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Multicultural BRIDGE CEO On Implementing Structural Change

A black woman with glasses stands in front of a white wall smiling
Josh Landes
Gwendolyn VanSant

Gwendolyn VanSant is the CEO and founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a minority and women run Berkshire County cultural competency training organization that focuses on racial justice and equity. VanSant spoke with WAMC about how communities can combat structural racism – and how municipal budgets play an outsized role in that conversation.

VANSANT: We have this Equity Analysis that we use for race, where people have to really begin to commit to at every meeting and every conversation, right? At any policy meeting or any time when resources are deployed in the community, we need to really be employing this analysis of looking on an individual level, like what biases might live in the decision makers, but also, on an organizational level: what are the organizational biases that prevent people from being successful or thriving or accessing employment? And then- You then move into interpersonal: what are the relationships? And what I'm really encouraging people to do is look around and see who you're partnering with. And if you're partnering with people that all look like you, and agencies with similar like-minded missions and histories, you're losing a lot of the experience of the communities and the services you're trying to provide and serve. So we're really trying to get people to think about relationships on that interpersonal level, even on the organizational level, but also on an individual level and start making sure the right voices are at the table, to really make sense of racial equity and justice conversations.

WAMC: What about on a cultural level?

On a cultural level, we have to just embrace it. We are a country that's based on white supremacy, which means that the white middle class values are the dominant values, and they've been the drivers for all decision making and what's right and what's valued in our country and in our county. And so people really need to begin to think about that, own that, not try to work around it or deny it, and then try to figure out how to shift that. What needs to change? And again, it's still based on relationships, but really challenging, where the norms and where the values that are dominating all of our experiences and our workplace cultures and our community cultures. And then the biggest part, what the demands are right now, the protest is on the systemic level of really looking at reallocating resources, shifting resources away from structures that have been oppressive. And almost all institutions in our country are based on those middle class values, white middle class values, I spoke about. And they've been serving that community primarily and so it's left generations of disparities to really repair. So the work that we have to do on the policy level is really essential right now. And the work that we have to do about shifting resources is what's required and what's being demanded.

I want to jump in on that. This is budget season for a lot of communities in Berkshire County, and there's been a lot of conversation on the national level about what to do with law enforcement in that long term structural manner. Is it abolition? Is it defunding? Is it reform? From what you're talking about, you know, I'm interested, what do you see is the best way to allocate resources in communities to best enforce that acknowledgement of the lack of equity?

Yeah, I think that everybody's got to get involved in their town and city budgets, right? So if you've never looked at it, you need to go look, right, look it up online, and look at where finances are allocated and start asking questions. And specifically, what is the money used for when it's going to, for example, the police and how might that be used differently? And, you know, BRIDGE has a very particular stance, that we have always worked with and alongside the police, and I think getting them in the conversations, at the table, asking them what they think would help, because, honestly, in the relationships I've had, I don't know a police officer who wouldn't say, "I could really use a mental health worker working alongside me." Right? So the idea is like building relationship to understand what each side of a conversation is facing and how to remedy that. So it's defunding, divesting resources, yes- But to what, right? And how, and how do you work with folks? Like, we're all human beings, right? So I feel really strongly about that and that there's bad folks in all places, but structurally how do we work alongside the police to restructure, reform, divest and defund, because I do believe that there is a way to do both of those things. So I think that those two things are really important. Review your budgets, get involved, ask questions, go to the town meetings, go to your annual meetings, and then also start having those conversations in constructive ways with the people that are working and upholding those structures. Because we all need an education, and we all need an opportunity to envision what's best for us moving forward.

This is a time where a lot of white allies are looking for ways to appropriately support the black community during this incredibly painful conversation and acknowledgement of injustice. When you have these conversations with folks, how are you, you know, instructing people to be as supportive as they can be in a way that means something?

Yeah. I've been asked this question a lot of times in the last two weeks, and over the last 12 years, and really being an ally, and what I like to refer to even stronger than that, as an accomplice, is, starts with asking questions. Right? Asking what people need, asking what their experience has been for your own education, and then asking yourself, what can you do to help? Right? So that that, that act of asking and then listening is really important. And then what I talked about working alongside: so collaborating, stepping aside in a leadership position you have or when you get that invitation to a meeting, say, "You know what, I think this person actually needs to be in the room too." So that working alongside, acknowledging the work that's been done, right? So at this time, there's a lot of pain and grief that COVID-19 has, has really highlighted in black and brown communities, acknowledge that and acknowledge the strong spirit and strength that black and brown community has had and has now, and the knowledge and wisdom. So acknowledge and amplify that because there is a way that which we can reinforce old stereotypes around the downtrodden black communities, that really we're a resilient community that has fought for rights over, you know, centuries. So it's time to really acknowledge those things, and then activate. Everybody's got to work. There's not one person that can't contribute to us moving forward in a positive, constructive way. So I've been working on those "five As:" Align, Activate, Ask, Amplify and Acknowledge.

June 14 is Race Amity day. Can you tell me a little bit more about what the celebration signifies?

You know, amity signifies harmony. So celebrating harmony on Sunday feels like a tall order, right? That's not really where we're at right now. But Race Amity Day is about coming together and collaborating. And it's a day that our governor- first Governor Patrick, then Governor Baker, they sign on every year. It's the Sunday before Juneteenth, which is a symbolic day for the liberation of African Americans. So for BRIDGE, since 2017, we've held day long retreats and sit-ins, holding real truth around what it what it takes to arrive at racial amity. We know we're not there, we know we can't even begin to claim that. But to work towards celebrating and working alongside the white community is really important. So we will continue to hold that day, and hold it in the context of where we're in now. So we have a full day planned and some collaborating with BIO, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, on some actions for that day.

Multicultural BRIDGE is presenting the New Pathways Labs. Gwendolyn, tell me more about the New Pathways Labs. What is that going to be?

So the New Pathways project- It actually was my and BRIDGE's urgent COVID-19 response, within a week of us going into quarantine here in the Berkshires. I was getting calls from our constituents, our families and stakeholders saying you know, "I don't know what to do or my employer doesn't even know what to do as far as how to take care of ourselves financially." And I was also having our clients saying "Gwendolyn, we really prioritize equity inclusion. We love working with you and we can't really see clear to prioritizing that at the center right now." And I knew that, what was coming, right? This is what we needed to have at the center, it just didn't feel like... there was a space to connect that with the logistical stuff that had to happen in the pivot. So New Pathways was a response to that- Was like, “How do I support my community? How do I support my clients and keeping this conversation going in a way that's accessible right now? And how do I disrupt resources, and sort of a rubber-banding back to white supremacy?" Because it's what we know, right? That's the comfort and what institutions hold without any action. So, how do I disrupt that, that going back to that place where I know most of the people in our county don't want to be? So New Pathways, I recreated these videos that people can access free online. And they can go in and have these little sort of infusions of what we want people to get when they're working with us on racial justice work or when they're working in cultural competence work. So that's accessible to anyone, anywhere, whether they're now a workplace client of ours or whether they're just any person that wants to figure out how to engage in this work. And then we did the labs. And the labs, we had nine, around the themes and we brought in other diverse perspectives as panelists: local leaders, national leaders, community organizers, Black Lives Matter leaders. And we heard from them, and then communities broke into small groups that we call "breakthrough sessions", to dig into what actions are required, how do we demonstrate care? And how do we get engaged right now? And so those labs, we just completed the first round of nine. And we will be posting the recordings of those labs and also artifacts of the notes and the action items out of those. And from there, I'm really relying on Adrienne Maree Brown's Emergent Strategy to see what's next and who stays engaged and activated.

Something that I saw at the Great Barrington protest over this past weekend were a lot of very emotional young people given an opportunity to talk about discrimination to law enforcement, possibly for the first time in their lives, some of them told me as much. How are you counseling young people right now at this rare opportunity to speak out? Because a lot of them are very frustrated at the end of the day despite having said their piece, that they really felt unheard and felt, maybe, disappointed by the outcome of that experience.

I would say to young people to keep fighting and keep pushing, and also keep holding the adults in their lives accountable. I hear a lot of people think, "Oh my god, the youth are going to carry us through." And they, you know, they will do because they, they're brave, they're courageous, they see what the older versions of themselves have been doing. So I do believe they will lead us, but that does not let the older folks off the hook. And I think that young people need to continue to hold people accountable. The leadership that I witnessed and was there and support of on Saturday in Great Barrington, it was phenomenal. There's not one youth that shouldn't feel proud of themselves and their generation and that they did really do something that's remarkable for history, you know, not just for our county. And they need to just know that, that day and that they have to keep working and keep pushing their parents, their teachers, their community members and just not give up there. They're activated in the in the work, and if it were easy, we would have done this already. So I think they just need to stay strong and look to adults to support them when needed.

There's an emerging story out of Sheffield concerning a racist meme being shared by Southern Berkshire Regional School District faculty families. Could you talk to me a little bit about how Multicultural BRIDGE is tracking that incident?

Yeah, we are talking to the district and to the media outlets. Stephanie Wright is our Community Engagement Facilitator. Her family has been, is the oldest black family from Southern Berkshire, rooted in Sheffield, so generations have gone to that school district. Stephanie has been an educator in that school district for a very long time. So, Stephanie is taking the lead on giving really clear feedback on- This isn't new, what the student did is a reflection of the community and the system, society at large and it's just another cry for us to do better. Do better as educators, do better at holding administrators accountable, and do better as community members of guiding young people. I mean, what we're seeing a lot is just a reflection of the places that we have to improve and heal as a community. So we can spend a lot of time blaming this family, but really we need to look structurally at what's happening and not happening. And BRIDGE is a resource, as are many other people and Stephanie has been engaged in making that clear and making, connecting the dots there.

Gwendolyn, we covered a lot of ground today. Is there anything else about this current moment that you and Multicultural BRIDGE want to get out there?

I think it's just that there's, there's no right answer, there's no easy answer. When people are looking to make statements about the work, just really dig deep into being honest and authentic about where you are in your own personal growth or an organization and committing to do whatever those next small steps are, and making the real clear commitments and pledges to arrive at a better outcome, right? So I don't want people jumping on bandwagons and the emotion, and disappearing in six weeks. We need people that are going to really engage for creating a new future and being honest about where they are right now. And honest about the pain and struggle of the black community, and honest about the ignorance and paralysis that has been experienced in white allies. And then, sort of the indifference of institutions. We have to really be honest about those things in order to move forward, right? So we have to be clear about where we are, and be clear about- There's a new normal that's required and that everyone has to participate in that.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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