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

BRIDGE unveils a new vision of equity, inclusion and justice for the Berkshires

"As racially-charged events like the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the 2022 mass shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo accumulate, this opportunity for dialogue—between those helping to fund Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s ABC initiative and those testing new ways to make their organizations, and by extension programming, more inclusive—is both timely and necessary."

Stockbridge — An auspicious moment for learning transpired Thursday night, July 14 at the Norman Rockwell Museum where a trio of representatives from local arts and culture organizations—all participants in BRIDGE’s inaugural Inclusive Leadership Cohort for Social Change (ILC) with Arts Build Community (ABC) funding—shared how participating in the year-long initiative aimed at building a cross-sector network of local leaders committed to advancing a new vision of equity, inclusion, and justice for the Berkshires has impacted their work in the community. 

 “The backdrop of our time in the ILC was a period of great national reckoning for our country, and the urgency around implementing authentic and lasting change, is something that stayed with me. I have always been passionate about advocacy, but my participation in the ILC deepened my resolve to use voice in spaces that may benefit from a different perspective,” said Roberta McCulloch-Dews, who serves as a trustee on the Norman Rockwell Board. “I like to think of the knowledge and learnings that I acquired from the ILC as the gift that keeps on giving as its impact and influence continues to reverberate in both my professional role, community, and board service.” McCulloch-Dews was joined on the panel by Lucie Castaldo, Executive Director of Berkshire Art Center and Janis Martinson, Executive Director of Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

“There was an earnest commitment to want to get the work right,” Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO/Founding Director at BRIDGE, told The Edge, citing a shared goal among the inaugural cohort participants: “to create tangible, positive impact in the community.” Which, for leaders who are often in the spotlight, is no small feat. 

“Any work that involves change—[specifically] work around justice, equity and dismantling oppressive systems…[requires a] shift in culture around leadership and what leadership looks like,” said VanSant who leans into the term, “reimagined leadership”—a call to participants to consider this: “As a leader you are going to guide the work, be stewards of good work and positive social impact, but you’re not going to have all the answers in this space,” she said, underscoring the real work which begins with modeling vulnerability, and shifting the culture around leadership, and what leadership looks like. 

“It’s the ability to pivot, to cross examine bias internally and expose that…it’s being adaptive and embracing mistakes, so—while we want to get DEI right, we know we are going to get it wrong and be ready for that feedback and treat it as an opportunity versus a criticism,” explained VanSant, pointing these skills as “one of the muscles” the cohort worked to build—as evidenced by the fact that, when issues came up, the group paused and dealt with it, “in a place that was trusted, but not necessarily comfortable.” In many ways, the cohort served as a microcosm of what happens in the community, work that has been in the pipeline for some time. 

In 2018, VanSant traveled to Chicago for a four-day conference devoted to equity; there, she made a presentation on the nature of rural equity work—namely how it differs from similar work in urban settings. In attendance were Barr Foundation folks poised to disburse funds, primarily in the Chicago area but ultimately across the country, to attach the creative arts and creative economy to justice and equity issues. VanSant worked alongside these individuals in every session, for four days, as they made clear their intentions regarding funding: “We don’t want to just give money to the large white organizations that are established, we want to be in the communities in the neighborhoods with the people listening to the people,” VanSant remembers, her ears perking up as they were speaking, “BRIDGE language.” 

Armed with the knowledge that Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) had also received Barr Foundation funds, VanSant returned to the Berkshires keen on cultivating further connections in her community—as has been her strength over the past 15 or more years—by creating a focus group, one that asked leaders of area arts organizations to consider doing the work of addressing equity a bit differently. As to her core message? “[We can’t simply] find these diverse audiences and just plop them into our theatres and arts institutions; we need to do the work to prepare to do it well.” Suffice it to say, VanSant has been doing just that for the ensuing four years.

 She ultimately pitched the idea, of creating a cohort across sectors, to Peter Taylor, President of BTCF and John Bissell, CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union—the intent being transparent: “[To harness] some of the deep work the corporate institutions are able to do [as a means of] inform[ing] and resource[ing] the arts,” so everyone can deepen the work without fear of losing funding (especially for small nonprofits). 

 “Equity has been at the center of our work,” Taylor told The Edge, pointing to the ABC initiative, created in partnership with BTCF and the Barr Foundation, aimed at fostering and expanding arts and the creative process in an effort to increase community engagement, specifically, “within communities of color, within our growing immigrant communities, and among youth and young people.” Taylor went on to call the arts and culture sector in the Berkshires, “world class,” while underscoring the real hurdle: “How can we look at the barriers of participation among year-round residents, to those world class resources and experiences, that have a proven ability to build relationships, cooperation and unity because of the shared endeavor of enjoying and create art together?”

As luck would have it, Taylor (and by extension BTCF) was part of the inaugural ILC—which means Taylor understands, perhaps on a deeper level than before, the importance of doing the hard work across the board. “This is a long-term endeavor in terms of the change that’s needed to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion within organizations so it can have a transformative effect,” he said, of how his participation in the ILC has led not only to examining policies and procedures but also philanthropic practices, citing philanthropy as having “inherent power differentials.” As such, they are connecting those with resources who want to invest in communities with those nonprofits in need of resources to further their missions becomes paramount. 

Together, the inaugural cohort is embodying collective leadership. Thus far, the ILC’s task has been benchmarking equity in each of the 30 participating organizations—as evidenced by probing into representation in equity and inclusion in vendor selection, leadership, mentor programs, pay, mission alignment, and community impact. That the initiative, launched in January 2021, continues after 17 months speaks to the ongoing nature of this work.

“Creating a more equitable landscape in the Berkshires isn’t a one-person or even a one-organization effort,” said Janis Martinson, Executive Director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. “In pooling expertise and resources, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and BRIDGE created an experience—the year-long Inclusive Leadership Cohort program—for community leaders to learn from each other and to envision how much more we can do when we act together.” 

Taylor calls it, “putting a thumb on the lever of issues around equity and inclusion” so that, through partnerships with nonprofits, entities like BRIDGE can be successful in their work—like the ILC, a peer-led program hosted at BRIDGE for leaders committed to equity and inclusion. The inaugural group remains guided by best practices in justice and equity as well as cultural competence. Since its inception, VanSant and her colleagues have worked to build networks with broad-ranging, national subject-matter experts speaking to accountability. 

Thursday night’s panel discussion took place before a fitting backdrop, Imprinted: Illustrating Race (on exhibit through October 30). As racially-charged events like the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the 2022 mass shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo accumulate, this opportunity for dialogue—between those helping to fund Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s ABC initiative and those testing new ways to make their organizations, and by extension programming, more inclusive—is both timely and necessary. Like the ILC itself, such conversations have the potential to create a shared language that will not only create momentum but also elicit change. 

“[These] recent events serve as painful reminders of the inequities and disparities that remain so prevalent in society,” said VanSant, returning to the inherent value and lasting impact of the yearlong Inclusive Leadership Cohort for Social Change, now in a group-project phase, “that build on our collective strengths and keep us engaged with and accountable to each other and the community,” said Martinson. 

VanSant remains poised to respond to local arts organizations looking to diversify their audiences. “Because our demographics are changing on a national level, the patrons of our local arts institutions will eventually change [as well],” she said, underscoring her commitment to help organizations remain culturally relevant while providing opportunities for local community members who deserve them. “[Every Berkshire resident] should know all of the arts organizations [in the county], which should be their birthright,” she said, loosely quoting McCullough-Dews who was instrumental in the Berkshire Cultural Youth Passport which ultimately manifested in a pilot project that centered on working with students and families from two elementary schools, one in Pittsfield and the other in Great Barrington, to access the Norman Rockwell Museum.

For VanSant, what began in Chicago has come full circle: the Barr Foundation ultimately hired a group to research the arts, culture and community; these findings—which revealed BRIDGE to be exhibiting best practices (due to VanSant’s willingness to be courageous in her own community)—is now on the Foundation’s national website.

“In the recent Culture & Community in a Time of Transformation survey of thousands of Massachusetts residents, the top priorities for change in the arts and culture sector that emerged include addressing systemic racism and other social issues, being a welcoming place for all with deep diversity of audiences, staff, programming and content, and creating meaningful community collaborations,” wrote Jen Benoit-Bryan, PhD. “BRIDGE provides such a valuable model for organizations grappling with how to activate these findings with a framework of ongoing internal practice to build a foundation for authentic welcome, belonging, and relationship building with community. We’re honored to have Gwendolyn VanSant reflecting on BRIDGE’s work alongside these research findings because we believe it can inform and inspire other arts organizations to take actions that reflect the desires of Massachusetts residents and communities.”   

As for Taylor’s experience? “[Participating in the ILC] allowed me to be alongside arts leaders, our essential partners in the shared goal around fostering stronger community engagement…especially communities of color… [and] it allowed me to work alongside, to learn alongside, to get to know our core partners in the work [which] was not only beneficial in terms of the perspectives they shared with me, that will have lasting effects, but the relationships that we were able to deepen through the year-long process will allow us to continue to put our shoulder to the wheel and do good work together.”

NOTE: To date, the following organizations have participated in the Inclusive Leadership Cohort: WAM Theatre; Norman Rockwell Museum; CATA; The Mount; Shakespeare & Co.; Chesterwood; Art Omi; Berkshire Art Center; MCLA and MCLA Institute for Arts and Humanity; Habitat for Humanity; Berkshire United Way; Working Cities; BTCF; Berkshire Bridges; Waldorf School in Hawthorne Valley; General Dynamics; Berkshire Health Systems; BRIDGE; Williams College; BCC; Greylock Federal; Berkshire Bank; Jacob’s Pillow; and The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.