Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires

Raising Up a Rural Organizing Agenda for Equity: The Berkshires

This is one of a two part series I’ve written on rural organizing in reflection on Equity Summit 2018. Read “12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities” here.

At the 4,200 person Equity Summit hosted by PolicyLink in Chicago in April, I had the honor of presenting “Small Towns, Big Future: An Equity Agenda for Rural America” with my fellow panelists Calvin Allen (Director, Rural Forward, NC); Ben Fink (Project Manager, Appalshop, KY); and Marisol Aguilar, (Director, Community Equity Initiative, California Rural Legal Assistance). Moderated by PolicyLink Director of Research Victor Rubin, we each had the opportunity to speak to our unique experiences living and working in rural America. I represented New England. (Read the Equity Summit Manifesto here).

For panelists, our collective takeaway from this session was the realization of how the definition of “rural” meant something different in our four different communities, and how there are even more rural profiles to understand across the U.S. That said, even among our diverse experiences, we found commonalities.

I live in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts about two hours from Boston and NYC. Berkshire County borders New York, Connecticut, and Vermont and comprises 27 towns with 2 small cities. We have a rich cultural and tourist economy, rich New England heritage in social justice, and some of the familiar characteristics of rural poverty. We have a strong sense of community, a plethora of educational institutions and arts and community programs, and we have many challenges that face rural America.

Some of our biggest challenges include an opioid drug problem, few jobs that allow a young person to start a career and live in the Berkshires, and a summer versus year-round resident divide. Many people assume the profile of our community is wealthy white people due to tourism and second homes and our many Berkshire assets. Other folks hear “rural New England” and think “working White poor.” Neither of these profiles capture the full Berkshire story. Our community experiences disparities that the legacy of a predominantly White community allows for. We deal with the ongoing disconnect of being perceived as "good liberal Massachusetts towns" versus the more complex reality.

We have infrastructure and transportation needs, and we see a diminishing workforce in the skilled fields and in higher level fields like engineering, technology, and medicine. Our only growing populations are the elderly and immigrants, both populations that need so much more support. We have a Black population that fluctuates between 3 and 6 percent, and in the last 15 years we've experienced a rapid increase in Spanish-speaking immigrant populations. We have an agricultural, tourist, and second-home economy as well as elder care and healthcare needs that are currently dependent on the labor of immigrants. This often comes in direct conflict with immigration issues or at least cultural integration in the Berkshires where you can be an outsider for generations. Cultures of place and "place-making" are different. Groups have varying degrees of agency, power, and influence depending on generational legacy and the ability to impact commerce. All of these cultural landscapes need to be navigated skillfully to maximize the next flourishing of the Berkshires.

Similarly, poverty can hardly be defined solely along socioeconomic lines. There are a lot of White people in the Berkshires, but their experiences aren't the only experiences; their narrative can't be the only narrative that gets heard, told, and remembered. Even in New England, "rural" does not mean only White people. Erasure is violence. Similarly, addressing the “real issues impacting rural America” cannot mean centering on White working class folks. Yes, class issues are real, and for people of color, it's class issues plus racism (compounding oppressions). What we see, read, watch, experience, etc. hugely influences our sense of reality, where we draw the line, and when and how we speak out when decisions need to be made at the local, state, and national level. This was a consistent theme for the participants at the Equity Summit.

So much of the work to be done in the Berkshires is about building sustained community engagement and a broad base of partners to advance policies, programs, and people-powered ideas for justice and equity. Vulnerable communities are so often underrepresented in local and state government. Just like in cities or anywhere else, equity and justice efforts must be led by and centered upon the voices and experiences of our most vulnerable folks. Ten years ago, as a Spanish language interpreter for medical and mental health and a translator for school education plans, I saw the need for an institution that could provide support including and well beyond language access. This became all too clear to me and was the final motivation for me to co-found BRIDGE alongside my lifelong friend, Marthe Bourdon, a Dutch immigrant who emigrated to the Berkshires with her mother and father who married into the newer Mexican immigrant population.

From my work through BRIDGE in the Berkshires and in the surrounding area, here's what “rural” means to me right now. These are the areas where I am focusing my work:

  • Black leaders building reparations projects around land for retreats for people of color

  • Black and Brown women leaders sharing knowledge, leadership, and supporting each other to serve our larger communities.

  • Revitalizing Black historical icons through landmarks and other means

  • Raising funds for students’ education, focusing on students (in)directly impacted by racial disparity or (in)direct hate incidents

  • Working alongside public safety and law enforcement on the local and state and federal level to bridge conversations, experiences, education, and training to promote public safety and foster trust and equity

  • Working with our local more recently reactivated NAACP chapter that is committed to equity and accountability

  • Supporting undocumented immigrants who work on farms and in restaurants and raise families, and organizing to protect their children

  • Bringing in resources for emergency planning and connecting immigrants and their families to national organizations, local practitioners, and their organizing practices

  • Supporting the leadership of high school and college students who are organizing against gun violence and having hard conversations with family members who own guns

  • Supporting local high school/college students of color in finding a place and voice in their host communities

  • Sharing the intersectional experience and leadership of queer students of color and their multiple affinity groups

  • Doctors speaking out for the rights of their patients and educating and holding other doctors accountable to the bias in prescribing practices

  • Workplaces and municipalities dusting off their affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies

  • Updating policy and workplace cultures to include diverse folks: Black, Brown, Trans, Muslim, people living with disability, etc.

  • Towns creating Human Rights Commissions and crafting small town versions of sanctuary policies; etc.

  • Framing culturally relevant initiatives on different municipal or local levels depending on the opportunity. For example, to support immigrants, DACA students, and folks potentially targeted by the Anti-Muslim Ban, BRIDGE passed an all inclusive Trust Policy specific to the town of Great Barrington’s population and cultural landscape. This trust policy work for specific towns is in contrast and alignment with our #AllHandsIn campaign to stop hate campaign across the county),

This is my rural Massachusetts.

The Role of “Arts & Culture” in Expanding Justice in Rural Communities

Another theme on the only rural-themed panel at the Equity Summit was the “role of arts and culture” in involving under-represented communities in equity and justice work.

Many folks don’t realize that the Berkshires has the second largest creative economy outside of the Smithsonian network in DC. Right now the Berkshires is getting foundation support for arts and social justice work at several institutions. Much of the organizing work going on is with historically all White philanthropic groups building muscle to work alongside communities of color and in poverty and include them in decision-making.

At BRIDGE, we've incorporated the arts since the beginning. We've hosted our summer program at Norman Rockwell Museum and the Arlo Guthrie Center and presented our cultural competence awards events at Berkshire Museum, Chesterwood, and Shakespeare and Company. We've partnered with theatre groups on collaborative productions focused on racism, privilege, and the Black experience (“Facing Our Truth” with WAM Theatre and Students and Faculty at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and “Rhapsody in Black” with the Mahaiwe Theatre at our local high school, the same school that experienced the lynching threat last year). We’ve served as panelists at Flexin at Jacob’s Pillow, brought in Paloma McGregor's Give Your Hands To Struggle for the Town Of Great Barrington’s Du Bois 150th festival, and presented concerts by artists and like Yeou Cheng Ma of The Children's Orchestra Society. In these ways, we regularly reflect on the impacts of racism and celebrate cultural heritage through the arts.

Arts and culture and the work of undoing cultural and institutional racism are inextricable in the hills of the Berkshires. Judging by the response to our panel at the Equity Summit, this is equally as powerful an avenue for change across the country to touch hearts and minds across demographics.

The Du Bois 150th Festival, which I had the honor of co-producing, is another great example of a much-needed, long-term cultural shift. Community organizing, both past and present, led to this festival even being possible. Scholars and activists have worked for decades to honor Du Bois in his hometown of Great Barrington. The rest of the world has honored Du Bois as a global icon, but for so long, our small town was not ready despite education and many events honoring milestones in Du Bois’s life produced by local and regional scholars and activists. In 1968-69, there were serious protests to honor Du Bois when folks like Julian Bond came to Great Barrington objecting to Du Bois’s turn to US communism late in life after realizing the fouls of capitalism. But in February 2018, Great Barrington finally honored Du Bois, breaking barriers in our polite, rural town.

We saw banners on Main Street proudly showing Du Bois’s portrait next to his values: racial equality, economic justice, civil rights, and progressive education. Today, we are consider naming a school and erecting a statue after Du Bois which also was a controversy 16 years ago. This promises to be a litmus test of the change and cultural shift we saw for the months leading up to Du Bois birthday. Our organizing plan is to have the majority vote on our November ballot to name the school after our global iconic hero for civil rights, human rights, economic justice, and women’s rights.

In the instance of the lynching threat, this was one of those risky seemingly unsafe rural moments because so many folks froze due to relational concerns and fear of a cultural backlash that would render even more harm than what was already experienced… erroneously thinking inaction would calm tensions. Among many responders, I reached out to partners at the Department of Justice (USAO) on behalf of the family targeted to offer short-term support, and even then we knew there was so much more work to be done.

Fast forward six months, and now we have a county-wide "Stop Hate campaign, #AllHandsIN,” with 1,000 signatures (towards our 10,000 goal) to stop hate and speak up in the face of intolerance. Students and residents sign a pledge and town selectboard members across the county take the pledge and some do NOT. All of this became possible because since 2009 we have had a Towards Racial Justice and Equity coalition, the Race Task Force, and a more recent campaign, TRJ South, emerging after Eric Brown’s murder. Our partners in this coalition meet at least monthly and keep the education and actions mobilized through dialogue, film, and events. Members go on to bring a power and privilege analysis back into their organizations and municipalities.

To this day, when racist incidents occur in the Berkshires, BRIDGE is a first responder. We work across generations, ethnicities, race, class, etc. to expand equity and justice for our most vulnerable populations and create opportunities for all. We keep continuous feedback loops with our racial justice education and cultural competence training programs that we provide in workplaces across the county. BRIDGE's methodology asks folks to critically look at the culture around us while building relationship with each other. We commit to the work, commit ourselves to learning and growing, and act in accountability with local leaders, activists, and scholars who have been fighting for change for decades.

Accountability is a major part of the equity organizing work we do in coalition in the Berkshires, and I was gratified and affirmed to find that this was a major theme at the Equity Summit. We are developing mechanisms/structures to ensure accountability with and among BRIDGE leadership and partners while shifting the burden and expectation of managing White privileged energies of guilt, superiority, and anxiety onto White folks. Our goal is to make way for people of color to do the work without (or at best minimizing) collateral damage or harm.

The issues that individual rural communities face are unique, but there are also similarities across all communities. After the Equity Summit focused on practice and policy, politics, and power—the ingredients needed for transformative change—I am so clear that we must keep learning from each other, creating unlikely but necessary partnerships, and speaking truth to power. It is critical that we continue to build power across regions, learn from each other, show up for each other. It was an honor to speak at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit, and I was thrilled to see that we had standing room only in our session. Pleased with such a response to the themes raised on the panel, Victor Rubin shared plans to expand the rural conversation at the next summit. Stay tuned!

Read "12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities."  Read the Equity Summit ManifestoJoin me at the third annual Western Mass Health Equity Summit in September 2018.


DATA USA - Berkshire County, Mass.

Jackson, Panama. "This Is America: Save a White Drug Addict, Jail a Black One". The Root. May 10, 2018.

Bebinger, Martha. "Latinos Are Hit Especially Hard By The Opioid Crisis In Mass. But Why?" WBUR. May 3, 2018.

Cowgill, Terry. "By overwhelming margin, Great Barrington adopts ‘trust policy’ for immigrants," The Berkshire Edge. May 2, 2018.

Bellow, Heather. "School- and street-renaming efforts underway to honor Du Bois in Great Barrington." The Berkshire Eagle. March 28, 2018.

Cowgill, Terry. "Great Barrington Town Hall Briefs: Du Bois celebration; Tim Drumm to retire; Blue Hill Road residents demand action." The Berkshire Edge. January 9, 2018.

Cowgill, Terry. "A statue honoring Du Bois? It might actually be controversy-free." The Berkshire Edge. November 19, 2017.

Smith, Taryn. "NIOT in Massachusetts: Dialogue on Inclusive Communities." Not in Our Town. April 6, 2017.

Burns, Gail. "Interview with Facing Our Truths Artists." WAM Theatre. February 3, 2016.

© 2018 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities

12 Principles for Organizing in Rural Communities

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