In bright sun on a mountaintop, four dancers swirl bright skirts and open their arms to the open ridges and a blue fall sky. They are performing folkloric dances from Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador, they explain, dances from the countries where they have family and roots, though they live here.
Four young women from Latinos Unidas de los Berkshires perform on the outdoor Leir stage at Jacob’s Pillow — and after them women their mothers’ generation from Patricia Cambi Dance, all in celebration of the woman who has helped them to find home, friendship and affirmation, and helped their children to grow.
Today BRIDGE is celebrating 15 years in action. Founder and C.E.O. Gwendolyn Van Sant has grown a creative place and a center of community that has reshaped Great Barrington and the Berkshires, people around her will testify today, and has offered resources and strength and roots far beyond the county.
‘This is the community you have made.’ — Sylvia Soria to Gwendolyn Van Sant, founder of BRIDGE
Silvia Soria, coordinator of BRIDGE’s Women to Women program, says to her, look around today — ‘This is the community you have made.’
On Sunday afternoon, many of the people Van Sant has touched across the years have gathered for BRIDGE’s gala, Catalyst. Love. Impact. The intent, listening crowd who have come together become a living embodiment of how far and wide BRIDGE’s reach has grown around the world.
Star Nii, an internationally acclaimed percussionist from Ghana, opens the day with the warm clap of his hands on his drum heads, and the wind stirs a high tone from his chimes.
Another drum sounds like a heartbeat, and Sunder Ashni, vision builder and steward at Mumbet Freedom Farm, sings a blessing, gathering in the crowd to call out the word for love in many languages.
Warmly and openly she invokes Mohican community and elders on their homelands, and she calls for a sense of connection, one heart, one mind, in the words of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, one of the oldest participatory democracies on earth.
‘Think about who you belong to, whose you are, who you are responsible to.’ — Sunder Ashni, vision builder and steward at Mumbet Freedom Farm
She invites her listeners to rest a hand on their heart and think of the people and places close to them … and then turn to someone near them and share what they’re thinking
“Think about who you belong to, whose you are, who you are responsible to,” she says.
And then a traveler to Ghana picks up the mic. Jeffrey Allen Peck, the great grandson of W.E.B. DuBois, has performed as his great grandfather in the country where DuBois lived at the end of his life and is buried.
Peck is traveling the world right now, he says, performing as his great grandfather in the new play Justice on Trial by Dr. Chad Everette Lawson Cooper and actor Alicia Robinson Cooper, and he speaks warmly of a growing relationship with BRIDGE across more than eight years, and a continuing legacy of activism.
“It’s hard to talk about someone like my great grandfather and all he’s done,” Peck says, “and when I think of all the people he has brought together — I think of his work with Crisis Magazine.”
Crisis is the official publication of the NAACP, which DuBois co-founded. He created the magazine in 1910 and acted as editor through 1934. Peck sees his work as instrumental — DuBois created a forum where Black folk across the country could read about people in their community and become inspired.
“Gwendolyn is doing the same,” he said, “all over the country.”
‘My great grandfather brought people together … and Gwendolyn is doing the same, all over the country.’ — Jeffrey Allen Peck, great grandson of W.E.B. DuBois
He touches on one of BRIDGE’s ongoing efforts to lift diverse voices here, past and present. Peck came to Great Barrington first to set a headstone for his grandmother, in the DuBois family plot where his great grandmother and her youngest children are buried together.
That connection began a relationship with BRIDGE, he says, as Van Sant had already began working with Great Barrington and the DuBois Homesite to teach and celebrate his life and work. She guides the annual DuBois Legacy Festival, as she has taken a leading role in the successful effort to rename the DuBois Middle School.
BRIDGE is now creating a library, beginning with works donated from the DuBois Center, and working with the town to raise a sculpture in his honor. In thanks, on the sunlit stage, Peck gave her a photograph bringing together his great grandfather and his mother.
Like DuBois and the NAACP, he says, BRIDGE recognizes a wide range of needs and ways to meet them. And as people in the community speak of BRIDGE’s effects on their lives, their efforts take clear form.
‘BRIDGE is where I first started to connect with this community — where I feel free and talented …’ — BRIDGE board member Gabriella Cruz
Some are tangible — food, housing, childcare, language. Some are intangible — a place to feel safe, to feel heard and seen. Some are as visible as Elizabeth Freeman standing in bronze at the center of Sheffield, and some behind the scenes, creating change, immediate and longterm.
Kamal Johnson, mayor of Hudson, N.Y., stands up to affirm Van Sant’s influence in his life. Michael Bobbitt, director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, tells the room that when he came to the MCC, Van Sant was already there, working as a consultant and voice for equity in grant funding.
“BRIDGE is where I first started to connect with this community,” says Gabriella Cruz offering warm support in a film presentation of stories. “BRIDGE is where I feel free, talented …’
Van Sant helped her when she first came to Great Barrington, she says, and Cruz now serves as a board member.
BRIDGE grew out of work in supporting immigrants in the Berkshires, Van Sant explains. An alum of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, she was offering Spanish translation in 2007, and she and Marthe Bourdon (then community coordinator with the Women Infants and Children’s Nutrition Program in Great Barrington) saw a need to connect diverse communities with resources and to lift unheard voices.
Internationally acclaimed dancer, musician and artist Imani Uzuri sings a spiritual on the Leir stage. Photos by Juan Baena
Today on the Ted Shawn stage, people share stories of the ways they have felt BRIDGE in their lives.
“Thirty years ago, this town was a different place — and much less diverse,” says Jeff Lowenstein, president of the board, who grew up in Great Barrington. He has seen changes BRIDGE has catylized.
Van Sant recalls one of BRIDGE’s earliest programs, when people gathered for community meals, as they cooked and share the foods that meant family and home to them. This afternoon may share a resonance with that spirit, as people gather for dinner. Local chefs and restaurants are bringing the rich flavors of pulled pork and empanadas and sushi.
BRIDGE has gathered skilled local chefs and restaurants — Loretta McClennon with Mama Lo’s Barbecue in Great Barrington, Oskar Hallig and Mike Zippel with Only in Your Dreams in South Egremont Xavier Jones and Warren Dews Jr.’s Firehouse Café in Adams, Lucia Sandoval with Lucia’s Latin Kitchen catering and more.
Guests mingle around local food outside the Perles Studio and in the food tent at the BRIDGE gala. Press photos by Juan Baena, courtesy of BRIDGE
People gather around tables together. Peck sits down with the Rev. Joellen Forte of the Macedonia Baptist Church, which BRIDGE has supported as a center of the Black community in Great Barrington.
Their neighborhood around Rosseter Street is now the last historically Black Street in the town, Van Sant says — and also home to the former AME church where DuBois himself went to community meetings and talks with the NAACP as a young man, before he left for college, and a life of teaching and writing, scholarship and advocacy around the world.
And the afternoon lifts off, carried on a clear force of music and strong voices. Internationally acclaimed dancers, musicians and artists Imani Uzuri and Okwui Okpokwasili perform new work inspired by Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s Litany for Grieving Sisters, and Dr. Hartman is here to listen.
Okpokwasili is singing low and rhythmic as a river. A Bessie awardwinning writer, performer and choreographer she lives and works in Brooklyn with family roots in Nigeria and holds residencies and performances around the world (and at Mass MoCA, in partnership with Jacob’s Pillow)
As a vocalist, composer and artist, Uzuri performs around the world, from Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory to Florence and Venice, France and Norway — and she moves the room with a call to action.
She has people clapping and singing, as she called people together earlier on the outdoor stage with the words of a spiritual, deep, sad, strengthening, unstoppable —
‘When we fall to our knees with our faces to the rising sun …’
In her voice and Okpokwasili’s, they hold the determination and the grace in Dr. Hartman’s words — “For grieving sisters, what other choice is there? For them, love is not yet exhausted… It is a story that blossoms in the black morning.”
And we’re moving out in a procession, out into the October dusk to a cascading beat with the dancers and drummers of Operation Unite New York, all of us carried along in the energy of African dance, children dancing fearlessly, and the crowd applauding and joining in.
Internationally acclaimed dancer, musician and artist Okwui Okpokwasili performs at the BRIDGE gala in the Ted Shawn theater at Jacob’s Pillow, and Michael J. Bobbitt, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, thanks Gwendolyn Van Sant, founder and CEO of BRIDGE. Press photos by Juan Baena, courtesy of BRIDGE
‘For grieving sisters, what other choice is there? For them, love is not yet exhausted… It is a story that blossoms in the black morning.’ — Dr. Saidiya Hartman