Learning from NIOT Leaders: Gwendolyn VanSant | Not in Our Town

Learning from NIOT Leaders: Gwendolyn VanSant

Gwendolyn VanSant


By Gwendolyn VanSant

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Josh Landes at WAMC on my perspective as a leader on the justice and equity work that’s happening right now on multiple levels. For example, this week we had a racist incident happen again just south of where I live in Berkshire County, Mass. A 10th grader put up a meme that was titled “10 little n-words” on Instagram two days ago. I was asked for a response. I was also invited to share my thoughts on the recent student-led protest in my hometown of Great Barrington. 1,000 people showed up, which is significant given that Great Barrington’s population is just around 6,000-7,000. I was also asked to respond to the uprisings across the country and next steps with law enforcement and the call to defund the police. I spoke with WAMC as a Black woman from where I am in the work personally and about what BRIDGE’s experience has been. 

With the young man who posted the overtly hateful and racist image on Instagram, I asserted the educational system failed him. In my expanded comments, I shared how this is not to remove personal accountability, but to recenter the conversation on our educational system that deliberately has avoided a true U.S. History education for generations and a society that doesn’t speak up against daily racial injustices and disparities. That is where accountability lies... in that design. Then it is not possible to claim confusion and shock regarding how defunding schools in areas of special education and arts on a State and Federal level (like this most recent Massachusetts cut as just one small local example) is a constant attack on vulnerable communities. Systems are designed to reset to preserving access for (wealthy) White people, exponentially and adversely impacting lower-income families, especially communities of color. Let’s focus on the rehabilitation and accountability of one young man, community, and district without losing sight of the systemic impact at hand and the new work required to dismantle and recreate new systems. It is budget season, time to activate in your cities and towns!

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When this topic of what to do with the police came up, I noted that in founding BRIDGE, my intention was to support education, mental health, and healthcare, but ended up spending my first full year with BRIDGE educating police for a three semester pilot program. I found myself with a group of people that I never intended to work with and for which I held tons of stereotypes and misgivings about. I was out of my comfort zone and pushed to walk the walk of my recently proposed work of “building bridges.” I learned from the inside how to see these people as human beings, and they learned how to understand the immigrant population, a newly expanded Spanish-speaking population in our community, and what their needs were alongside my perspective, views, and life experience as a Black woman. The course was “Spanish for Law Enforcement”, and I added a cultural competence component to it to ensure that these new language skills would be used for relationship-building. That extended time I gave was a life lesson in so many ways for all of us. 

This was a formative experience for me, and I’ve since trained police locally and regionally for the Department of Justice and MCAD on a regular basis and been cited as using best practices in research studies on community policing with Andrew Tarsey and former Chief Wilcox of Stockbridge, Mass. for the Commonwealth Chiefs of Police. BRIDGE’s work has since been cited as a best practice in the textbook Understanding Hate Crimes by Dr. Carolyn Petrosino. I have worked alongside several police chiefs, not agreeing completely, but aligned enough in values. And I have voluntarily engaged with invitations to participate in several trainings over the years created for and by police, inviting my allies and accomplices to do the same. As a community, we have advised on policies to create trust and safety in our communities. 

Liza Donnelly, 2016

Liza Donnelly, 2016


In this conversation, I have a unique perspective based on a unique experience: I’ve been able to develop an understanding of the resources, training, and mindsets of many individuals who work for police departments. I do believe--like almost all systems, in our country — that the law enforcement system does need to be dismantled and reformed. Yes, I believe in police reform. I fully believe in divesting and defunding the police and undoing and dismantling the policing system as it is right now in the US. Accountability and transparency measures like New York’s recently passed legislation on protocols should strictly be enforced. Shifting these budgets toward paying reparations for a previously criminalized Black people like we see in Portland, Oregon’s proposed budget suggests a fundamentally solid step. 

I also have seen how under-resourced the police are in such crucial ways, and I wonder how often that is done by design. When we're talking about defunding or divesting the police, I know from experience that the vast majority of the police I have worked with would appreciate the support of social workers and policy reform along with citizens changing protocols the police are trained and heretofore obliged to follow. I know in my time working alongside some officers, there were many times they would have and have appreciated the support of mental health specialists, diversity specialists, bilingual professionals, DV specialists, autism specialists, etc. I invite these police officers to join the fight now and stand apart from their misguided colleagues. 

I also believe that we don't need to target myopically those who have been socialized to be soldiers of our racialized America. We are all responsible for a broader view. As within most institutions of white supremacy in our society, many hold responsibility for upholding those systems and not acknowledging this fact is, to me, short-sighted. It is really important that we understand and listen to the police about what their needs are and what the system failings and loopholes are because they can tell us better than we can discover from the outside looking in. 

As I have said before, to gain perspective, one must be trained by and work with folks who are not socialized and trained to think and work like you. We do not need “military training” to steward safe and inclusive communities. We need revised education, health and law enforcement systems—just to name a few. I understand and strongly believe that the baseline professional training for police needs to change and be more well-rounded and enforced. That is to say, they need to be well-equipped when it comes to identifying and utilizing the resources they need in order to be effective stewards of inclusive safety that does not pose a threat to any group. As I have led with this same philosophy in other sectors, the same holds true here. Every person working within law enforcement should develop accurate historical literacy and know the origins and purpose of law enforcement and reckon with their role and legacy in a racialized America

I warn you, no matter how intentional I am, it is messy work. Not perfect. Absolutely imperfect. I just rely on my being driven by values that center humanity first. Never once excusing, coddling, or defending the brutality and terrorism that law enforcement reigns over Black people, which includes members of my family and the larger Black community, or the extreme harm and re-traumatization in every form of Black violence—images of slavery, tear gassing, racist terms, microaggressions of all forms, etc. I recently read about a study at Harvard’s Kennedy School showing that police killings traumatize black and Hispanic high school students” and about how killings by police is the sixth biggest cause of death for young black men.

I'm curious how we as a community move to this next evolution of our society. How we can sit at tables and get to a place of understanding how much has to be given up to dismantle racism? We do have to give up the world as we know it, and people have to be courageous enough to do that… to continually disrupt with intention and care. For me, I am still focused on disrupting the thinking that we are returning to something after the pandemic and uprising of 2020 and to expose the many ways folx are relying on white supremacy culture going uninterrupted. Its permission to exist thus far, in my view, is leading us down this path that so many have activated to derail—the path to fascism (re)codified. People have to believe that there's a new way… that we don't need the systems and structures and policies as they were designed. My personal goal is that we can unpack policies and understand that these policies are meant to serve institutions and serve a government that really was built for White people (but in reality even most White people are and have been expendable — pure economics.) That hasn't been addressed fully and honestly for any sustained period of time for a long time, if ever in our country. And therefore the perceived divide among the color line deepens.

In everything that we do, we need to depersonalize the work while at the same time humanizing this movement for Black lives not just surviving but healing and flourishing. The focal point, after disrupting the violence and brutality, should be on institutions, policy, and federal and state government and the many things that play a hand in upholding these structures. As human beings, on a personal level, we have to sustain the commitment to work together to co-create change and new pathways to an equitable future where thriving is prioritized for all. 

How will we sustain activation, alignment, and care?

Learn more at gwendolynvansant.com.

Feature image from Downtown Great Barrington protest march on June 6, 2020. (Josh Landes, WAMC)

Homepage feature image: Gwen VanSant has worked with various town agencies to encourage multicultural training. She’s shown here with former Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox in 2015. Photo: David Scribner, The Berkshire Edge



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