A Berkshire County professional women’s group is honoring a woman of color with an annual award for the first time in its 54-year history.
Claire Richards is the president of the Berkshire Business and Professional Women organization, founded in 1965.
“We’re a group of women that come together to help and support each other for networking, for career advancement,” she told WAMC.
This year, the woman being recognized as the group’s Woman of Achievement is Gwendolyn VanSant, co-founder and CEO of the cultural literacy and competence training group Multicultural BRIDGE. She’s also Vice Chair of the Town of Great Barrington W. E. B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, and a member of the board of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and UU Mass Action Network.
Andrea Hurley, chair of the BBPW’s communications committee, offered this selection from VanSant’s nomination letter:
“For over a decade, Gwendolyn has done critical work in our community serving some of the most vulnerable neighbors. She is a fierce advocate, whose compassion and commitment to justice and to honoring the humanity of every individual is inspiring.”
VanSant helped found the Lee-based Multicultural BRIDGE in 2007.
“We are a minority and women run organization, and we really have touched almost every corner of our community – corporate, schools, law enforcement, and we work with youth, we work with elders, and we really just work on promoting mutual respect and understanding and providing tools for our community to communicate better, and to get along better, create policies and practices that are more inclusive, and just to create a stronger sense of collective humanity,” she told WAMC.
Among the group’s varied projects, VanSant says she’s particularly proud of its efforts to enshrine in history Great Barrington native W.E.B. DuBois and his life’s work on race in the United States.
“We have a race taskforce, and when we started it, there weren’t community conversations about race, and I was just at a meeting," said VanSant. "And I believe that now Berkshire County has multiple groups, multiple leaders, and I think there are conversations every day about racial disparities and racial impact, and I feel that’s a real impact of Multicultural BRIDGE being around and having racial justice at the core of our work. I believe that having a minority and women run organization has been a model for people to be reminded that women leaders and minority women leaders are really an important part of our community.”
In the predominantly white Berkshires, VanSant says there is a lack of representation and reflection for people of color.
“If you’re a professional, you have a very tiny community," she explained. "If you’re a child looking for teachers and educator who look like you, they don’t exist. If you’re looking for corporate executive, they don’t exit – or very few exist. And we’re all separated through this really spread out rural community.”
VanSant also touts the work BRIDGE has done with the county’s immigrant community, like its efforts to promote trust policies that protect residents of any background, including immigration status, from discrimination. Its most notable achievement on that front came in 2017, when Great Barrington voters adopted a trust policy into law.
“We have an immigrant women’s group that’s been at the core of organization since the founding, and I believe that those women, they’re ambassadors for their communities, their communities in Berkshire County," said VanSant. "They help bring information that BRIDGE provides from our partner organizations. They support other newcomers into the community as we support them.”
She feels the organization is well grounded in the Berkshires.
“We have a credibility, people trust us, they call us in crisis, they call us when they’re innovating and creating new programs and I do believe that we have a track record and our staff is growing and our name is getting known in the Berkshires and outside, so I do believe that we are here to stay, and here to grow, and here to support a lot of heavy lifting that’s still required,” said VanSant.
VanSant will be recognized by the BBPW at a dinner at the Country Club of Pittsfield on May 6th. It’s also a fundraiser to “provide career advancement scholarships to working women residing in Berkshire County.”