Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant ’87
CEO/Founder, Multicultural BRIDGE
A childhood spent moving from one naval base to another gave Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant a spirit of determination and resiliency—and a strong desire for community. She found a welcoming community as a student at Simon’s Rock and has carried that theme forward into her life’s work.
After graduation, Gwendolyn made Great Barrington her permanent home and began a lifelong mission of advocating for diversity and inclusion, founding a nonprofit that promotes mutual understanding and acceptance among diverse groups in Western Massachusetts.
Gwendolyn found that her adopted home in the Berkshires was also home to many immigrants. “When I realized that those communities were struggling, I created the nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE.” The organization is a resource for local institutions and the community at large and serves as catalysts for change through collaboration, education, training, and advocacy.
Gwendolyn completed her BA at Simon's Rock with concentrations in Languages and Literature, Art and Art History, and Women's Studies.
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Under Gwendolyn’s leadership, Multicultural BRIDGE supports campaigns that promote awareness of racial justice and equity, leads cultural competence and diversity training for workplaces, and provides educational support for private and public institutions. The organization has also introduced several community-based programs, including the Not In Our County–Berkshires campaign to unify Berkshire communities to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe and inclusive communities. Multicultural BRIDGE has provided internship opportunities to Simon’s Rock students, and Gwendolyn has been thrilled with the level of engagement they have shown. Through a mutual partnership with the College, she also offers training for faculty and staff.
Among her accomplishments, Gwendolyn wrote and published the anthology, Berkshire Mosaic: A Multicultural BRIDGE Living History Project. She has been recognized as an expert in diversity leadership, cultural competence, and coalition building for justice and equity by state and local representatives and community organizations, including a citation from former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
In 2018, the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, in partnership with The Berkshire Eagle, named Gwendolyn a finalist for the Berkshire Nonprofit Award in Executive Leadership. She was nominated by Senator Adam Hinds to the 2018 class of Unsung Heroines for the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, for which she has served as Berkshire County commissioner since 2012. Gwendolyn is also a certified Spanish translator and interpreter.
Gwendolyn served as cochair of the W.E.B. Du Bois 150th Festival Committee, created by the town of Great Barrington to honor the life and work of one of the most important African-American activists and intellectuals in U.S. history, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868.
“I first discovered Du Bois’s work at 15 while applying to college at Simon’s Rock. Reading ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ and learning about the concepts of ‘the veil’ and ‘double consciousness’—this was the first time I felt I had words for the split experience I was living as a black scholar in my first college English course.”
Despite Du Bois’s connection to Great Barrington and a life of significant achievements, over the years the region was divided on how to honor his local legacy. Gwendolyn said she was “honored to carry this torch over the finish line with many others, past and present, restoring a legacy rightfully earned.”
Gwendolyn was the founding director of the Council for Equity and Inclusion (CEI), established in 2016 to create, build, and support a welcoming environment at Simon’s Rock for all students, faculty, and staff. “What I tried to build into Simon’s Rock is an understanding that inclusion is really about a critical self-analysis that each individual brings to the campus, and also a sense of institutional accountability to everybody that is on campus.”
Council members represent a cross-section of the campus-wide community, working together on initiatives that address LGBTQIA+, race, and international issues, and enforce positive education. The Council hosts an annual Symposium on Social Justice and Inclusion, the annual W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture, and in 2017, introduced Pride Week.
“Simon’s Rock is a creative and divergent culture, and small enough that it could be a community that achieves a thriving space with a diverse population.”
Through her work, Gwendolyn tries to break down cultural barriers that hinder understanding and success among individuals in a community. She said those seeds were planted when she was working on her senior thesis, “Selected Photographs of Graciela Iturbide and Luis Gonzalez Palma,” both of whom reveal indigenous cultures and people through their photographs. Gwendolyn traveled to Mexico to interview Mexican and Guatemalan photographers, and study images of women. Her thesis was an exploration of photojournalism versus photography in art, and how each is perceived in the non-Western world.
Gwendolyn is excited to see students go out into the world and do amazing things after Simon’s Rock, just like Rockers before them. “I think the benefit of doing work, coming from a Simon’s Rock’s perspective, we already were stepping out of the box. I think that just lends to us being able to be effective leaders wherever we go.”
Simon’s Rock is college now for motivated younger students ready to realize their intellectual and creative potential.