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."
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.