and the work we are doing around community gardens and raised beds and CSAs. We're trying to help people figure out how to source their own local food, no matter how their house is set up. Greg Watson from Schumacher is coming in to walk us through how gentrification does not have to mean displacement… I'm just so thrilled to have him come speak about the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative... I'm really excited to dig into the work happening at the local level... just feeling the ripple effects of this.
AR: Yes, please! This is about food access, and it’s a conversation that often gets left out of larger conversations. It's strategic that it gets left out… why that happens and how that happens. I look forward to bridging the discussion of food access with the one about gentrification and how it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.
What are you looking forward to about Friday afternoon’s conversation: “Who is caring for the economic survival of our Black and Brown communities?”
GVS: First, there is the Roxbury connection. Greg Watson has the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and Malia Lazu lives in Roxbury where she actually recorded her New Pathways Talk in a park. Roxbury is a wonderful community where the life expectancy for African Americans is also 30% less than predominantly White areas in Boston. But there is great work happening in Roxbury, including Reevx Labs now, a project Malia has created. So we're going to hear from her in her New Pathways Talk. John Lewis of the Berkshire Black Economic Committee will join us. And then we have Shirley Edgerton, a longtime activist in our community here in the Berkshires. So this conversation will definitely inspire people.
AR: I think centering the local situation gives people a true example as to what might be... Then people can alter, modify, and customize things to whatever situation or industry they are in. So I’m definitely looking forward to this one.
What are you looking forward to about Saturday’s conversation, “Investing in Our Future?”
GVS: Social justice is a term that drives me a little batty sometimes, but when you look it up, it's really about leveraging resources for positive social impact. All of these conversations (and our BRIDGE trainings) are about exactly this. So I wanted to have a conversation with people who are thinking about [philanthropy and investing] differently. Josie Green is a leader with a family foundation who has been doing good work locally. She's very engaged in anti-racism work in the eastern part of the state. Tuti Scott has been working on philanthropy and gender equity for a really long time. Tracy Gray is a powerhouse who is working on two incredible initiatives, We Are Enough and The 22 Fund. I know Aseante’s work is also about changing who gets to decide what communities need. I was also just talking to Alex Dest who will join us for this conversation. It’s going to be really exciting.
What do you mean when you talk about the Labs being opportunities for co-creation?
AR: It depends on the level at which people are entering the conversation! A person’s ability to imagine something beyond what they currently see determines how much co-creating they can actually do, right?! If my imagination only allows me this much, I can do a lot of co-creating right here in this small space… This is where I can partner with someone on my work because someone is going to help ME with something... For example, “I see an opportunity that is connected to moving the dial on my own work.” There's nothing wrong with that. That is a certain kind of co-creation. For someone else, cooperation means, “I have a skill that I can give to another industry, person, campaign, or organization, and I know it can help them move the dial on something.” That's also co-creation. One person says, “I made this cake, and it would be really great if you could bring the sugar and the egg so I can make this other cake.” And then you create a beautiful cake together. Someone else says, “I made this cake, and I would love for you to decorate it because you just have an eye for that.” Someone else says, “I have this stuff for cake, but based on what you just said, it really sounds like we need to make brownies! So let's figure out how to make brownies here!” Then you may have another person who looks at this New Pathways work and says, “I want to help create something completely new... I have an idea that may include both of us and a whole bunch of other people...” That work may happen in different phases. But in all of these scenarios, co-creation is happening. It just depends on what people need and where people are at and their capacities or resources.
What are your hopes for this New Pathways series?
AR: My first hope, to be totally honest, is that people get a little uncomfortable. Change doesn’t happen unless you're uncomfortable. The only people that like change are babies, and it's because they're uncomfortable! These conversations may come up against some things that people believe or raise new questions. My second hope is that there is comfort! At some point, conversations will turn to wonder and there will be a chance to explore what a new question means or actually start to work together on something to create a new level of change. These kinds of conversations bring camaraderie... People can say, “Yeah, I'm uncomfortable! I didn't get it!” But it only takes one person to help someone understand what was just said or to chime in, “It’s ok, I didn't know either.”
Some people feel like they have to be super woke, like when you work for social justice, you have to be a superhero. You don't. We're human! A huge hope of mine is that people hit that moment of discomfort, push past it, and really start to ask, “How are we going to do something different?” If just one person connects with someone outside of their inner circle and their self-curated world, then we’ve succeeded.
I also just want to acknowledge that it is no easy feat to put something like this together. And, as a Black woman living where Gwendolyn lives, servicing all the different communities that she services, trying to be a conductor in those spaces--there can be a lot of barriers, again, because people are a little hesitant when it comes to change. So this is a really heavy lift. And often, when things look seamless and easy, it means people are behind the scenes losing their mind.
I know it's been a burden of love, but I want to acknowledge just how much work goes into creating this... the content that has been created, the level of care and attention that has gone into the content curation, the different panelists who are connected to this work... all of the different ways people can get involved, the user-friendliness of it all… it's not easy. Gwendolyn is a powerhouse and is doing amazing work in laying the foundation for some real transformative conversations and breakthroughs in the next couple of weeks. That shouldn't be taken lightly and in no way shape or form, is it easy to facilitate!