Great Barrington, Massachusetts has made the guiding principles of one of its most famous residents a formal part of its identity.
Monday night’s selectboard meeting offered an extraordinary moment for the 257-year-old Southern Berkshire town of around 7,000.
“I want to check — I think it’s the first time in history that this many African-Americans are on any committee for the town of Great Barrington and that really the town of Great Barrington is standing and saying they’re institutionalizing a structure that’s going to focus on racial justice issues and racial equity issues," said Great Barrington resident Gwendolyn VanSant. She’s the CEO and founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a minority and women-run cultural competency training organization based in Lee that operates throughout Berkshire County. Now, VanSant is also one of the 12 members of Great Barrington’s fledgling W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which the selectboard officially appointed Monday.
The author, activist, and academic was born in Great Barrington in 1868, and went on to co-found the NAACP in 1909. He wrote “The Soul of Black Folk” and “Black Reconstruction In America,” exploring racism, segregation, and the African-American experience before his death in 1963. His work also criticized capitalism, war, and nuclear weapons.
“Last year there was a town manager taskforce that was put in place by the town of Great Barrington to celebrate Du Bois’s 150th birthday celebration," said VanSant, "so we ran a festival for six weeks and we really lifted up Du Bois’s core values of racial justice, economic justice, education, and civil rights. And when we finished that entire festival, celebrating and collaborating through the county, we wanted to continue the work.”
VanSant said after she and other taskforce members approached the town, the formation of a committee was decided upon.
“It feels like a tall order, but the selectboard has been working towards building this muscle for the town for a while,” she told WAMC.
“This committee would be looking beyond — we’ve got a budget, we’re going to put up more flags, we’re going to do lectures — to say, these are some of the things the town is doing, these are ways the town could do it to honor Du Bois," said Selectboard member Ed Abrahams.
The segment of the meeting dedicated to the committee began with a successful motion to expand its membership to 12 from the initial seven proposed due to the sheer number of applications the selectboard received. While the committee is unfunded — it was formed after this year’s budget was established at town meeting — and still needs to create its protocols and methodology, elements of its function are beginning to be articulated.
Selectboard member Kate Burke said she imagined the committee offering Du Bois-derived guidance to the town “almost in the way that the conservation commission gives the selectboard its findings on a special permit.”
The new committee has a lot to do before it can begin their work in earnest.
“The committee needs to all get sworn in, we need to get a meeting date with them, and they need to get together, they will look at their charge, and decide where they’re going to go,” said selectboard chair Stephen Bannon.
“We have a blank slate. So we have to decide how much we’re going to meet, what our structure and our leadership structure is going to be, what our calendar and agenda is going to be," said Van Sant.
Alongside its regular contributions to the town’s decision making, the committee is tasked with organizing an annual celebration of Du Bois from Martin Luther King Day through Black History Month, featuring lectures and celebrations. VanSant wants to preserve ongoing conversations about Du Bois as the committee gets to work.
“We need to bring in people that have worked — activists and scholars that have worked on holding up Du Bois," she said. "That’s one of the things that’s really important to me, so it’s not a challenge, it’s just one of my first priorities is making sure we loop in people who have been working on Du Bois’s legacy for a long time.”
Looking past the hard foundational work required to get the committee off the ground, she sees it as a new era for the town she calls home.
“I’m excited about it," said a smiling VanSant. "This is what I do for my life."