Lean In: What I’ve Learned Working for Equity & Justice in The Berkshires

Lean In: What I’ve Learned Working for Equity & Justice in The Berkshires

In 2016, I was honored by Hevreh’s Berkshire Speaks and asked to speak about my leadership development and journey. This is a shorter version of my remarks. I am sharing this piece again given the current climate we are living in so that my readers may get to know my journey to justice work, and we can all get to work on racial and social justice in new ways together.

As, Co-founding Director and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE, I see myself as a social entrepreneur using a nonprofit to build human connection, disrupt monopolies, and dismantle structural barriers.

I came to the Berkshires at age 15 to begin my BA career at Simon’s Rock with a W. E. B. Du Bois Scholarship. Today, I am also the founding Director of Equity and Inclusion (est. 2016) at my alma mater, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, here in Great Barrington. Recently completing my 3 year term as Chair, I also serve as an appointed state official as a Berkshire County Commissioner on the Status of Women. My signature strengths drive me. Positive psychologists through the Via Character Institute tell me that I am creative, I have perspective, I exercise judgment, I commit to honesty and authenticity, and I am kind. These traits are the foundation for my work. I strive to be an authentic leader and remind folks to practice cultural humility and love.

Later, I will ask you to lean in with me and think about your own leadership with regard to social justice, but first I will share my own story, including the story of BRIDGE. Both are about resilience and grit—me aspiring towards liberation for myself and others from structures and mindsets, visible and invisible, that bind us, separate us, and threaten our interconnectedness.

Starting my adult life at age 20 in the Berkshires with two children, a college degree in Languages and Literature, and nothing else tangible except my intellect, gut, and a general faith that something existed larger than our individual human existence—I know I am blessed to be an active participant in this community. First and foremost, I consider myself the “mother of diversity” by way of my four children. My children, each beautiful in their own right, live with markers of social and cultural diversity. One lives with a chronic autoimmune disease. My older daughter lives with autism and has vocational certificates in the culinary arts from BCC and animal care from Berkshire Humane Society along with her high school degree. (Her original prognosis was she would never walk or talk independently). My oldest child, who has his college degree, lives with chronic asthma. His non-binary gender identity also emerged as early as age two. Today, autism and non-binary gender identity have much more medical, social, and political support than 20 years ago. At that time, it was up to me to create a path where my children of color could thrive in the Berkshires.

Folks ask me how I perform this precious and often challenging maternal role in addition to my role at BRIDGE. And yes, my family comes first. What I know is that it is love that makes this work one in the same. My family’s experience is connected to the humanity of every Berkshire resident. Through BRIDGE conversations, dialogues, and trainings, I see individuals in this community connecting more and more with one another. I know this means a safer, more loving community for me and my family.

As for Multicultural BRIDGE, it is a small but mighty organization. We are a minority and women-run organization run by part-time employees on a small budget, and we weave straw into gold on a weekly basis. Our services are translation, interpretation, training, education, and multicultural awareness. We’ve earned recognition for nonprofit impact for the state and the county, been cited in textbooks on how to combat hate crime in community, and received honorable citations from local delegates. Marthe Bourdon, Bob Norris, and I co-founded BRIDGE in 2007 out of a vision Marthe and I shared of helping the new immigrant community in the Berkshires. In 2002-2007, our immigrant population doubled. We continue to see an increase in Latino, Asian, and African populations.

One foundational story comes to mind. One day while I was interpreting at a local medical clinic in helping a Latina woman with her paperwork, I noticed an older white lady grumbling near us. I didn’t interfere, presuming there she may have a special need of some kind. Then, something surprising happened. She threw the clipboard towards us onto the ground. I asked her why, and she told us “it was unfair that a newcomer would get that help and she couldn’t.” She had dropped out of school to work and never learned to read. She was finding it difficult to get through the paperwork you fill out at a first medical appointment. She hadn’t had medical care in over 10 years.

Her story stopped me in my tracks. I had been thinking about BRIDGE’s purpose and this clarified things. Marthe and I were looking for an official vehicle to support individuals who we were independently assisting anyway. I realized this dream agency we were creating was for anyone who needed the support and education. I helped the woman and spoke to the medical center about the interaction of which they were more than glad to make adjustments for. They now assess the literacy of incoming patients. That became the initial model for BRIDGE. We serve and advocate for individuals, and we work with institutions to provide our services to fill in gaps. Our work is informed by the needs of our community.

BRIDGE’s racial justice work began in 2008. I was at a multicultural symposium in Boston where I encountered the Department of Justice Community Relations Service. After hearing how they support communities nationwide—after a case like Rodney King or Henry Louis Gates—I asked what we could do proactively. As an African American woman, I knew we needed new ways to address barriers I had encountered, as well as those barriers facing our growing immigrant population.

BRIDGE has now held several community dialogues on race, hosted film discussions, and designed school-wide forums on race. Our race task force has met monthly since 2009. It has the reputation of staying the most committed of any the DOJ has facilitated. Our founding mission is to catalyze change, transform cultures, and foster equity and access in order to integrate “the outsiders”—those excluded by social, interpersonal, systemic, or cultural barriers. We promote mutual respect and understanding through training, fellowship, education, and advocacy. We run an 8-week program where we unpack systemic racism. Students will tell you it is a very personal journey, but we do it in community.

BRIDGE first envisioned itself as a cultural broker between the newcomer or the woman who had to work and never learned to read and the institution/agency… “bridging” the gap for individuals and providing tools for cross-cultural communication for agencies and providers. We still do this by providing education in all forms. In our current climate, with an administration that is attacking women, immigrants, and African Americans, and other marginalized communities, the stakes are even higher. So the intention of our work is sharpening. We call for every individual to uphold the progress this country has made and align with all causes that protect our humanity: environmental justice; LGBTQ rights; saving the lives of black women, men, and boys; women’s reproductive rights; and the list unfortunately goes on.

We have the data. We want numbers to see and believe, but we already know about the health, income, and asset disparities in our communities. Here in the Berkshires, the poverty rate of those incarcerated is prevalent. The ethnic makeup of dropouts and suspensions is remarkably brown and also comprised of a disproportionate number of students with special needs. We even know our bias can be measured. We have nothing to deny or argue. We need to stand for equity and justice.

But we often operate out of negativity and fear, which keeps us stuck. Instead, we can “broaden and build”, to borrow a positive psychology practice from Dr. Barbara Frederickson. Identify positive emotions and use them to build. We can use cultural competency to build a movement for social justice. As Reverend Barber writes in The Third Reconstruction, “Imagine if now is the moment we build a critical mass for another civil rights revolution?”

So now, you know a little about my story and about BRIDGE. All of it has depended on the fact that I have a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed one. A growth mindset, we learn from Dr. Carol Dweck, is what allowed for the future path I was able to carve out for my children and the impact BRIDGE has made.

What is a fixed mindset? A fixed mindset told me my daughter would never develop and be as independent and witty as she is today. Not true. It told me having two children as an African American woman before age 20 and being an emancipated minor at age 16 meant to most that my future and my children’s future was bleak. Not true. It told me starting a nonprofit to combat diversity and racism issues in a rural area at the point of the economic downturn in 2008 meant failure. Not true.

It’s been challenging, hard, painful at times, isolating, yes, but not impossible.

So, lean in with me, where do you see yourself or others acting out of a fixed mindset in your community or in your work or even in your justice work? What might happen if you shift your lens? In the Berkshires, we have not achieved racial equity, stopped our community for needing to self-medicate to the point of an opiate epidemic, prevented middle schoolers from smoking pot and drinking by age 13 (impacting brain development), eliminated medical disparities, or ended the school to prison pipeline for our young brown and poor children. Ok, well, “not yet” a growth mindset reminds us.

Next question. Reflect on “color blindness.” What value does that hold for you?

We don’t want to be judged on the color of our skin, as Rev. Dr. King said. I actually hear that from almost as many people of color as I hear it from white people. None of us do. But that desire to not be judged does not condone blindness; it requires sharp vision. African Americans and other brown skin individuals deserve more of an opportunity than being brown in America currently provides us. The wage gap persists even though women are far more educated. Over a 40 year career white women will earn over $400,000 less than their white male counterpart, and African American women over $1 million less. I see it in my own household. We have to recognize the cultural context in which we live. So what ways are you blind to cultural contexts of folks different from you in your community? What can you learn more about?

Here’s one example. We have a policy in the U.S. that undocumented farm workers can live on farms and work because we don’t raise U.S. born students to be farmers. But we need to support our farms and should all be thinking about locally-sourced food. Undocumented workers can’t get licenses, go to doctors appointments, see their children’s recitals, buy a pack of gum at the corner market, etc. without fear of deportation. We allow them only to work. By law, they are only safe on the farm.

One perspective is they may have a higher quality of life in the U.S. even under these conditions, and they will take each day they can get. Another is how reminiscent this is of slave labor sanctioned by the government. The government could choose to advocate for immigration reform since we know our economy depends on immigrant workforce. No matter what, it is our responsibility to learn about labor rights and immigrant rights in this country. I share this story to explain the layers of cultural context of a farmer’s needs, an immigrant’s quality of life, and right to human safety and dignity.

Lastly, what roles define you socially and personally?

I am a mother, a layperson doing community ministry, a social entrepreneur. Examine your roles and the power and privilege you have within them. How can you influence someone positively? Take more ownership of your impact? Craft an outcome you desire?

In my youth, my power was my youth, resilience, faith in a greater existence, education, and intellect. It wasn’t that I had nothing; I had everything I needed at the time. (Now my privilege is my education and the mentors and relationships that have helped me, including those who have doubted me. Telling me I can’t do something still is a big motivator!) But I saw my story in Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Mum Bett. I understood my experience through their poetry, teachings, and life stories. Many folks lent a loving heart and hand to me in the Berkshires. Many folks have chosen to see me and not the social construct of me. Who might you choose to see in their full humanity?

Yes, this personal and cultural work around racial and social justice is challenging. We will encounter barriers and fail, sometimes miserably, or see things we don’t want to see. What will we learn? How will we rebuild, work through, repair and restore? How will we do something different next time? As we advocate for and educate others, we must start with our own commitment to ongoing self-education. It takes the practice of an athlete or a pianist to work for justice. Self-care, training, education, and practice in cultural humility. The idea is you just begin practicing it, and it takes grit. Grit is deliberate practice—another positive psychology framework from Angela Duckworth. It looks like all of us learning the cultural context and real history behind any one disparity or point of difference. We become aware of the social identities and biases we possess, whether we chose them or not. We consider the impact that may have on others.

Borrowing from the Brahma Kumaris tradition, I remind people that tolerance is the capacity to make space for individuals and their cultural contexts. Tolerance is not tolerating a degree of pain or suffering; it is stepping to the side to have another join in beside you. You indeed may have to give something up and the gain could be much greater. With intention and focus, we can shift structures that don’t serve the whole of our communities. The golden rule of cultural competence is “treat others how they would like to be treated.” This always offers us a powerful starting point. Build from there. Ask questions. Listen carefully and actively. I invite you to lean in and take these risks with me.

So, I leave you with a few charges.

  1. Practice cultural humility as an everyday, deliberate practice.

  2. Make human connection with the story outside of your context or individual outside of your sphere.

  3. Make a commitment to having a positive impact. What one small thing will you do today, tomorrow, and the next day?

  4. Take the Implicit Bias Test.

  5. Read The New Jim Crow and The Third Reconstruction.

  6. When you hear negativity bias against individuals or cultural groups or witness everyday racism, lean in to understand the point of view and begin a dialogue so learning and growth can happen.

Finally, again, don’t forget the platinum rule, treat others the way they would like to be treated.

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.


Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. January 2012.

Barber, Dr. William J. (Rev). The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. Beacon Press. January 2016.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner. May 2016.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House. February 2006.

Brahma Kumaris.

Implicit Bias Test. Project Implicit

© 2017 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

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