Coalition Building Always Starts At Home
“To form a strong coalition with yourself you’ve got to be good in being invisible sometimes, learn to stalk with co-ordinated precision, get to know whom to chase & whom to avoid, make the most of even the smallest opportunity, and choose whom to team up with.” -Sameh Elsayed
I love this quote because it describes so much of the work ahead of us. We must be in good relationship with ourselves first (holding a commitment to knowing our personal values, goals, and aspirations) even while we pursue knowledge that is held in communities we see ourselves advocating for, working alongside, being a part of, or wanting to change (in order to make way for a multi-stakeholder approach). This primary relationship to self holds an agreement to self assess, be honest, and let ourselves evolve and grow. Then, and only then, does social change work become a matter of doing the meaningful interpersonal work required.
Interpersonally, I take a “living systems” view (see adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy for a primer) because we have to figure out how to be in a constantly changing and evolving relationship with each other. What does it look like to share space of all kinds (labor, emotion, psychological, mental, and vision-oriented/aspirational)? What does our communication need to look like? We have to look at our multiple points of intersection and work to stay in relationship with each other at those points. For some of us, when it is time to step back, it’s a matter of learning how to follow others’ leadership… all the while noticing and engaging with our own internal resistance and guiding ourselves differently.
On personal leadership:
My current leadership role is not a role I pursued; it’s something that is intrinsic to my being both professionally and personally. I’m at once a mother, activist, wife, leader, daughter, facilitator, and trainer. In all of these roles, I aim to embody my values of justice, equity, and resilience and walk my talk (having developed my talk from my walk).
Looking back, studying at Bard College at Simon’s Rock (and taking charge of myself and my education at 15), was my first step in developing my own leadership. I was given the tools early on to think critically and deconstruct all systems operating around me. After liberating myself from math and engineering limiting stereotypes, I ended up switching to the Humanities, studying Art History and Latin American Studies with a Women’s Studies and African American History focus. At the time, the career advice I received was limited to my becoming a lawyer, hence the History focus. But I see now that my studies built the foundation for the roles I ended up taking on later: a cultural competence, equity, and inclusion coach with a grassroots social justice, feminist lens; a nonprofit founder; and a community activist. Equity, issues of inclusion, and women’s empowerment have always been central to my work, life, and study. Since college, I have actively pursued education, not in the traditional sense, but as an integral component of the work I’m committed to doing.
I think of Audre Lorde’s words often: “If I didn’t define myself, for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Among other trainings, I took the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond - Undoing Racism trainings and the inaugural Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) through the Women’s Fund of Western Mass in 2011. I wanted to diversify my skills while continuing to build my work at Multicultural BRIDGE and honestly, protect myself in the journey within a network of regional leaders and activists who I knew had a wealth of wisdom and heart. Each of these powerful certification programs and courses gave me long-lasting relationships, models, and mentors.
When I reflect on where my work has taken me, I see how my personal experiences opened up new possibilities for community leadership. When my colleagues and I witnessed the demographic shift in the immigrant community of Berkshire County and were thinking about how to integrate people’s needs and experiences through BRIDGE, I reflected on my own needs at earlier times in my life. I was once a single mom with an LGBTQ son living through gender and sexual identity questions and a daughter living with autism. I had academic, professional, personal, and parental needs that were not being met by my context. During that time, I became a certified mental health and medical interpreter and translator because that was an intrinsic passion and skill I had that I was not using to its fullest capacity. All of those experiences inspired me to start Multicultural BRIDGE as well.
I have chosen to not yet (maybe ever) run for office, but I contribute to the political landscape through consulting with a national political parity coalition. This group has made a priority to work through intersectionality, equity, and inclusion, and our work together is ever rewarding and humbling. Since 2010, I have served as a commissioner on the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women, where I also served as chair for three years. (At times my fantasy has been that a political leader will desire a Chief of Staff with my experience. I would so honorably serve towards a view of equity and much needed systems change!)
I check in with myself at the end of the day and ask, “Can I identify a positive impact I had today? Do I believe I engaged in a process or conversation that might be a valuable step in liberation or transformation that I may never know about or live to see, but possibly my children or grandchildren will see? Did I start another ripple?” And the answer is always yes. When I wake up, the question is, “Am I ready to do this again?” Sometimes it takes a short meditation and a few centering tools, but my answer has always been yes. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning. And when I have doubts, face obstruction and disruption, I take note and aim to be even more mindful and strategic in my work, even as I acknowledge that it will likely take on unexpected and unanticipated forms. And sometimes I have to walk away when I have done all I can do so that my work and journey is uninterrupted. I trust the ripples. This is my resolve.
On coalition building:
I’ve had an interesting journey as a founder. Our intentional work at BRIDGE has always required that I create relationships with delegates, residents, police officers, and businesses in the Berkshires, across Massachusetts, and beyond. I am constantly educating myself and immersing myself in subcultures of work in various communities (urban, rural, suburban) so that I can effectively serve as a cultural broker. This has helped me develop my own voice within collaborations and partnerships.
When I started BRIDGE, I conducted an environmental scan and initiated what I didn’t realize were bold conversations with institutions in the area. I shared my observations about the diverse needs in our community. I was looking for a passionate comrade and “host” for a solution-based organization that could “bridge” the gaps. To my surprise, the conversation felt new; many folks didn’t have the muscle to talk about black and brown people's professionals’ experience, gender identity in the workforce and the full range of different gender identities; the value of language access with a cultural broker to improve overall public health; or even the quality of human service systems in the Berkshires. If I was told once, I was told ten thousand times that the mission and purpose of BRIDGE was “too broad.” I translated this as, “Don’t make me think that hard or invite all of this at once. Let’s take it slowly. I am not ready for this. I have chosen my box to play in.” And I actually heard from people, “This isn’t needed in our community.” So after some polite (and not so polite conversations), I realized I would have to prototype what I had in mind to make the case for what I knew was needed. This was my own design thinking process at the time.
Looking back, each of those protests, big or small, just helped me make my case more effectively. At the time, we didn’t have this new federal leadership reflecting back so vividly the concerns I was raising so the case was much harder to make, but early on our former Massachusetts Governor Patrick held a civic engagement conference at the beginning of his first term and it really inspired me. Seeing who he chose to lift up was life changing. That solidified my commitment and amplified my calling. And here we are 10 years later with a helping hand and endorsement from our former Governor. So sometimes, even when coalition building is hard, it emboldens us.
BRIDGE’s model worked then and it is still working. And of course I define “working” by a different standard than what you might think for nonprofits. BRIDGE works because it is serving its function, which is making way for humanity and transformation.
There are many things that drive folks toward collaboration. I suggest we always consider four main areas of drivers (institutional, interpersonal, internal, and cultural). When all of these sets of drivers are in balance, then you have a truly balanced effort. What drives me and my community is the reward of witnessing positive impact in interpersonal, cultural, and institutional “shifts.” While I know many communities and organizations share this view, for each of us it looks different. In an advising or consulting role, the big challenge comes in accepting as a group or leader, we are not clear what will come once we dismantle the systems as we know them, to develop capacity to see and identify current systems as oppressive forces in our daily existence. What replaces heteronormative, patriarchal structures? In most cases, we don’t know yet.
For the most part, among feminist thinkers, the idea of “equity and justice” resonates. From Audre Lorde and adrienne maree brown, we learn that women leaders and feminists can create living systems for new ideas to emerge by knowing this (holding equity and justice as core values) and then embodying it (actually allowing different ideas to come forth). And then, as my colleague Tuti Scott and I say, we have the opportunity to be more fierce and bold in how we go about building new practices and systems.
Personally, my biggest advantage is my ability to work outside of systems and think outside of the box. To deconstruct. For example, in the founding process of BRIDGE, our work wasn’t only to help the underserved. We also wanted to create a mechanism to offer support to institutions and to hold them accountable in meeting the needs of underserved and underrepresented communities. We offered that as a training and as a community building forum through dialogue, breaking bread, and dancing.
My work, in its very mission, is still an obstacle for many people. My best strategy for getting around this is to talk about my journey to consciousness and activism in order to model a way to move and persevere with intention and to help folks articulate their process. In my relationships, I aim to help all sides develop tools, get access to education and awareness, and reduce their anxiety and reticence in talking about race, class, poverty, and gender issues while motivating us all to move toward the next required action. I work hard to cultivate accountability and trust in shared work.
Interestingly, often my best allies are my biggest obstacles. This is actually good because with allies there is often something shared that binds us to each other or to the work or both. But allies can be obstacles because of the positive intentions involved, the fact that we have shared language, and the lack of realistic self-reflection. It takes a constant commitment to growth to assess one’s role in contributing to existing oppressive systems, in part due to a need for security. In other words, folks that do not view themselves as oppressive (who in fact do value diverse world views and life experiences) often have a hard time owning the internalization of oppressive structures and the comfort and security it has promised them or their families. But from my positive psychology training and the work of Barbara Frederickson, in these instances I go back to the simple idea of “broaden and build.” I use my innate skills of resilience, leadership, and my ability to broaden perspectives to build in positive connections and spaces. Together, we fortify the group with trust and courage and just keep building out strong coalitions, working with what we’ve got towards a better future. True collaboration takes time, attention, and intention. So often we feel the urgency in our racial and social justice organizing and cannot wait. Both are true. We all must work while educating, self-assessing, and building relationship... and there is no time to spare in any relationship: home, work, and government.
So, my advice to leaders who wish to strengthen their coalition-building skills:
Cultivate your own authentic voice so that if you are asked to speak on it, your leadership comes from within instead of being a response to external factors that can distract you as you wade through daily life.
Actively shape your life. Commit to learning and contributing every day. Be a critical thinker and be OK with not being center stage or recognized. (This is a fight among feminists and women leaders we can’t afford to keep having… worrying that we will be overlooked for the positive difference we know we can make or could have made).
Build trust through relationship, and establish accountability as a core practice of trusting relationships.
Find mentors all along the way in all shapes and forms.
Amplify underrepresented perspectives and voices. To heal, we must center voices that have been muted and/or distorted. This also means holding attribution as a core practice. When you learn or are mentored, practice acknowledgment, gratitude, and self-awareness. For centuries, those of us who are holding the psychological and emotional labor of undoing oppression are those who have been oppressed. Your journey, teaching, and place is a result of that work. The same thing holds true in our work today. Who do you center? How do we practice non-stealing of each other’s humanity? How do we embody reparations in our day-to-day work and relations?
Practice equity and inclusion with a clear edge of no harm (intentional or unintentional) to another group. Pay attention to “impact versus intention.”
Establish shared vision and define what equity means in the work at hand and across all sectors.
Accept that we are visible only when we are all visible. If we can’t imagine change or being visible ourselves without pushing someone aside, our work will never be successful and we will never make the kind of impact that we want to see.
Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant is a well-recognized thought leader in diversity leadership and community organizing for racial justice. She is the Founding Director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a community-based educational nonprofit in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and the Equity and Inclusion Team Lead at Imagine Philanthropy, a strategy consulting firm that uses a gender and social justice lens. In addition to providing award-winning cultural competence trainings, Gwendolyn is a frequent speaker and long-time activist.
In spring 2017, Gwendolyn spearheaded the county-wide campaign and coalition "Not in the Berkshires" and helped craft and pass her town’s Trust Policy, a step towards a statewide Safe Community Act. In 2016, Gwendolyn served as the Founding Director of Equity and Inclusion at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. In 2015/2016 she was recognized as a “Berkshire Trendsetter” and was named one of her county’s most dedicated and creative social entrepreneurs. Gwendolyn graduated with a certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute at Kripalu in 2015 with leading field experts, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar and Dr. Maria Sirois. She has founded several initiatives based in the principles of equity and justice, the inherent dignity and worth of individuals, and our interconnected web of humanity. She serves on the board of UU Mass Action Network.
© 2017 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant