This film featuring local Berkshire Leaders of Color working toward justice and public health equity, screens at the Mahaiwe on Thursday, May 5th at 6 p.m.
BY HANNAH VAN SICKLE | Originally Posted on The Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — In art, the medium of mosaic relies on many small pieces that — when intentionally fit together — create a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing whole. Its etymology stems from the Medieval Latin “musaicum”, or work of the muses, goddesses believed to elicit thoughtful inspiration. Suffice it to say, CEO and Founding Director Gwendolyn VanSant and her team at BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) have been musing over the myriad connections between racism and health—as evidenced by the premiere of “Mosaic,” a short film featuring local Berkshire Leaders of Color, working toward justice and public health equity. The screening will take place on Thursday, May 5th at 6 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington; the film will be in English with Spanish subtitles.
“The Mosaic project is exciting because it’s putting BRIDGE’s racial justice and racial equity work in the public health sphere,” said VanSant, the nonprofit’s founding director, emphasizing the importance of seeing the big picture. “I don’t necessarily think that the public health arena sees systemic racism as their work all the time, especially in Berkshire County.”
BRIDGE’s racial justice organizing and equity and inclusion training addresses the social determinants of health through dialogue, action and education. In order to identify viable solutions, BRIDGE strives to highlight and provide pathways of understanding in how the social conditions lead to the health outcomes and disparities experienced not only locally in the Berkshires and regionally throughout western Massachusetts, but also statewide and nationally.
Commissioned by the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Network and created by local filmmaker Michelle Falcón Fontánez, “Mosaic” highlights the transformational work of local leaders of color and other voices from the Connecticut River Valley to the Berkshires—including the stories of two community members: BRIDGE leader Florence Afanukoe and long-time Berkshire resident Arthur Wright.
“The story of immigrant families in Berkshire County is a seemingly unique and nuanced experience that I, being an immigrant, have explored firsthand and can narrate the reality,” said Afanukoe, who moved with her family to the United States from Togo in 2008 and graduated from Pittsfield High School; Wright migrated to the Berkshires from North Carolina more than 50 years ago. Together, they hold an intergenerational and cross-cultural conversation, contrasting their experiences moving to the primarily white community of the Berkshires and sharing experiences during the pandemic—an ongoing period that continues to shed light on the glaring health disparities and impact within the most vulnerable in Berkshire communities
“The timing was perfect,” said VanSant, of WMHEN reaching out during the pandemic to explore a conversation rooted in systemic racism and public health. With year two of the organization’s mutual aid program well under way—one that focused on marginalized communities, Black elders, immigrants, and individuals living with disability in the Berkshires—it made sense to pair two members of the BRIDGE community: Wright, the organization’s oldest participant and Afanukoe, a youth leader, current staff member and University of Bridgeport student focused on Public Health.
“It was BRIDGE that inspired me to start on this path to make a difference,” said Afanukoe, pointing to the nonprofit’s support—in particular while an immigrant youth navigating high school—as instrumental to her success. She ultimately presented her project, “Inspiring Change,” during a course led by BRIDGE educators, JV VanSant and Gwendolyn VanSant. “As a follow-up, BRIDGE provided an amazing internship and service learning opportunity, where I worked with youth and followed through with my project,” said Afanukoe who will graduate in December.
“She’s really grown into her leadership and her voice,” said VanSant of the soon-to-be public health graduate who, while an immigrant student from Africa, encountered systemic and cultural racism in school alongside the immersion of her family into the region. Wright recounts leaving the segregated South and finding a space and home here in the Berkshires to have agency over his and his family’s livelihood.
Since its inception in 2007, BRIDGE has worked at this intersection—connecting people of color and other systematically excluded community members with key resources and networks while providing education to local institutions and the community at large. Their goal, as evidenced during the pandemic, is to improve health outcomes via direct support of vulnerable communities and youth while working across sectors to build a Berkshire culture of health, equity, safety and justice.
“This particular film is 25 minutes long [and] really focused on systemic racism and health disparities,” said VanSant, pointing to people’s access to health, their experience of racism and how that impacts their health. “It’s a powerful 25 minutes, and it’s really for anybody,” she said, citing youth, health professionals, and anyone who has ever been a patient. In addition to BRIDGE, the filmo features stories from three other local, grassroots organizations leading the way toward healthier communities and advocating for equity, justice, representation and transformation: Women of Color Health Equity Collective (formerly MotherWoman, Inc.); Estoy Aqui; and the Ohketeau Cultural Center.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and community conversation facilitated by VanSant—nationally recognized for her anti-poverty and race equity practices as the National Drum Major for Justice awardee for BRIDGE’s mutual aid work on behalf of the most vulnerable during the pandemic—will be joined by Jessica Collins, Public Health Institute; Sasha Jimenez, Planned Parenthood and Mosaic Film Committee; Colin Adams, Associate Professor of Sociology at Berkshire Community College and Dr. Lara Setti of Community Health Programs; featured film participants, Florence Afanukoe and Arthur Wright, will also be present.
Using the voices of marginalized and vulnerable communities to develop the best path forward—towards building healthy, thriving communities—remains central to the work of BRIDGE and their partners, a mission VanSant underscores: “The film is really meant to empower and amplify the story of people not usually at the center [of such narratives], so I’m really excited.”
NOTE: This event is part of a regional screening tour organized by the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Network and local partners, with cultural exploration, performances and wide-ranging discussion centered on the film. The events preceding the screening, which start at 4 p.m. in Giggle Park in Great Barrington, are made possible in part by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Race Equity Grant, a two-year grant to support BRIDGE’s racial justice education, campaigns and organizing. Additional partners include Berkshire Community College, Community Health Programs (CHP), Greylock Federal Credit Union, World Farmers Market and the Town of Great Barrington. For complete details of the showing, and to reserve a seat, visit this site. Reservations and proof of vaccination is required to attend the showing.
Jonathan Hunter | Posted to WNYT
W. E. B. Du Bois was born 154 years ago on Feb. 23, in the town of Great Barrington.
Du Bois was a civil rights leader who co-founded the NAACP.
When you travel around Great Barrington, you'll see pictures and paintings of Du Bois. Du Bois was a writer, a teacher and a sociologist. Du Bois went to Fisk University and became the first African American to earn a P.H.D from Harvard.
Jeffrey Peck is a great-grandson of Du Bois. He is honored to carry on the legacy of his great-grandfather.
Since Du Bois is from Great Barrington, the town for the last few years has recognized his birthday as a holiday. Gwendolyn VanSant is the vice chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois legacy committee in Great Barrington. She says Du Bois was a remarkable man because of his fight for racial justice.
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Life of Yolande Du Bois Williams Irvin, granddaughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated at ceremony in Great Barrington
About 100 people gathered closely around the Du Bois family’s resting place, sheltering each other as best they could from the frigid wind and the driving snow. Before unveiling the covered grave marker, a few family members made some comments.
Irvin’s son, Jeffrey Peck Sr., peered at the crowd through the snow, remembering his mother’s presence.
“No matter how old I get, I’ll always be her baby boy,” he said.
Irvin, the only granddaughter of Great Barrington native and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, died Nov. 15, in Fort Collins, Colo. She spent much of her 89 years continuing her grandfather’s work in education, civil rights and community building.
Irvin wished to be buried where much of her family rests, in the Mahaiwe Cemetery.
W.E.B. Du Bois buried his 2-year-old son, Burghardt, in that cemetery in 1899. There, he buried his first wife, Nina, in 1950. He returned to Great Barrington one last time, in 1961, at age 93, to bury his only daughter, the mother of Yolande Du Bois Williams Irvin.
Irvin usually insisted on being called by her nickname, Du Bois, as all her family and friends referred to her. And she always referred to her grandfather as “Gran’Pa.”
The celebration of Irvin’s life, organized and sponsored by the Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education, or Bridge, started at the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, part of the town’s weeklong celebration of her grandfather’s life (his birthday is Feb. 23).
In attendance were several generations of the Du Bois family, as well as friends and colleagues from Houston, where Irvin’s son resides. Bishop James Dixon II, of Houston’s Community of Faith Church and president-elect of NAACP Houston, also was there.
Several of Irvin’s family members, as well as other friends and admirers, spoke of her joyful relations with seemingly everyone that she met.
Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of Bridge and vice chair of the Great Barrington Du Bois Legacy Committee, explained that late in her life, Irvin asked her son, Jeffrey Peck Sr., to be sure she is buried at her family’s gravesite.
“This decision came late in her years when she acknowledged … the way in which our town was finally embracing her grandfather,” VanSant said.
Deepika Bains Shukla, head of the Springfield U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Irvin set her on her career path.
“Dr. Du Bois [Irvin] inspired me to enter into a career to work on civil rights,” Shukla said. “So, I am deeply grateful to be here and to be a part of this celebration.”
Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, noted that Irvin always was outgoing, and friendly, to all.
“I feel like she never met a stranger, and her friends often became members of her extended family,” he said. “Imagine if everyone did this, what a better world this would be.”
Michael Curry, NAACP national board member and chair of the board’s Advocacy and Policy Committee, said he spent much of his youth trying to understand why people were treated so differently because of the color of their skin, and noted that the teachings of Irvin and her grandfather helped to set him on the path of correcting issues of inequity.
“The work Yolande did was the essence of her family’s history, a history of service,” he said.
During the reflections on Irvin’s life, she was described as a guide and mentor to many young people and someone who purposely set out to teach at a predominantly African American school to continue with what her grandfather had started.
Her family said she served as a mentor to many and that she demonstrated concern for her students, their families and their communities. She particularly placed emphasis on physical and mental wellness.
And she developed an acute fondness for the Ford Mustang, of which she owned several and wasn’t bashful about driving a bit too fast from time to time.
Near the end of Irvin’s days, her son, Peck, said that a nurse told him: “I come to work looking forward to seeing your mother because she brought a bright spot to my day, every day that I came in.”
“That’s my mom,” he said.
Her friend, Dr. Mary Nell Morgan, recalled their 35-year friendship.
“We had great fun all the times we would get together,” she said. “I love her and I miss her more than words can say. May her soul rest in peace — her job has been well done.”
Irvin’s grandson, Jeffrey Peck Jr., said he spent the past five years getting to know her, and frequently talked on the phone with her.
“She could talk for a long time,” he said. “I’m deeply grateful she was able to share her life. I’m so proud of my grandmother; you could never imagine. I deeply love her.”
Irvin graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, where her mother taught.
After graduating high school, she accompanied her grandfather to the International Youth Conference in Germany, which she remembered as a highlight of her life. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and finished earning her bachelor’s degree at New York University. She earned her doctorate in psychology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
In 1988, she joined the faculty of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the psychology department. As with her grandfather, it turned out to be her life’s work.
By Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant | Berkshire Eagle
Bridge faced the pandemic by leading with partnerships, care and mutual respect.
About: Bridge, based in Lee, is a nonprofit, minority and woman-run grassroots organization founded in 2007 that is dedicated to advancing equity and justice by promoting cultural competence, positive psychology, and mutual understanding and acceptance.
At the onset of COVID-19, we experienced destabilization with a drastic drop in our planned work and revenue sources to support our programs. Through the strength of our network and our innate resilience, we stabilized.
We then emerged as a guide for other organizations to lean into equity and inclusion work as part of their strategy. As Cyndi Suarez wrote in The Nonprofit Quarterly, we must not let resilience efforts “sidestep the [core question]: Who gets to decide what is normative?” This is an important question for leaders to ask who need to broaden their awareness in general.
Bridge faced the pandemic by leading with partnerships, care and mutual respect. We prioritized the well-being of our internal team and I, as CEO and founding director, developed three new innovations to carry us into the future: a mutual aid program; “new pathways” offerings; and an inclusive leadership cohort.
COVID-19 had us pivot quickly to meet the needs of our community. The most marginalized among us were the first to be laid off, to go without what they needed for their families to survive, and the ones living with the most uncertainty.
We witnessed how care workers and nurses, our elders and those who live paycheck to paycheck in unsalaried jobs were vulnerable. This is the “why” at the core of the New Pathways series of labs, talks and the conference (which also allowed us to continue to serve our clients well). The conference, featuring Angela Davis, brought more than 40 practitioners and 350 attendees from all over the country to advance accessible equity and inclusion work.
Mutual Aid: Food sovereignty and empowerment
With partners in 2020, we served 120-plus people weekly or biweekly, with fresh, local food for more than 42 weeks. We worked with 12 farms, farmers markets and environmental groups to support under-resourced families. We worked with 24 local businesses and 23 family foundations to shift money and resources to people on the ground leading the work. We led with cultural competence, support around language barriers, and relied on relationships to create access to resources.
It was mutual aid in action. Solidarity, not charity, and so much collaboration. We infused aid with activism and education.
Inclusive leadership cohort for social change
Our Inclusive Leadership Cohort is a yearlong, peer-led program for leaders committed to equity and inclusion. Our 2021 inaugural group is guided by best practices in justice and equity as well as cultural competence. We’re benchmarking equity in each of the 30 participating organizations.
Over a year, we will build networks with national subject matter experts speaking to accountability. New projects and insights will emerge. This summer, we will create new plans to reflect our larger community’s collective vision and needs.
Sheela Clary | Berkshire Edge
This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here.
“Change” has been afoot on Instagram since the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, when Change the Museum emerged to call out issues of racial inequity in the American cultural sphere. In mid-February of this year came Change Berkshire Culture, which turned attention locally. The creators of CBC inaugurated their effort with an invitation to cultural workers in the Berkshires to share stories of ill-treatment, pay inequities, or bias. These have highlighted the power disparity between management and “front-facing” or low status, low-paid employees. The site is now up to 1527 followers, and 65 posts, as of this writing.
The two ends of the power spectrum are both now working on different, yet perhaps one day intersecting, fronts, to begin to shift dynamics within organizations. CBC’s efforts are expanding out of the virtual realm, and a large group of executive and board leadership in the county has convened to advance and expand the peer supports for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work already underway among most of the 32 participating organizations and businesses.
First, under the umbrella of the CBC, a five-member Mutual Aid Fund Steering Committee has created a GoFundMe campaign to support cultural workers who have been hard hit by lay-offs and the COVID-19-related economic downturn. The effort has raised $4,420 to date, from 83 donors. Once it reaches $5,000, the committee will disburse $500 mini-grants to applicants.
One of the steering committee members used to work in a Berkshire county cultural organization and is now employed elsewhere. They are most inspired by the number of small gifts from among cultural workers themselves. “Those of us who work in the sector see ourselves in the stories that have been posted, and to be able to do something substantive to support our fellow cultural workers is an exciting opportunity.” There are also hopes for greater fundraising capacity beyond that pool of donors, however, the steering committee members said. “If the majority of the CBC Instagram followers were to give $10, we’d reach our goal quickly. This is a collective.” Depending on the fund’s continued momentum, it will be kept going for multiple rounds of disbursements.
CBC is also working on other concrete “calls to action.” They are in the process of establishing an education task force, whose primary task will be to set up “teach-ins,” with the first likely to cover the subject of employee organizing. This work will be informed by the relationships the site creators have formed with colleagues at museums such as MFA Boston, who are now going through the unionization process. These efforts have already gotten underway locally with MASS MoCA, whose workers pledged to vote to unionize.
Going forward, the CBC community would like to build tool kits for institutions to use to create more inclusive and welcoming workplaces, and to begin to answer difficult and uncomfortable questions, such as: “How can we rethink how the board functions? Is it benefitting the employees and the public? How do we address the larger question of dismantling white supremacy, which is built into museums? Are we questioning our own complicity? Are we asking the community what we can do better?”
Still unclear is whether or not these conversations would involve both management and workers aiming to solve problems together, though CBC would like to get there eventually. “I think there is an opportunity for these conversations to merge among connected parties.”
Gwendolyn VanSant, founder and CEO of BRIDGE, has gotten a jumpstart on helping organizations answer the questions posed by CBC, as well as many others. She and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, through a Barr Foundation grant, and with support from Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire Bank Foundation, and the Crane Foundation, have convened an impressive group of county nonprofit and business executives and board members, called the “Inclusive Leadership as a Force for Change” cohort. An earlier iteration engaged seven cultural organizations, and VanSant was brought in to assist with one aspect of that work. “When we started talking about audience engagement, it was clear they needed to do some cultural competency work, to learn how to engage diverse audiences. Out of that, the cohort was like, ‘What’s next? We want to keep that going.’”
Terry Cowgill | Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington -- It’s official. The town of Great Barrington will recognize its most famous native son with a day in his honor.
At Monday’s selectboard meeting, members of the W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee presented a proclamation asking the board to recognize W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Day every year on his birthday, Feb. 23. Click here to read the document, which the board approved unanimously exactly one week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and he co-founded the NAACP. Du Bois, a groundbreaking scholar and civil rights leader, was born 153 years ago only about a one-minute walk away from the Congregational Church on Main Street, in a home near the Housatonic River, a watercourse for which he maintained a lifelong affection. He died in 1963, in Ghana, at 95 years of age.
Activist and scholar Angela Davis addresses the audience Sunday, during the remote “New Pathways” social justice conference organized by the Lee-based nonprofit Bridge. Criticizing a law enforcement system that she described as a “prison-industrial complex,” and one responsible for the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, Davis offered housing, education and jobs as some paths through which reform could lead to more equitable systems. Photo: Gwendolyn VanSant
Danny Jin | The Berkshire Eagle
As communities begin to contend more seriously with racial injustice, what’s next for those seeking more equitable societies?
That was the question taken up in a social justice conference organized by the Lee-based nonprofit Bridge, which held various events on Zoom from Friday through Monday. Attendees explored methods to work toward social change amid a coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately has hurt Black communities, and a spike in recognition of police violence after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
And, while some celebrated news that Joe Biden will succeed Donald Trump as the nation’s next president, several speakers — many of them were Black women — stressed that a return to the familiar would not be good enough.
“The New Pathways program is about creating a space to internationally acknowledge and build a road that does not lead us back to normal, because normal has been so lethal for so many,” said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, Bridge’s CEO and founding director. “2020 has brought us a clearer vision that we can’t go back, only forward.”
Activist and scholar Angela Davis echoed that sentiment in a Sunday keynote, addressing nearly 200 people on the Zoom call.
As the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and other anti-racist ideas have moved, Davis said, “from the sidelines of established political discourse to the center,” part of the task is maintaining the radical and transformative intent of those ideas.
Danny Jin | The Berkshire Eagle
Social justice, Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant says, is more a concrete process than an abstract goal.
“The definition of social justice is the shifting of resources for positive social impact,” said VanSant, CEO and founding director of the Lee nonprofit Bridge. “The way we sustain it is that daily practice. It’s not just you write a check, but every family dinner, every encounter, you have to really be in the work and be committed.”
Bridge launched a series of “New Pathways” talks to highlight issues of equity when the coronavirus pandemic first hit. Now, it’s hosting a conference under that banner to explore possibilities for equitable transformation as communities continue to navigate the pandemic, a growing movement in support of Black lives and a tense presidential election.
“I think what I hope people walk away with is inspiration, hope and community because I think people are operating out of fear and anxiety, and it doesn’t really get us where we need to go,” she said. “I really hope it gives people a multitude of ways to get excited. I hope it ignites everybody’s power source to get going in the right direction.”
The “New Pathways” conference boasts a keynote from activist and Black feminist scholar Angela Davis.
“Just thinking about what she stands for, in terms of criminal justice, in terms of recognizing the harms that capitalism has had on Black communities, and as a Black feminist, I’m nothing short of thrilled to have Angela Davis,” VanSant said.
New Pathways Social Justice Conference to feature Angela Davis’ keynote address ‘Examining Race, Class and Gender’
Hannah Van Sickle | Berkshire Edge
Lee — As next week’s presidential election looms on the horizon, the importance of doing one’s part for the benefit of society comes into sharp focus. Just ask Gwendolyn VanSant. “Everyone has their own personal power and civic power; they need to exercise it for the common good [and to create] positive social impact,” the CEO and founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE told The Edge in a recent Zoom interview. This perspective, in large part, is the impetus behind “New Pathways of Empowerment and Transformation: Moving the Dial on Race, Class and Justice Strategies.” The four-day event (Nov. 6-9) curated by VanSant and fellow activists, will focus on continuing the movement for gender, race and economic justice. American scholar and civil rights activist Angela Davis will deliver the keynote address Sunday evening.
“[To avoid] wallowing in whatever the outcome [of the presidential election] brings: that’s my hope and dream for the conference,” said VanSant, calling the online event everything she dreamed it would be without being in-person. “How do we stay strategic? How do we keep movement building? And how do we work toward equity and justice? No matter who our federal leadership is, we have a lot of work to do as individuals and organizations,” VanSant reminds readers.
VanSant created New Pathways — a collection of talks and webinars intended to seed an equitable and resilient future based on justice, healing and transformation — during COVID-19. She saw the series of short, accessible talks with local and national leaders as instrumental in supporting new forms of leadership and organizing both during a period “when the disparities [are] so stark” and in the aftermath. “We can’t go back to the way anything was. We have to create new ways of working together,” VanSant underscored in a nod to the program’s moniker. “And that’s what this conference is: all of us coming together to do this work.”
By Zachary Green & Ivette Feliciano | PBS NewsHour
This summer, thousands of residents showed up for the Black Lives Matter protests in Great Barrington, Massachusetts -- a small town of less than 7,000 people. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green, who grew up there, reports on how Black people in the progressive town are still facing racial discrimination.
Featuring BRIDGE Founding Director and CEO, Gwendolyn VanSant, alongside other local racial justice leaders.