Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founding director and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE. Photo courtesy Everyday Democracy

BRIDGE of western Massachusetts is named finalist for prestigious Everyday Democracy Award

Everyday Democracy helps people create spaces where they can build skills to bring difficult topics to light and address them effectively over the long term, helping communities move conversation into action, and action into lasting positive change.

Lee — After more than a decade engaging in essential work across Berkshire County, Multicultural BRIDGE has been recognized as one of four finalists for the 2019 Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award. The annual award, given by Everyday Democracy, recognizes individuals and organizations that work toward creating spaces for people of all backgrounds to talk and work together for strong, equitable communities. This year there were 64 total nominations nationwide.

“It is an honor to be recognized by Everyday Democracy and the Paul J. Aicher Foundation for our work,” said Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founding director and CEO of the Berkshire-based nonprofit. “At BRIDGE, we are committed to embodying new practices of recognizing, disrupting, and undoing oppression through education, advocacy, and leveraging our many resources for positive social change. We work alongside others and work across differences in identity, perspective, and politics to prioritize safety and belonging. These are things we can all practice doing in our neighborhoods, workplace communities, and across sectors. In the time that we are living in now, we must strive towards equity and justice however we can. We are stronger together.”

Multicultural BRIDGE CEO Gwendolyn VanSant and Not in Our County campaign participants. Photo courtesy Everyday Democracy

BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) is a grassroots organization dedicated to advancing equity and justice by promoting cultural competence, positive psychology, and mutual understanding and acceptance. A Commonwealth-certified minority and women-run organization based in the rural Berkshires, BRIDGE acts as a catalyst for change through education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy. For over 10 years, BRIDGE has used a collaborative approach to actively lift up marginalized voices in Berkshire County and across the country. With its holistic approach to promoting racial justice and equity as well as civic participation, BRIDGE’s work has led to systemic shifts and changes in policy toward a more just, safe and equitable society. The organization’s innovative approach to grassroots activism continues to create new partnerships and win community hearts and minds. BRIDGE’s current and recent initiatives are aimed at myriad individuals across the county. BRIDGE’s Women to Women program helps Berkshire women leaders from immigrant communities navigate transitions and connect to resources for mutual support and professional development; Happiness Toolbox camp promotes cultural and multilingual literacy for children of all backgrounds; the Towards Racial Justice and Equity in the Berkshires campaign convenes area groups including the BRIDGE Race Task Force to act as a hub for critical community responses to bias and hate crimes, education, and outreach.

BRIDGE spearheaded the Great Barrington Trust Policy campaign, a citizen-initiated effort that ensures that all residents in Great Barrington are fully protected by the local police and town government. The town passed the policy in 2017. Finally, BRIDGE leads the Not in Our County – Berkshires campaign in collaboration with the Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office to unify the county to stop hate; address bullying; and build safe, inclusive communities for all.

Young participants in a Multicultural BRIDGE program. Photo courtesy Everyday Democracy

Everyday Democracy supports organizing across the country by bringing diverse groups of people together, helping them structure and facilitate community dialogue on pressing issues, and training them to use a racial equity lens to understand long standing problems and possible solutions. The organization helps people create spaces where they can build skills to bring difficult topics to light and address them effectively over the long term, helping communities move conversation into action, and action into lasting positive change. Martha McCoy, executive director of Everyday Democracy shared: “BRIDGE is making a huge difference in a small community by bridging gaps and bringing people together across sectors, backgrounds, and all forms of difference. By supporting meaningful connection and collaboration, BRIDGE is demonstrating the kind of leadership that creates spaces where everyone can have a voice and play a role in creating a thriving community. Gwendolyn VanSant and her team live the values that Paul and Joyce Aicher stood for – inclusion, racial equity, relationships across difference, and voice for all. We are proud to recognize BRIDGE’s work.”

In addition to this most recent honor, BRIDGE has received numerous industry and leadership awards, including the 2015 Berkshire Trendsetter Award for Non-Profit Impact. VanSant was unanimously chosen as the 2019 Woman of Achievement by Berkshire Business and Professional Women, and has been invited to provide best practices in Cultural Competency training to the U.S. Department of Justice. BRIDGE’s Cultural Competency work is also cited as a best practice in the textbook “Understanding Hate Crimes: Acts, Motives, Offenders, Victims, and Justice” by Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino.

BRIDGE hosts monthly racial justice meetings in collaboration with faith leaders; offers Cultural Competency training to businesses, nonprofits, organizations and schools; and assists businesses in making institutional changes for racial justice to better support clients, employees, and communities as a whole.

NOTE: Everyday Democracy is the primary project of the Paul J. Aicher Foundation. The Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award was first awarded in 2017 to Generation Justice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and last year was awarded to Beth Broadway of InterFaith Works of Central New York. The winners of the 2019 award were Happy Johnson and Arthur Johnson of the Lower Ninth Ward Campaign for Sustainable Engagement and Development, in New Orleans, Louisiana.