By JOSH LANDES • NOV 27, 2018
A coalition of groups that promote multiculturalism in the Berkshires recently proposed a “welcoming” resolution to skeptical leaders in Lee, Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, November 20th, Lee residents stood with representatives of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing and Multicultural BRIDGE – which stands for Berkshire Resources For Integration Of Diverse Groups Through Education – to hear the town selectboard consider a so-called “Welcoming Resolution.”
“We already do this in the town of Lee," said board member Patricia Carlino. "We feel we’re a welcoming town, and we don’t have any issues with anyone.”
Carlino was responding to the resolution’s text, which calls on the town of about 6,000 to acknowledge and celebrate its diversity and “the need to provide a safe community for all residents.”
It commits Lee to “ensure the civil liberties of all persons and enforce protection from discrimination regardless of their demographic characteristics.” The resolution lists factors like race, skin color, national or ethnic origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, immigration status, religious beliefs and activities, age, and health and economic status.
By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — He was hailed as an anchor of intellect and free thought amid a sea of racial upheaval and red-baiting.
The U.S. government didn't like him when he was alive. And neither did town officials of yesteryear, after he had died.
But now W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington-born and raised, has his very own committee at Town Hall.
"We've really traveled quite some distance," said Randy Weinstein, executive director of The Du Bois Center at Great Barrington. "It's a milestone in this community."
The W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which Weinstein co-chairs, embarks on its first public meeting Wednesday evening, to organize before it begins work to its stated mission to "preserve and promote" the town native's legacy "as a scholar and activist for freedom, civil rights progressive education, economic justice and racial equality."
It's likely the first of its kind to honor Du Bois anywhere in the U.S., Weinstein said.
The committee's 12 members want to continue efforts, as part of a new town culture, that began last year on the cusp of the Du Bois 150th Festival celebration, in which UMass Amherst Libraries gave the town a print of Du Bois' birth certificate and a portrait that now hang in the Town Hall meeting room. Du Bois banners went up on downtown streetlights, and the festival stretched for several months with lectures, events and displays of Du Bois artifacts.
Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Du Bois had attended Searles High School, and was the first African-American to attend Harvard University, with financial help from residents of the town. He wrote the first scholarly book about the black experience in America, and went on to prolific writing, then co-founded the NAACP.
His lectures about race and other topics placed him on the government's watchlist. Later he was investigated by the FBI. And his intellectual entanglements during the Cold War, and a conversion to communism in the years before his death, angered local residents, especially veterans groups.
This is when officials and residents fought attempts to honor Du Bois. The Du Bois Boyhood Homesite was eventually established as National Historic Landmark, but not without dividing the county. And even recently, a few voices, though growing ever dim, have revealed some ire toward the those who want to celebrate him.
But now the deal is done.
"We got a lot of applications," said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, committee co-chair. "It's a diverse committee ... leading small town government at a really tricky time."
Community activists are working to pass local ordinances in the sanctuary city model in communities in the Berkshires.
A collection of different Berkshire grassroots organizations have come together with a very specific mission: get individual communities in the county to pass their own versions of a trust policy.
“A trust policy is a local ordinance to promote trust, safety, and inclusion for all people in a community by passing a local ordinance called a trust act or a trust policy to ensure that local police equally and equitably respect the rights of all members of the community, and specifically don’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target and deport undocumented immigrants outside of criminal cases," said Jeff Lowenstein. He's a community organizer for Berkshire Interfaith Organizing — or BIO — and a Berkshire native. “And I’m one of BIO’s representatives to the Trust Policy Partnership, which is a group that formed as part of the campaign to pass the Great Barrington trust policy last year, to working to pass these kinds of policies in cities and towns throughout Berkshire County.”
Lowenstein says the movement emerged from the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States.
By Jenn Smith , The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — Despite the morning's cold gray weather, the downtown Pittsfield court complex had a celebratory feel to it Monday, as the Massachusetts Trial Court system kicked off its inaugural Cultural Appreciation Week.
Food tents were erected outside the Berkshire Superior Courthouse facing Park Square, filling the air with the scents of Caribbean, Italian and Greek spices. Inside the building, songs, dances and speeches were performed by local children and community members as court staff, state officials and other visitors intently listened. After a tour with staff in the Berkshire Probate and Family Court building, students and staff had lunch together, sampling everything from slow-cooked Puerto Rican-style chicken and rice, to Greek spanakopita, a savory pastry filled with spinach and feta cheese.
While the special event allowed people to sample the various flavors of cultural cuisine offered by Pittsfield restaurants, it also gave participants a taste of why it's important to have awareness of and celebrate cultural, ethnic, racial, religious and gender diversity of the courts and their local citizens.
Reid Middle School eighth-graders Wesley Ahoussi, Steve Patch and Rahmel Smith — all members of the school's Justice League for diversity and inclusion — said they felt events like this were important. Asked why, they answered "respect," "equality" and "empathy," respectively.
They and their classmates, Tatyaina Curtis-Perez and Gracie Friend, said the day also helped them gain a better view and understanding of the court system and how it works.
"Things like this help you learn a lot of new things," Friend said.
"It kind of gives us an experience about criminal justice and what injustice is," Curtis-Perez said.
Posted Monday, September 3, 2018 4:09 pm
By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — The W.E.B. Du Bois honors keep coming, after decades of what scholars, local activists and some town officials have said was a pernicious lack of honors for the towering native son.
To robust applause, the town unanimously agreed Monday to create a permanent town committee to promote and preserve the legacy of Du Bois, the African-American scholar, civil rights movement architect and writer who tackled civil and economic rights at the turn of the century and beyond.
"As we move ahead together in community may we heed Du Bois' teachings and grow in solidarity and purpose as a town and with our neighbors," Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, co-chair of the Du Bois Legacy Committee, wrote in a statement issued after the board meeting. Hampton VanSant is president and CEO of local nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE.
The board established the committee on the 55th anniversary of Du Bois' death in Ghana in 1963.
Hampton VanSant, as well as co-chair Randy Weinstein of the Du Bois Center on South Main Street, were co-chairs of the Du Bois 150th Festival, which launched in January and stretched into the summer.
11:03PM / Sunday, June 24, 2018
CongratulationsGwendolyn VanSant of Great Barrington was honored as a member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women’s (MCSW) 2018 class of Unsung Heroines during a State House ceremony on Wednesday, June 20. State Sen. Adam Hinds nominated VanSant for this recognition because of her leadership in the Berkshires on matters of diversity, cultural competence and coalition building for justice and equity. In total, the Commission named 130 women from across the state their 2018 Unsung Heroines.
VanSant is the chief executive officer and co-founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a grassroots organization dedicated to catalyzing change and integration through promoting mutual respect and understanding among diverse groups. BRIDGE is a resource to local institutions and the Berkshire County community at large, and provides resources and training in collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy.
VanSant has worked with corporations, schools, colleges and universities, law enforcement, hospitals, teaching and leadership institutes, and more. In addition to designing cultural competence trainings, she is a frequent speaker and long-time activist deeply rooted in gender equity and positive psychology. Since 2012 she has served as an appointed official on the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women.
Most recently, she has served as co-curator and co-designer of the Du Bois 150th birthday festival commissioned by the town of Great Barrington. In spring 2017, she spearheaded the county-wide campaign and coalition "Not in the Berkshires" and, in partnership, stewarded the crafting and passing of her town’s Trust Policy. In 2016, she served as the Founding Director of Equity and Inclusion at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, her alma mater. In 2015-16 she was recognized as a “Berkshire Trendsetter” finalist and was named one of her county’s most dedicated and creative social entrepreneurs by Berkshire Magazine.
She is on the board of UU Mass Action Network and is a reactivation and annual member of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP.
As described by MCSW, the 2018 Unsung Heroines are women who don’t make the news, but make the difference. They are the women who use their time, talent and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others and make a difference in their neighborhoods, cities and towns. They are mentors, volunteers and innovators who do what needs to be done without expectations of recognition or gratitude. These women are the glue that keeps a community together and every community is better because of their contribution. The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women is an independent state agency that was legislatively created in 1998 to advance women of the commonwealth to full equality in all areas of life and to promote their rights and opportunities.
Patricia LeBoeuf | Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — Two daylong conferences 5 miles apart Thursday helped Berkshire County students to navigate common challenges.
And to speak up, be heard and make change.
In Pittsfield, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office's Youth Advisory Board hosted the STRIVE Youth Leadership Conference for middle school students. The name stands for Students Teaching Respect Integrity Values and Equality.
And at Hancock Shaker Village, about 115 high school students chose among 20 workshops focused on the arts, compassion in action, wellness or "adulting" as part of the 411 in the 413 Youth Conference.
In one workshop there, Lucy Doren, a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, joined with co-facilitator JV Hampton-VanSant, special programs coordinator for Multicultural BRIDGE.
GREAT BARRINGTON — The Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, in partnership with The Berkshire Eagle, has named 21 finalists for the Berkshire Nonprofit Awards.
The winners in each of seven categories will be announced at the first Berkshire Nonprofit Awards Breakfast on Tuesday, May 22, from 8 to 10 a.m., at the Country Club of Pittsfield.
Sixty-two people were nominated, according to Liana Toscanini, founder of the Nonprofit Center, including Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, Founder and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE, for the category of "Executive leadership."
Matthew Vernon Whalan | Berkshire Edge
From left to right: Claudia Maurino, Mae Rose Whaley, Lucy Doren and Fionna Shea of the Monument Mountain Regional High School student group Rise. Photo courtesy Rise
Great Barrington -- The shock of the presidential election to the future of this country was not lost on young people at Monument Mountain Regional High School in November 2016. During the campaign cycle, students had been gathering in classroom B-12 of English teacher Michael Rosenthal to discuss their feelings about the current political climate in the buildup to the election. The more the year went on, the more important these meetings became.
Lucy Hoffman founded the anti-racist, anti-sexist student activist group Rise along with another student and Rosenthal in the wake of the 2016 election. Hoffman had an independent study in creative writing with Rosenthal but increasingly used that time to pursue her interest in politics. The more intense the political atmosphere in the country became, the more passionate she was.
“[Rise] started as a place where we could just get together and talk about how we felt. Just to be able to talk to each other and have discussions about it was really great,” Hoffman explained.
She added that, while it was important to have a space to talk about how the students felt, she “thought that we needed to have an outlet to express these feelings more and actually do something.”
“A lot of us felt really let down,” Hoffman said about the time following the election, “because we’d grown up in the Berkshires where it’s kind of like you live in a bubble and the majority of the people you meet just reinforce the things you already know. That’s partly why the 2016 election was so jarring. It was a way of learning that so many people have these other ideas about the world and about life.”
Hoffman said that Rise was inspired by the wave of activism that swept across the country in 2016. The group started to grow from a meeting group of a few like-minded students into a more community-oriented space. Rise developed a strong relationship with Railroad Street Youth Project and Multicultural BRIDGE and worked on various forms of outreach, such as an open mic-style event in which students spoke out, read poetry and played music. The event raised approximately $600, surpassing its original goal of $200, all of which was donated to Planned Parenthood.
Heather Bellow | Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — For rural residents, isolation and poverty can make health care hard to come by.
But now there's a plan to help people stay healthy, and it now needs community input.
Fairview Hospital's Rural Health Network, of which Multicultural BRIDGE is a member, with a federal rural health grant in hand, is working to make connections among South County residents and a range of health care services, and to work on related rural issues like transportation.