John Bissell, Peter Taylor, and Gwendolyn VanSant } Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — As three leaders in Berkshire County, we recognize the unjust and uneven balance of power and privilege right here in our communities. Racial inequality has been built into our country's most influential and interconnected institutions—educational and economic, legal, philanthropic and, yes, cultural. We are writing to publicly commit to addressing systemic inequalities in our county head-on as we aim for equity of access and opportunity.
This is why Greylock and Berkshire Taconic helped sponsor, and BRIDGE helped curate, the recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference in the Berkshires at MCLA. It energized over 50 community members through a process that surfaced some of the most persistent systemic indicators and root causes of bias and discrimination. It's also why we are collectively inspired to stand with one of our partners, Jacob's Pillow. We strive to follow CEO Pamela Tatge's example of speaking out about racist and biased incidents when they occur, as she did in her July 10 op-ed for The Berkshire Eagle.
Tatge was well prepared to respond to racism when it occurred in the Jacob's Pillow community because her team had invested in a three-year partnership with BRIDGE to build awareness, responsiveness, and inclusivity into their organizational culture. What's more, Jacob's Pillow has also developed several authentic community collaborations like its dance program Pittsfield Moves.
Dick Lindsay } The Berkshire Eagle
LENOX — On a sultry summer afternoon on the grounds of Shakespeare & Company, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard recited:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ..."
"... that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," concluded Ken Werner, chairman of the theater group's board of trustees.
The two men were sharing the spotlight Thursday afternoon reading, arguably, the most famous line from the Declaration of Independence.
"It's the line everyone knows," Bernard told The Eagle. "It's powerful to hear the written word spoken, and by all walks of life."
"The words are as poignant today — maybe more so — as they were almost 250 years ago," added state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Pignatelli, Bernard and Werner were among the 50 people from across the Berkshires speaking a line or two from the 243-year-old document that would be the rallying cry for colonial America to break away from England.
The recitation highlighted Shakespeare & Company's annual Independence Day celebration, appropriately titled, "We Hold These Truths," held in partnership with Multicultural BRIDGE.
Terry Cowgill } Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — Almost 15 years ago, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee considered, and ultimately rejected, a proposal to name its brand new regional elementary school after perhaps the region’s most celebrated academic and civil rights leader.
To some, it seemed like a no-brainer. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington; was the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard; and was a world-renowned scholar, writer and leader for social and racial justice. Du Bois was seen by many as a trailblazer who paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr. and was “woke” to racial injustice before it became fashionable. Du Bois was also the subject of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies by distinguished historian David Levering Lewis. Moreover, who better to name a school after than Berkshire County’s most legendary scholar?
Tony Dobrowolski | Berkshire Eagle
Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant didn't take a direct route to the Berkshires. She was born in Philadelphia. Her father was an engineer in the Navy, so they moved often. She has lived in Virginia Beach, Va., New Jersey, New York and Florida.
"I was really shy," VanSant said. "I was almost afraid to acclimate because then we'd have to go again."
Through it all, VanSant was a great student — she was a member of the National Honor Society and well-known for her spelling bee prowess. She was at a college fair in Virginia when she met the dean of admissions at Bard College at Simon's Rock.
"I don't know how he ended up in Virginia Beach," she mused.
Five years later, in 1992, VanSant graduated from the Great Barrington college, where she studied Spanish and art history.
VanSant stayed in Berkshire County to raise her family — she has four children ages 12 to 29.
"I was intrigued by having a home, because I had moved around so much," VanSant said. "I built a community, I was living in Housatonic. It felt safe."
Clarence Fanto } Berkshire Eagle
LENOX — The use of a gender-insensitive term during a recent middle school musical production has prompted a push for diversity education measures among district administrators, staff and students.
In an email to the community, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Principal Michael Knybel took the blame for the "derogatory, slang term" that was included in the musical production of "Shrek." "That term was the 'T' word (tranny)," he said, referring to a slur used to describe a transgender person.
"My number-one priority as Principal is to make all students feel safe and comfortable at this school and we made a mistake," Knybel said.
The incident also came up for discussion at Monday night's School Committee meeting. A parent, Jessie Fried, had submitted a letter to the committee earlier in the day about the "offensive language" and she suggested ideas "to make the school safe for all students," said committee Chairman Robert Vaughan.
The "inappropriate, offensive word was in the script as given to the kids," he pointed out. "I don't know what conversations may have transpired prior to the actual production but the performances went on with the word used" in all the shows.
In response to messages received about the incident, schools Superintendent Kimberly Merrick swiftly arranged a workshop presentation for the middle school students on Monday by Gwendolyn VanSant and her team from the nonprofit organization Multicultural Bridge, which promotes training and education to achieve safety, equity and justice.
Hannah Van Sickle | Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — Vanessa LeGrande first met Gwendolyn VanSant a decade ago—the pair got to talking at the fitness facility where LeGrande was working and the idea of a barter took shape, one that would capitalize on the women’s respective strengths: LeGrande would help VanSant create a fitness regime and, in exchange, VanSant would teach LeGrande Spanish. With myriad commitments pulling the pair in different directions, neither woman was able to prioritize herself in order to make good on the deal. While the barter never worked out, the friendship blossomed nonetheless. Last Monday evening, LeGrande was one of the first in a long line of friends, colleagues and admirers speaking on behalf of VanSant, who was honored by Berkshire Business and Professional Women as the 2019 Woman of Achievement for her outstanding leadership, creative energy, and numerous contributions to the Berkshires and beyond.
“You are an amazing power of example, not only to the little black girls, but to the little white girls, and the Chinese girls, and the Hispanic girls,” LeGrande said in her impassioned remarks at the Country Club of Pittsfield. “I thank you for them, I thank you for me, I thank you for letting me know by your power of example that there is nothing too silly for me to say or do,” she added. “It is never too late.”
LeGrande, who spoke on the heels of District Attorney Andrea Harrington and Multicultural BRIDGE co-founder Bob Norris, recognized her friend as a person of amazing character, integrity and pure, humble honesty—one who has paved the way for so many in the community. In a follow up interview, LeGrande elaborated: “Gwen, through conversation, has helped me to understand that I should no longer remain silent for fear of what change might bring. In fact, if I do that, I help stagnate the possibility of change. The people who have strong words and who know how to use them, if they are continually backed down from the same baseline society, then how do we bring about change?”
Josh Landes } WAMC
The auditorium of Monument Mountain Regional High School was the setting for both halves of the epic meeting – one of the longest in recent memory.
On the first night, a spirited debate was held over a nonbinding vote on a citizen’s petition designed to gauge whether the town supported changing the name of Monument Valley Regional Middle School – part of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District – to W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.
“I’d like to point out that the campaign to rename the middle school for Dr. Du Bois is part of a multiyear, multipronged initiative to celebrate the life, work, and legacy of Dr. Du Bois lead by Gwendolyn VanSant and Multicultural BRIDGE,” said Dr. Lara Setti.
Setti is the chair of the board of directors of Multicultural BRIDGE, a Lee-based racial justice and cultural competency training nonprofit organization. She said the petition came out of conversations between BRIDGE, Great Barrington’s Du Bois Center, the school committee, and the town’s selectboard. Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868, went on to be the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Great Barrington town meeting votes to rename middle school after W.E.B. Du Bois; session continued to Tuesday night
Terry Cowgill | Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington -- Annual town meetings in Great Barrington are often marathons, but tonight’s was so lengthy, so tortured, that it had to be continued until tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 7) at 6 p.m. Same time, same place.
Before the adjournment at 10:10 p.m. in the Monument Mountain Regional High School Auditorium, the town meeting made history. After lengthy – at times impassioned – debate, voters overwhelmingly approved a motion to endorse the renaming of the regional middle school after W.E.B. Du Bois – scholar, civl rights leader, and Great Barrington’s most famous native son.
(Click here to see the complete town meeting warrant.)
Several speakers, including three from Multicultural Bridge, noted Du Bois great achievements as a scholar and civil rights leader. A handful of others, including some veterans, objected to Du Bois’ late-in-life embrace of communism.
Josh Landes } WAMC
A Berkshire County professional women’s group is honoring a woman of color with an annual award for the first time in its 54-year history.
Claire Richards is the president of the Berkshire Business and Professional Women organization, founded in 1965.
“We’re a group of women that come together to help and support each other for networking, for career advancement,” she told WAMC.
This year, the woman being recognized as the group’s Woman of Achievement is Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and CEO of the cultural literacy and competence training group Multicultural BRIDGE. She’s also Vice Chair of the Town of Great Barrington W. E. B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, and a member of the board of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and UU Mass Action Network.
Andrea Hurley, chair of the BBPW’s communications committee, offered this selection from VanSant’s nomination letter:
“For over a decade, Gwendolyn has done critical work in our community serving some of the most vulnerable neighbors. She is a fierce advocate, whose compassion and commitment to justice and to honoring the humanity of every individual is inspiring.”
VanSant helped found the Lee-based Multicultural BRIDGE in 2007.
“We are a minority and women run organization, and we really have touched almost every corner of our community – corporate, schools, law enforcement, and we work with youth, we work with elders, and we really just work on promoting mutual respect and understanding and providing tools for our community to communicate better, and to get along better, create policies and practices that are more inclusive, and just to create a stronger sense of collective humanity,” she told WAMC.
Terry Cowgill | Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — By a substantial margin, voters in Massachusetts approved a ballot measure in 2016 that legalized the sale and adult use of recreational marijuana products.
The state Cannabis Control Commission was hastily formed and its members, in conjunction with lawmakers on Beacon Hill, began the process of coming up with guidelines and regulations to govern the new industry only three years after medical marijuana was legalized through the same procedure.
Even before the initiative passed and the sausage was made, concerns were raised about the high barriers to entry into the business and the plights of those incarcerated as a result of punitive drug possession laws.
Moreover, there was a social justice component. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, as of 2014, black people in the state were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, “even though rates of drug use are essentially the same across races.” The ACLU attributed this disparity to “policing practices [that] target communities of color.”