Remarks from BRIDGE Co-Founder and CEO Gwendolyn VanSant at the 2023 Quinquennial Celebration Gala
Hello and Good afternoon!
I hope you have enjoyed this afternoon of celebration. Each and every moment was constructed with care and a zeal for you all to experience and know BRIDGE. We are a community- rooted organization. Thank you to all of the sponsors, donors, volunteers, partners, committee members and all of our amazing vendors. And thank you to all of our BRIDGE guests and presenters! And Jacob's Pillow and your team, thank you! What a lovely place to be hosted for such a special milestone. With our partnership, having our gala here felt like having it at home--here on the site of the Underground Railroad.
Thank you to our early bird sponsors at the platinum impact level both Greylock Federal Credit Union and Berkshire Bank Foundation. Many have supported us in such meaningful ways and I am naming these two not in the traditional sense but rather because for 15 years, they have funded us each year. I made my first line item budget sitting with Peter Lafayette of Berkshire Bank and another staffer there at the time--Lori inherited us a bit later after his retirement (although we had already worked with Lori at Legacy Banks on Cultural Competence previously) and later she served as our BRIDGE board chair for some time. Greylock gave us our first grant of $250 (unsolicited) and Marthe and I remember that acknowledgement--we were so excited and hopeful that without even having to ask, our value and work was being acknowledged. That was so profound in those founding days and continues to be--to be seen, valued and supported without any extra hoops or barriers.
Over several years, Greylock trusted BRIDGE to take a deep dive in to their role as a community development financial institution and the results have been astounding. We have been in partnership with these institutions bringing our best skills to them and throughout everything these financial institutions have stood by BRIDGE and our work. Thank you!
My heart is full with the testimonials and tributes of today. I know the time and energy individuals took to craft a story of impact and love, prepare a dance, prepare their food, etc. Thank you!
At this stage in the afternoon, I hope something has touched each of you so deeply that you can walk away saying “Yes, I know BRIDGE” and this is my community, a community I want to be a part of and help grow.
There were so many gems planted and many more for you to find on our timeline looking back over 15 years including our Catalyst.Love.Impact video capturing the essence of BRIDGE by Board Member, Wes Gadson and family business OnPoint Grafix Design. All of this and more will be available on our website and I hope that this afternoon you have left some more gems for us on video and/or post-its to continue to add to the BRIDGE story.
I asked to be joined by four special voices to share what is BRIDGE to them. Luci Leonard, Elizabeth Adams, Silvia Soria and Karen Murray. Each of them will share briefly and invite you to continue the conversations with each of them later on.
Shela will then close us out this afternoon as we head to espresso and dessert. Please understand these desserts are made with love and so much intention: we have altar cakes to our core programs and a tres leches cake for our quince anyos. Thank you to all food vendors for the love and caring expressed through our fellowship and celebration with food.
My task now is to envision our future together with you here this afternoon. It all starts with the voices and experiences and people present today. A core principle at BRIDGE is to trust people to know what they need and listen and work alongside. BRIDGE is a manifestation of that. Marthe and I were two survivors of gender-based violence, having experienced the Berkshires as a single Mom as a shared experience and seeing new folks in our community dealing with similar issues the two of us had faced. We were not to be defined by what happened to us or what someone did to us but rather on how can we heal and make this place safer for families, women and children that have similar experiences. We realized we had solutions and skill sets to make a difference and so BRIDGE was born. Our goal was to make it so the isolation and struggle could be less with a helping hand at BRIDGE.
We set out to be an advocacy organization supporting individuals and organizations to connect to the resources that they need. We realized real cultural deficits in meeting community needs and an unfavorable response to an “out of the box solution” by organizational leaders, Marthe and me, that did not look like the rest of the leaders here. It was rough y’all! And still can be… rough. Even still our programs began to evolve in to this 360 degree solution you have heard about today--a solution that folks trusted when they needed to call on us as an emergency responder to harmful and hateful incidents. And for over a dozen years, we worked at sustaining this solution we envisioned.
Today we have robust programming, carrying forth some of the original programs now with a physical site (instead of Berkshire hopping that we did) while also innovating and creating new programs with a new generation of BRIDGE staff and team members. All of our staff are BIPOC and either share the experience of being survivors of some form of victimization and/or have participated in our programs and have come back to run them. Nothing gives me more satisfaction and joy as this organizational leader than to see this evolution at BRIDGE.
Envisioning Our Future
Many of you know we just opened up our culturally specific transitional housing meaning we are the only active family shelter in our southern Berkshire area and only culturally specific shelter in our region. Already we have a waiting list, and we need more resources to stabilize our families for longer periods of time. This is our future.
This along with our Solidarity Kitchen and Farm where families farm for themselves, their communities, BRIDGE mutual aid or to sell on their own. BRIDGE is working hard to develop land access for our communities of color including survivors of violence with race-informed land use agreements. BRIDGE also has opened a meeting house where community education and wellness programs will be happening weekly for CoC and victims of violence while also hosting Happiness Toolbox and Women to Women. Inside you will find a Solidarity Library infused with over 500 donated books from the DuBois center library of Black History in a time when our country is banning these types of books. we also have a budding LGBTQIIA+ library donated by Yellow House Books. Watching our youth leaders catalog these books in our new space this summer was priceless. The curiosity and interest were profound.
We have been designated since Gov. Patrick's time in office as "Minority and Women Run" since 2010 and now we are designated as a culturally specific program by the government meaning run by and serving communities of color. What BRIDGE has done is not only pave a path for more equitable services for our CoC incl. survivors but was invited to speak in Chicago this past summer just after our first year of funding directly to our organization. Instead of being secondary and tertiary on a grant--making it impossible to stabilize and sustain our programs and staff--we were poised to access funding directly and to advocate for the policy changes for victims of violence ranging from gender-based violence to race discrimination.
We were able to influence policy and application through our own advocacy for our constituents with the Victims of Crime Act Culturally specific funding. We spoke to grant administrators and their federal funders across the country about our BRIDGE model. Policies had been changed on the State level which takes a lot of work alongside our State administrators. Our task was to share with the entire federal network the how, the why and the barriers and opportunities. One example of a policy with unintentional barriers was if a victim is experiencing violence, we could not give emergency assistance for car repair. We all know transportation is an issue in our region and having a vehicle as a way out of a dangerous situation is imperative. After a few rounds, they listened.
As Dr. Brickler, a professor in Florida and descendant of Harriet Tubman when asked to speak about that legacy, as he shared, we are extending the work of people like Dr. Du Bois and Harriet Tubman because we know they had to have held a vision for a liberated future as do all of us at BRIDGE. Our hope is like the Nina Simone song shared by Gina Coleman in her testimony, this is what it looks like to be free. It is not without struggle, but we are unabashedly centering the needs and leadership of our communities of color and those directly impacted by multiple oppressions. And with that we are impacting in small and large ways communities across the country we haven't met yet.
BRIDGE is well-poised to model alongside our dedicated partners what justice and equity looks like and how reparations can take place in big and small ways. I am so proud of our clients and the positive social impact they have been able to activate, especially for an example a financial institution reversing their historical hand in redlining in our historical Black neighborhoods in Pittsfield. Our ILC (“inclusive leadership cohort for social change”) and the outcomes of their collective work, especially the pay equity initiative which received national attention in the philanthropy and arts fields. It takes courage and it is not without struggle, tension and loss but the gain is so much more. And as we partner and train institutions and still advocate for our communities, BRIDGE and our entire team will also uphold what healthy, thriving communities of color can look like on their culturally specific terms rejecting the terms of white supremacy culture. Discomfort and unease with disrupting the status quo is not wrong or avoidable, it is necessary and will be uncomfortable and painful at times. We, as communities of color, will need to continue to work on our own internalized oppressions and again champion the wisdom and grace and humanity in our communities. And non -CoC will learn to expunge extractive behaviors that reinforce the disparities we are trying to disrupt.
Our partnership with the arts persists. We are grateful for the performances today. Hartman’s “Litany for Grieving Sisters” evokes an array of emotions and just this last week these words resonated with me over and over again….
“For grieving sisters, what other choice is there? For them, love is not yet exhausted... It is a story that blossoms in the black morning,” writes Dr. Hartman in “Litany for Grieving Sisters.”
I highly recommend reading this riveting piece in its entirety that inspired the performances today on stage. The wisdom and brilliance of Dr. Saidiya Hartman.
We have exciting news that we have been planning in partnership with a family foundation to continue our support of the cultural arts institutions with their justice and equity commitments through contextualizing the past, engaging the present and preparing for the future through our Inclusive leadership cohort, equity conversations, etc. Another remarkable story is that by invitation of one of our ILC “inclusive leadership cohort” members, I was asked to speak on a panel where she had a seat at the table of the Foundation. When they had an opportunity to hear me directly, they said they wanted to talk. A year later, they called to visit, having diversified their team to a trio that added on a Latino gay male and African American women to the white woman lead. She attributed those pivots to the impact of my panel presentation. So instead of my trying to get to their table and get that one shot to make the elevator speech shiny enough to spark interest, they came to our office, met our team, asked meaningful questions about our work and what our barriers and needs were and offered us a funded partnership where BRIDGE would provide support while they provide capacity-building to continue our ILC work & more.
Music and dance are and always has been a part of our collective healing. I hope you enjoyed that this evening and felt the profound inspiration I experienced with these two artists in Loophole Retreat in Venice last October. Thank you to Imani and Okwui for joining our BRIDGE community, and Saidiya for your ever-present sisterhood, advice, squad care and support on my journey as the non-profit leader of this organization. Having these women here is my greatest expression of love that I have for my home community here. What I experienced was healing and transformative in Venice exactly one year ago and it is exactly what I wanted to share with my community. We have one more special performance with our community partners, Operation Unite NY, as we end our program. Please plan to stay an enjoy coffee, libations and dessert. So take your time leaving, move your body to the rhythms, sing and enjoy these sacred grounds.
Our new pathway is a collective one. I still hold that our currency cannot just be dollars, but it has to be a currency of humanity. Money is a tool but it is not the measure of happiness or success. It can be leveraged with care for healing and transformation. Capitalism will teach us work, work, work, more money, more status, more possessions, more more more and repeat. Again let's shift the narrative to love, listen, learn, more rest, more reflection, more discernment, then work, work alongside and repeat. The money will come and will serve a greater, sustainable good.
When you look at the papers we prepared for you in the bag, imagine a teenager with a gift at Christmas time, imagine a family being greeted with a home with familiar spices, baskets, blankets, books,..... Imagine the warm embrace we have imbued in our Hamsa Home. Imagine some of the delicious food you ate today offered through our Solidarity Kitchen. In our Solidarity Community Gardens & Farms, imagine lush acres of tomatillos, okra, epazote and collards….feeding our families, reversing race-based health disparities that saves lives. Imagine Black rest, imagine every child and parent knowing where they will sleep tonight and eat tomorrow. Imagine doctors reflecting our communities of color giving culturally specific medical support in our wellness rooms repairing the history of medical violence. Imagine knowing if you are sick, you can get care. Imagine knowing if you have experienced violence or harm, you can have someone to provide support and counsel. Imagine scholars and activists reflecting our communities of color teaching and mentoring in our Solidarity Meeting House. Imagine BRIDGE at the White House. I paused on this one but why not? Since laws govern our lives, we need to demand a better way for our communities. BRIDGE is building this future. Please join us on our journey!
Thank you for celebrating with us this afternoon--honoring our culturally specific gala, our origin story, our collective story and creating our story of the future! Celebrating our 15 years of collective trust and hope. Let's keep on building together.
“Justice is what love looks like in public.” says Cornel West.
Thank you, Shela for an awesome afternoon as my co-MC! My birthday buddy! Thank you gala committee–we did it! Now for our final performance as we travel out!
Thank you to our BRIDGE team and to everyone who helped this evening be a success! Thank you Oskar of Only In My Dreams! Thank you to Jacobs Pillow for the afternoon and thank you all for being here for this joyous celebration!
Multicultural BRIDGE helps to improve the lives of community members throughout the Berkshires, and provides consultation and training to groups and businesses across the state and throughout the country.