Great Barrington — Spend any time at all perusing media these days, and BIPOC is suddenly everywhere; the acronym — which stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color — acknowledges that not all marginalized groups face equal levels of injustice; specifically, BIPOC recognizes that Black and Indigenous people are severely impacted by systemic racial injustices, a fact Pooja Prema is not only bringing to light but also looking to change. This month marks the launch of the Resilience Collective, a project born in response to the current pandemic, the Movement for Black Lives, and the postponement of another of Prema’s projects: Rites of Passage 20/20 Vision. The yearlong interactive experience — including 13 women over the course of 13 lunar cycles — was designed to amplify the voices and perspectives of women of color while also providing support and community uniquely needed by women of color.
“To be a non-white person in the Berkshires brings its challenges,” Prema told The Edge in a recent phone interview, a fact many may not know if it is not their experience. Prema, who identifies as a woman from south India, reports feeling “very isolated in the Berkshires” despite the women of color she calls friends. Simply put, women of color are not the majority, which means the isolation is to be expected, but not necessary. “The Berkshires have a dearth of artists of color, makers of color, women artists of color — there are only a handful of us here,” she explained. And yet, the global majority is Brown — individuals of non-European descent — who built this country despite their being eclipsed from the history books. Still, the world we know today was shaped by what Prema sees as Colonial legacy — which is that of white men in power — and begs an integral question: “How do women of color fit into that past, present and future?” The answer, to what might appear a wholly rhetorical question, lies in looking back in order to move forward. Specifically, “we work backward, step by step, and acknowledge how this country was founded: with the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of African people.”
Prema’s idea for a Rites of Passage program emerged many years ago. “As modern women, we don’t have ways of acknowledging the difficult and beautiful parts of our life as rites of passage,” Prema explained, citing death and divorce as huge rites of passage not necessarily recognized in our culture. As she set to work curating individuals to participate in a live performance that should be happening this month, COVID-19 hit and, like myriad other events, it had to be postponed. “And yet there was a deep need, as a nation and a community, to come together,” Prema said, adding “we’ve been living in the era of the individual for far too long, which is a Colonial construct itself.” She looked around her, saw individuals grappling with identities and personal narrative as the comforting ways of life for many fell apart. And then she posed a question: How do we recognize this moment as a rite of passage?
The Resilience Collective is a natural next step, one rooted in forming community virtually, and it emerged through conversation. While the focus is on women and femmes, “the ramifications are for all,” said Prema, whose program offers an expansive view of what is now called “identity politics,” a topic that can quickly become very narrow. “We have a complex and round view of the history,” Prema explained, and is proud to have helped curate participants from across the country and around the world. The result, Prema hopes, will be an ability to “envision our future in a more just and coherent way.”
The collaborative is giving deep attention to the fact that if all lives are ever to matter, then black lives must matter, and native, immigrant POC, and other nonwhite lives and voices must be honored. Our personal stories and visions can shape this country into something beautiful beyond its history. That said, “until we acknowledge the past, we cannot move forward,” which is why the collective strives to celebrate the strength and resilience of Black and Brown women everywhere, placing them unapologetically at the center.
“Even during the feminist movement, it was about white women,” Prema pointed out, which is why the collaborative aims to support marginalized voices to take center stage. “Their future is tied up in [the process],” Prema said, citing “joy, recognition and clarity in the process.” The project is an intersection of many pieces that have been in the collective landscape for some time, including the Me Too movement (a big awakening for white women in America that began as a movement by a Black woman); and the border crisis as well. It is, for Prema, a real space of healing and support for women who identify as BIPOC to honor their ancestral legacies and belong together.
Each participant’s monthly offering is entirely unique and based around a theme. The first of 13 themes is “Awakening and Change: Activating Your Internal Compass.” Prema explains resilience, another popular word at the moment, as more than simply the ability to bounce back from different situations. “We all have a connection to something deeper than just us,” Prema said in a nod to the importance of ancestral lineage. “We [also] have a connection to the Earth, [and] until we see that we are part of a planet, we are not going to be able to liberate our struggle. Healing is here on the land. And each of us needs an inner compass,” Prema explained.
People are looking for answers to big questions: What is going to happen next? What am I going to do? As to Prema’s perspective? “There is no answer outside of self; we are all being asked to tune into an internal compass for a way.”
Participants will work individually and share collectively with an intentional goal: “We are weaving community and learning from each other,” said Prema, who, along with Amber Chand, are the only two participants from Berkshire County; the rest hail from as close as Hudson, New York, to San Francisco and South America. “It is so lovely and so rare to be in such a diverse group,” said Prema of their work to date, influenced by what Prema calls “some awesome collaboration with some of the most powerful women in the Berkshires,” from Shirley Edgerton’s Rites of Passage Empowerment program (ROPE) to Multicultural BRIDGE and Gwendolyn VanSant’s Women-to-Women program and the Elizabeth Freeman Center. “No one of us is free until we are all free, to live a life of dignity and safety,” said Prema, which, in a culture that does not necessarily honor the past and provide ways of moving forward, can feel daunting. Her advice stems from collective strength and resonates, particularly at this moment: “It is not the time to be fearful; it is the time to act in solidarity with one another.”
NOTE: Resilience Collective content is designed for all women. Levels of participation/support are available from $3 to $120 a month with self-determined levels and sliding fee scales. The content varies for those who identify as BIPOC and those who identify as non-BIPOC. To participate in the Resilience Collective offerings, visit https://www.ritesofpassageproject.org/resilience-collective.