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."
John Townes | Berkshire Trade and Commerce
Multicultural BRIDGE is launching a new initiative that expands its emphasis on economic and social justice into food security. The overall initiative is called Food Sovereignty and Sustainability.
“It’s an exciting concept,” said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and co-founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, which is based in Lee. “It’s an opportunity to help strengthen the local food system, give people more control over their food sources, and also support local farms and producers.”
According to VanSant, the COVID crisis pushed the issue of food security to the forefront at BRIDGE. “Many families were already vulnerable, and with the COVID shutdown many lost their jobs,” she said. “So we intensified our activities to meet these urgent needs. We sought and received support to distribute food to vulnerable families.”
While the program grew out of the COVID crisis, it evolved to become a long-term initiative beyond the current situation, explained VanSant. “We decided that beyond the COVID emergency we wanted to be more strategic and systemic about change, to help make the food system more equitable and work for more people,” she said.
Josh Landes | WAMC
The Berkshire Hills Regional School District committee will soon hold a public hearing on a petition that calls for the Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to be renamed after local civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois. WAMC spoke with Gwendolyn VanSant of Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee to find out more about the decision, and why Du Bois’s support of Communism in his later years has led some in the community to resist past efforts at recognizing the NAACP co-founder. The public hearing is set for September 3rd.
Gwendolyn VanSant featured on The VIA Institute on Character: "Bouncing Forward, not Bouncing Back: Adapting with Resilience (Part 1)"
Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, the VIA Institute on Character is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the science of character strengths to the world. We do so by creating and validating surveys of character, supporting researchers, and developing practical strengths-based tools for individuals and professionals, such as therapists, managers and educators.
Gwendolyn's recent piece, Bouncing Forward, not Bouncing Back: Adapting with Resilience, discusses the Via Character Strengths Survey and was adapted and featured on the VIA Institute of Character's blog.
Gwendolyn VanSant is the leader of Multicultural BRIDGE in Lee, MA. In 2017, Gwendolyn and her team helped launch the Not In Our Town movement in the Berkshires to unify communities throughout the county to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all.
Earlier this month, Gwendolyn spoke with both WGBY and Berkshire Bank for an in-depth discussion about the killing of George Floyd, the protests that have erupted across the country, what can be done to create change, and how to take care of our communities right now.
Watch the video and read Moving as an Anti-Racist: Acknowledge, Align, Amplify, Ask, Activate, Gwendolyn's recent article which summarizes what was discussed in both conversations. The pieces was originally published on her site and recently featured on the Not In Our Town blog.
Jack Lyons | The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — Institutions in Berkshire County are pledging to promote racial equity inside and outside their organizations, as frustration over systemic racism continues to ignite protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Demands for action, not words, are growing louder.
But not all responses are created equal, one local expert said, and organizations must be deliberate and sincere to create real change.
Gwendolyn VanSant, chief executive officer of the local diversity nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE, advises organizations to be personal and honest in their response to outcry about systemic racism.
"The most important thing is if they talk about what's happening and they reflect on where they are as an organization. So if they haven't talked about race, they have to start there," she said. "If they've been doing training for some time, and they've been working at it, then I think they need to take stock on where they are; what goals they've met and what goals they haven't."
VanSant emphasized that creating an equitable culture is a process, and organizations shouldn't pursue actions like significantly adjusting hiring practices if they "haven't done the work."
"In our county, what happens when you just start hiring people of color is you cause a lot more harm," she said. "You actually reinforce negative stereotypes because people aren't used to working cross-culturally, they don't understand that the culture is hard to penetrate for someone of a different background."
"All of that turns into being perceived, most of the time, as somebody's confidence or `good fit,' when really it's white supremacy culture," she added.
Heather Bellow | The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — The nation of Ghana honored the late George Floyd this month by placing his name at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, an act that linked the May 25 victim of police violence with one of this country's most celebrated black intellectuals.
Back in DuBois' hometown of Great Barrington, efforts continue to honor him, at a time when monuments of Confederate generals and other racist symbols around the country are driven out. There are two plans in the works: a sculpture of Du Bois in a prominent location downtown, and the renaming of Monument Valley Regional Middle School after Du Bois.