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.”
WGBY Connecting Point
The town of Great Barrington is hosting the W.E.B. DuBois Legacy Festival this month to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader. Recently, some residents in town have proposed re-naming the Monument Valley Regional Middle School after Dubois. But the proposal has seen some backlash in the community. Multicultural Bridge CEO Gwendolyn VanSant sat down with Carolee McGrath to share why she supports the name change.
Phil Holand } Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — “Being Black in the Berkshires” was the title of a panel presentation sponsored by Multicultural BRIDGE on the evening of Monday, February 11, at St. James Place. A capacity crowd of 40 mostly white South County residents heard four panelists discuss black life in the Berkshires and relate some of their own experiences as people of color in a region where black faces are few (African Americans make up about 3 percent of the total population of the Berkshires).
The gathering was a follow-up to last September’s forum on the same theme in Pittsfield, but this time in the more affluent – and whiter – South County. “There is an imaginary line between North and South County,” said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County NAACP and a Pittsfield resident who was born and raised in the city. “It passes right through Guido’s,” he added (to nervous laughter), referring to the food emporium’s northern location on the Pittsfield / Lenox line.
BRIDGE stands for “Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education,” and the four panelists embodied those ideas in their own professional and personal lives. Besides Powell, panelists included educator and community activist Shirley Edgerton, Dr. Eden-Renee Hayes, Dean of Equity and Inclusion and Associate Professor of Psychology at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and Alfred Enchill, District Aide in State Sen. Adam Hinds‘ Berkshire County office – another son of the Berkshires – who moderated the event as a private citizen. BRIDGE educator Stephanie Wright, St. James Liaison Jane Burke, BRIDGE Board Co-Secretary Ari Cameron, and Powell provided welcoming remarks.
Hannah Van Sickle } The Berkshire Edge
Pittsfield — Wray Gunn grew up in what he calls a “heavily segregated” neighborhood in Henderson, North Carolina. His family, which consisted of three boys, lived next door to a white family, also with three boys. On Saturdays, it was not uncommon for the six friends to meet at the movies. Despite separate entrances—Gunn and his brothers used the rear entrance while their neighbors used the front door—the boys created a common ground of sorts in the balcony of the theater where, if each trio of brothers sat at the partition, they could enjoy the movies together. This anecdote of Gunn’s is but one of many voices featured in “Their Stories: Oral Histories from the NAACP,” currently on display at the Berkshire Museum. The exhibit, a collaboration of the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College and the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, documents the stories of individual African-Americans in the Berkshires.
Visitors are invited to explore the history of African-Americans in the Berkshires through compelling, contemporary stories from today as recorded by leaders from the local African-American community and the NAACP Berkshire chapter; original portraits by photographer Julie McCarthy bring to life the incredibly rich history of African-Americans in the Berkshires throughout the past 200 years. An illustrated timeline highlighting significant events in the history of the African-American experience in the region, complement the stories and photos. In 1800, the Berkshire County population was 33, 885; the Black population was 494. By 1840, these numbers swelled to 41,745 and 1,333 respectively.
“In my school …we were very few,” recalls Evelyn Pratt. “You could count them. The principal called one of the Black brothers in there and they were told, ‘Don’t ask any white girls out.’ They would not allow that at North High School … I was thinking, as they say, ‘stay in your lane.’” These anecdotal accounts of growing up in the Berkshires, and elsewhere, are balanced by events with more regional and national significance. For instance, in 1865, the year slavery ended in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment, Frederick Douglass lectured in Pittsfield. Interestingly enough, slavery was abolished in 1783 in Massachusetts—through a judicial interpretation of the state constitution—thanks to a crusade led by Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. In 1868, the year the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified—guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all citizens, including Blacks, to whom citizenship was granted—W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington; he would later go on to become the first Black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard, and co-found the NAACP in 1909—the Berkshire County chapter was organized in Pittsfield in 1918.
Optimism and faith permeate many of the messages: “Always try to help: if you can help someone, as you pass along the way, then you can live in the world and not be in pain,” reflects Magdalene Adams in a paraphrase of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speeches. She adds, “You have to have patience to see wisdom and faith come alive.” Adams served as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP in Pittsfield when it was reactivated in 1983. The following year, Stephanie D. Wilson graduated from Taconic High School and went on to become a NASA astronaut; when she went into space in July 2006 as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Discovery, she requested that James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” be played as the wake-up call for astronauts. Portions of that song—along with the lyrics to 200 other popular songs, not to mention books and poetry—were composed while simultaneously working against discrimination in the early quarter of the 20th century.
“I feel like I’ve lived into being an African American woman,” says Gwendolyn VanSant. “In a way, I was avoiding it as a young scholar wanting to be acknowledged as smart and capable just because I am, not because I was the Black girl in the room. It’s very different trying to fit in rather than being honored for my intrinsic value as a human being.” This powerful sentiment is balanced by two women on the exhibit’s timeline: the first, May Edward Chinn, was born in Great Barrington in 1896; she went on to be one of the first Black women to become a medical doctor. The second, Margaret Hart of Williamstown, became the first Black graduate of the State Teachers College of North Adams in 1935; she went on to become the first Black teacher in Pittsfield.