Great Barrington — In art, the medium of mosaic relies on many small pieces that — when intentionally fit together — create a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing whole. Its etymology stems from the Medieval Latin “musaicum”, or work of the muses, goddesses believed to elicit thoughtful inspiration. Suffice it to say, CEO and Founding Director Gwendolyn VanSant and her team at BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) have been musing over the myriad connections between racism and health—as evidenced by the premiere of “Mosaic,” a short film featuring local Berkshire Leaders of Color, working toward justice and public health equity. The screening will take place on Thursday, May 5th at 6 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington; the film will be in English with Spanish subtitles.
“The Mosaic project is exciting because it’s putting BRIDGE’s racial justice and racial equity work in the public health sphere,” said VanSant, the nonprofit’s founding director, emphasizing the importance of seeing the big picture. “I don’t necessarily think that the public health arena sees systemic racism as their work all the time, especially in Berkshire County.”
BRIDGE’s racial justice organizing and equity and inclusion training addresses the social determinants of health through dialogue, action and education. In order to identify viable solutions, BRIDGE strives to highlight and provide pathways of understanding in how the social conditions lead to the health outcomes and disparities experienced not only locally in the Berkshires and regionally throughout western Massachusetts, but also statewide and nationally.
Commissioned by the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Network and created by local filmmaker Michelle Falcón Fontánez, “Mosaic” highlights the transformational work of local leaders of color and other voices from the Connecticut River Valley to the Berkshires—including the stories of two community members: BRIDGE leader Florence Afanukoe and long-time Berkshire resident Arthur Wright.
“The story of immigrant families in Berkshire County is a seemingly unique and nuanced experience that I, being an immigrant, have explored firsthand and can narrate the reality,” said Afanukoe, who moved with her family to the United States from Togo in 2008 and graduated from Pittsfield High School; Wright migrated to the Berkshires from North Carolina more than 50 years ago. Together, they hold an intergenerational and cross-cultural conversation, contrasting their experiences moving to the primarily white community of the Berkshires and sharing experiences during the pandemic—an ongoing period that continues to shed light on the glaring health disparities and impact within the most vulnerable in Berkshire communities
“The timing was perfect,” said VanSant, of WMHEN reaching out during the pandemic to explore a conversation rooted in systemic racism and public health. With year two of the organization’s mutual aid program well under way—one that focused on marginalized communities, Black elders, immigrants, and individuals living with disability in the Berkshires—it made sense to pair two members of the BRIDGE community: Wright, the organization’s oldest participant and Afanukoe, a youth leader, current staff member and University of Bridgeport student focused on Public Health.
“It was BRIDGE that inspired me to start on this path to make a difference,” said Afanukoe, pointing to the nonprofit’s support—in particular while an immigrant youth navigating high school—as instrumental to her success. She ultimately presented her project, “Inspiring Change,” during a course led by BRIDGE educators, JV VanSant and Gwendolyn VanSant. “As a follow-up, BRIDGE provided an amazing internship and service learning opportunity, where I worked with youth and followed through with my project,” said Afanukoe who will graduate in December.
“She’s really grown into her leadership and her voice,” said VanSant of the soon-to-be public health graduate who, while an immigrant student from Africa, encountered systemic and cultural racism in school alongside the immersion of her family into the region. Wright recounts leaving the segregated South and finding a space and home here in the Berkshires to have agency over his and his family’s livelihood.
Since its inception in 2007, BRIDGE has worked at this intersection—connecting people of color and other systematically excluded community members with key resources and networks while providing education to local institutions and the community at large. Their goal, as evidenced during the pandemic, is to improve health outcomes via direct support of vulnerable communities and youth while working across sectors to build a Berkshire culture of health, equity, safety and justice.
“This particular film is 25 minutes long [and] really focused on systemic racism and health disparities,” said VanSant, pointing to people’s access to health, their experience of racism and how that impacts their health. “It’s a powerful 25 minutes, and it’s really for anybody,” she said, citing youth, health professionals, and anyone who has ever been a patient. In addition to BRIDGE, the filmo features stories from three other local, grassroots organizations leading the way toward healthier communities and advocating for equity, justice, representation and transformation: Women of Color Health Equity Collective (formerly MotherWoman, Inc.); Estoy Aqui; and the Ohketeau Cultural Center.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and community conversation facilitated by VanSant—nationally recognized for her anti-poverty and race equity practices as the National Drum Major for Justice awardee for BRIDGE’s mutual aid work on behalf of the most vulnerable during the pandemic—will be joined by Jessica Collins, Public Health Institute; Sasha Jimenez, Planned Parenthood and Mosaic Film Committee; Colin Adams, Associate Professor of Sociology at Berkshire Community College and Dr. Lara Setti of Community Health Programs; featured film participants, Florence Afanukoe and Arthur Wright, will also be present.
Using the voices of marginalized and vulnerable communities to develop the best path forward—towards building healthy, thriving communities—remains central to the work of BRIDGE and their partners, a mission VanSant underscores: “The film is really meant to empower and amplify the story of people not usually at the center [of such narratives], so I’m really excited.”
NOTE: This event is part of a regional screening tour organized by the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Network and local partners, with cultural exploration, performances and wide-ranging discussion centered on the film. The events preceding the screening, which start at 4 p.m. in Giggle Park in Great Barrington, are made possible in part by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Race Equity Grant, a two-year grant to support BRIDGE’s racial justice education, campaigns and organizing. Additional partners include Berkshire Community College, Community Health Programs (CHP), Greylock Federal Credit Union, World Farmers Market and the Town of Great Barrington. For complete details of the showing, and to reserve a seat, visit this site. Reservations and proof of vaccination is required to attend the showing.