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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Multicultural BRIDGE—catalyzing change and integration

The grassroots organization has acquired a home base for continuing its legacy programs in the spirit of Elizabeth "Mumbett" Freeman, Frederick Douglass, and W.E. B. Du Bois.

“Since 2007, our BRIDGE mission has been promoting mutual understanding and respect among diverse groups serving as a resource to both local institutions and the community at large. We serve as catalysts for change and integration through collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy.”
— Multicultural BRIDGE website

It’s hard to capture all that Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education) is and does. As the needs arise, the programs follow. This responsiveness is how founder and CEO Gwendolyn VanSant has operated since starting the nonprofit organization back in 2007, bringing her skills and passion as a community organizer and renowned thought leader on racial justice, reparations, gender equity, and anti-poverty work to the Berkshire community.

BRIDGE programs center around core values of empowerment, collaboration, learning, celebration, integration, safety, and justice. The most critical ingredients of all, however, are love and commitment—and you feel that the moment you walk through their doors. Known for her ability to integrate research-based positive psychology practices, VanSant brings moral courage and an affirming spirit to her work with diversity leadership, equity and inclusion, and strategic planning.

Just as Volunteers in Medicine (VIM Berkshires) takes a holistic approach to address clients’ health, BRIDGE is committed (per its website) to a “360-degree approach to community, civic participation, and public health.” Its stated mission is “to impact hearts, minds and behaviors that result in positive cultural shifts and systemic changes in policy, law and practice towards a more just, safe and equitable society.”

To grasp all that Multicultural BRIDGE is involved in, you need to envision the night sky with all its constellations, not just the eight planets. Their work is vast and encompassing, interconnected and luminous. VanSant is the force that drives this catalyst for change, but all who engage as partners are bright stars committed to similar goals, and it is the cosmic energy linking all of the efforts that makes it most inspiring.

New Solidarity Meeting House to facilitate programs

Although Multicultural BRIDGE has facilitated programs for more than 15 years (working from an office space in Lee), they haven’t had a home base or meeting space until now. The Solidarity Meeting House and Library (located at 965 Main Street in Great Barrington) provides a long-anticipated healing space in the Berkshires.

The new space in Great Barrington. Photo by Robbi Hartt

“The meeting house is a space for people of color, young and old, to come and feel welcome, a space to heal, think, and plan—a place to have conversations about what our civil rights look like now,” VanSant affirms. In addition, it houses a library with 500 books related to African-American history in its wellness room, as well as a queer library sponsored by Yellow House Books in the apartment upstairs. Youth are encouraged to learn about their history and explore today’s challenges “on the shoulders of ancestors” who were the first catalysts for change.

Many of BRIDGE’s Core Community Health Programs will now be held at the meeting house, including: Women to Women Empowerment & Learning (confidential services for women of Spanish-speaking descent and other women of color who are victims of crime and violence); Sister to Sister (support network for women of the African Diaspora and Trans* Community of Color); Happiness Toolbox (Positive Education, Youth Mentors, and Restorative Justice); BRIDGE Youth Corps (youth leadership, job readiness, mentorship, and civic engagement with a justice, identity and equity lens); and Towards Racial Justice (a Cross Sector Movement Building & Education).

Women’s programs in the new Solidarity Meeting House provide space for healing, gathering, and networking. Photo courtesy BRIDGE

The new space was christened with several recent programs, such as the BRIDGE Wellness Day on July 3rd, which included culturally specific services like Eastern medicine, acupuncture, facials, Zumba, and reiki. Another culturally specific healing service is the Mawu Hair Salon, providing healing, sisterhood, and care for women of the African diaspora.

Jacob’s Pillow Curriculum in Motion’s Celeste Miller and Kimberli Boyd visit Mawu Hair
Salon at Solidarity Meeting House with VanSant and a Senegalese stylist. Photo courtesy BRIDGE

Solidarity Garden and Farm

In addition, BRIDGE acquired Solidarity Garden and Farm—a 1.5-acre community plot across from Guido’s store in Great Barrington—focused on providing mutual aid and “strengthening the community of color through access to land; integration in farming; contributing to the economy, health, and well-being of families through food and nourishment; and helping to counteract environmental pollution.”

“I’ve always been passionate about food,” VanSant says, speaking as a granddaughter of a cotton, poultry, and vegetable farmer and landowner in the South. “During the pandemic, we provided mutual aid programs and worked to reduce health disparities for Black and brown communities,” she continues. They started with 30 families in March 2020, partnering with Greenagers and Woven Roots, and now distribute food to 196 families, partnering with lead farmers from Sweet Freedom, BRIDGE Solidarity growers, Three Sisters, MumBett Freedom Farm, and others.

“Now in our fifth season, we have a strong values-aligned farm network,” VanSant states. “We grow culturally relevant food and provide options for our families to harvest food from the garden for themselves or build their farm businesses and sell back for the mutual aid food distribution.” Building on their Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program collaboration with the town of Great Barrington, BRIDGE is also committed to climate resiliency work, bringing in voices of Black and brown immigrants to help diversify planting and farming methods during floods and droughts. They held their first regional BIPOC farm tour on the solstice on June 21; a second farm tour is scheduled for the autumnal equinox on September 21.

Home Farm/Sweet Freedom Farm tour stop with Jon Swanson, Cristian Matute, Saidiya Hartman, and Robin Tanenbaum. Photo courtesy BRIDGE

Youth involved in their Happiness Toolbox Kit programs have partnered with Gideon’s Garden at Taft Farm for 15 years, and now they come to the farm for multicultural, intergenerational “work days.” At the Solidarity Farm and Garden, youth leaders engage with landscaping, creating a shade garden with willow trees that mitigates flooding with a neighbor farmer or caring for the indigenous-blessed mediation garden, crop planning, and leadership. “We also host summer educational programs there with Happiness Toolbox that allow youth to learn about native plants, foraging, cultural traditions of farming, and continuing tradition and legacy with culturally specific props.

Reading Frederick Douglass Together

On Saturday, July 6th, Multicultural BRIDGE hosted an event, “Reading Frederick Douglass Together,” to explore liberation and the important work of Frederick Douglass. The event featured guest speaker Ny Whitaker, executive director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Freedom Center, and was funded by a Reading Frederick Douglas Together grant from Mass Humanities. “Frederick Douglass’s words are so poignant right now,” VanSant says, “and hosting the Mass Humanities event at our Solidarity House was essential for me.”

Participants of the Reading Frederick Douglass Together event. Photo courtesy OnPointGrafix

In preparing for the event, VanSant consulted with Dr. Alexandria Russell (interim vice president of education and external engagement for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and non-resident W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute Fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research) for advice on how to integrate history, with Whitaker on incorporating themes of democracy and liberation, and with Wesaline Gadson (BRIDGE board chair) as an educator and Black elder in the community. She employed a “text explosion” technique for studying text collectively in community settings learned during her tenure as founding director of Simon Rock’s Equity and Inclusion Department in 2016.

Whitaker referenced Du Bois and integrated themes of democracy and liberation in the group reading. Among the participants were professors, scholar-activists, artists, Black men, members of Diverse Otis (a local nonprofit), Simon’s Rock staff and faculty, and the queer community. Momma Lo’s provided the feast to follow, prepared in the Solidarity House kitchen. “We are mobilizing with intention and care around the upcoming election and also nourishing our souls and minds with wisdom,” she adds, noting the importance of fighting systemic racism at home, protecting civil rights, and providing access to Black history and Queer-centric books at a time when people are being denied access to a holistic education.

Dining in the Solidarity House (with the kitchen in the background) after the “Reading Frederick Douglass Together” event. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Starting with a juxtaposition

Whitaker centered the conversation with a quote highlighting words taken from The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, by W.E.B. Du Bois: “I dream of a world of infinitive and valuable variety; not in the laws of gravity or atomic weights, but in human variety in height and weight, color and skin, hair and nose and lip. But more especially and far above and beyond this, is a realm of true freedom: in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination; in gift, aptitude, and genius—all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build into it, all wealth of inborn individuality.”

She then juxtaposed DuBois’s vision for our democracy with the more realistic view of society Frederick Douglass shared in his speech——“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”—given in protest after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, did not mince words: “I will…dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!” Answering his own question, he noted that “scorching irony,” not “convincing argument,” was needed on this day “that reveals to him [the American slave], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Ending with hope

Following the reading and discussion, the group returned to Whitaker’s opening question: “What are we as ‘scholar-activists’ empowered to do?” Each participant shared personal reflections, many acknowledging that many of Douglass’s words, though written 172 years ago, were [alarmingly] still true today. Yet he ended with “I do not despair of this country,” but rather “leave off where I began, with hope”—something the group agreed was more essential than ever, given the lack of inspiration in many current political conversations.

Whitaker, who also worked for President Obama, noted that one great lesson she learned as a community organizer is that when you have a “a feeling of depression,” you can rearrange the letters to form the phrase, “I pressed on,” and transform your anxiety into action. When news broadcasts, election forecasts, and heightened fears conspire to make us apathetic, the leaders noted, we need the moral courage to press on—focusing on our own efforts to be inclusive, respect humanity, have the conversation, and stand up to injustice and the incremental “ripples of effect” they can create.

How do we kindle hope? By celebrating organizations such as these that serve our local community, as well as gatherings where a small, diverse group of people engage in honest discussions with respect and solidarity. How are we going to make a difference? By showing up daily through tiny acts of courage, including the one Whitaker witnessed on the train ride from Harlem to Wassaic when a young African-American man panicked, realizing his phone (which held the ticket) was out of battery power, and the whole train car rallied in support.

Additional community opportunities to reflect and discuss

Participants expressed interest in identifying the next steps they could take to make the liberation, freedom, and democracy described by Douglass and Du Bois a reality. Whitaker invited all present (and our readers at large) to continue the conversation by registering to attend The Du Bois Freedom Center’s “Reflections on Democracy” series, public programming funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The kick-off event on Juneteenth featured “An Evening with Congresswoman Nikema Williams” (chair of the Georgia Democratic Party who was sworn in to serve in the seat held by the late Congressman John Lewis just three days before January 6, 2021).

The next event—“Reflections on Democracy and Philanthropy”—is this Thursday (July 11) at 6 p.m. at Saint James Place in Great Barrington and will feature Dr. Marvin Carr, chair of the Council on Foundations, in a moderated conversation with The Du Bois Freedom Center’s Visiting Scholar on Democracy, Michael Blake, a former aide to President Obama and former Harvard Fellow. The event is free and open to the public (register in advance at

The work “toward a more perfect union” continues through the efforts of these two groups and their collaborations, so as Douglass stated, “…I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.”


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