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.
Kate Abbot | btw Berkshires
On a quiet, warm evening, Don’Jea Smith can pick tomatoes. She can feel the warm slender fruit in her hands and the way it will come away from the plant with a gentle lift. It’s new to her, the sharp, green and spiced scent of tomato plants, the feel of the earth and the hum of crickets. She has felt it stir and fill her.
“The wind’s hitting differently now, because I have these plants,” she said. “I’d never gardened in my life. Now it’s something my partner and I can do.”
She speaks confidence and gladness and a sense of strength.
“I’m overwhelmed with so much joy and work ethic, my heart wants to fly,” she said. “I’m going on more walks — my own fear (of being out in the woods) is lessening. I’m so glad I’m getting a chance to build that connection with the land, that connection with my ancestors since we got here.”
She has found that closeness and her garden through Multicultural Bridge. She is the executive assistant at Bridge and a recent graduate from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in creative writing. She has joined Bridge this summer, and as she works with programs ranging from education to social justice, she has become involved in a new program in food sustainability that Bridge has grown in response to the pandemic, helping families to connect with local farms and grow their own harvests.
“Covid-19 brought out the connection between the land, food … and equity,” said Bridge’s founding director, Gwendolyn VanSant.
Deanna Pan | Boston Globe
Following more than a decade of public strife, Great Barrington, a small idyllic town in the Berkshires, has finally embraced hometown hero W.E.B. Du Bois, the iconic civil rights activist, scholar, and founder of the NAACP.
At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom meeting — in which dozens testified, mostly in favor of the proposed change — the Berkshire Hills Regional School District committee voted unanimously Thursday evening to rename the local middle school in honor of Great Barrington’s perhaps best-known native son.
Monument Valley Regional Middle School is now W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School, a symbolic though important gesture to the local activists who toiled for years to educate the region about the early civil rights pioneer’s life and legacy.
“To me, in this moment of ’Black Lives Matter,’ this was the action, right? We can put a lot of words up and hold signs, but this was a clear action that would stand for what I see as reparations in Great Barrington for past community hurts,” said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and founding director of BRIDGE, a Berkshire-based nonprofit that provides cultural literacy and competency training.
Jim Levulis | WAMC
The Berkshire Hills Regional School District Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington the W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.
"I'm really encouraged that we have not only decided to name the middle school after Du Bois, but we also have all of the permissions to erect a statue after Dr. Du Bois in Great Barrington," VanSant said. "So I feel like Great Barrington has finally embraced Dr. Du Bois."