Hats off to heroines: Amherst mom and daughter, Survival Center chief among honored women


  • Town Councilor Anika Lopes founded the Ancestral Bridges Foundation. File

  • Amherst native Debora Bridges, along with her daughter, Town Councilor Anika Lopes, was among the Class of 2023 honorees. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 06, 2023

BOSTON — An Amherst mother and daughter who have helped to celebrate the heritage of African Americans in Amherst and a Northampton resident who has ensured people in the city and neighboring communities have access to food, while also being a pioneer for marriage equality, were recently honored at the State House.

Debora Bridges, an Amherst native, and Anika Lopes, who serves on the Amherst Town Council, and Heidi Nortonsmith, the executive director of the Northampton Survival Center, were among 130 residents named to the Commonwealth Heroine Class of 2023 by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.

The 20th class also included North Adams resident Erin Forbush, the director of Shelter and Housing for ServiceNet.

Each year, the commission partners with state legislators to identify women who make outstanding contributions to their organizations and in their communities. Legislators are encouraged to nominate a woman from their constituency.

Nortonsmith, who also serves on the board of directors at the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, was nominated by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

“Heidi works every day to make sure our community has the food and resources it needs,” Sabadosa wrote on her Facebook page. “I was particularly struck by the way she shepherded the Survival Center through all the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic created, ensuring its remained a welcoming place for its clients — even when they weren’t allowed to let people come indoors — through thoughtful collaboration with numerous other organizations in the area.”

Sabadosa also credits Nortonsmith and her wife, Gina, as trailblazers as one of seven couples who filed a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Judicial Court to ensure marriage equality in Massachusetts. “It is especially fitting then that this award is also given in Pride Month,” Sabadosa wrote of the June award.

Lopes and Bridges were jointly nominated by Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

Bridges, a sixth-generation Amherst resident who attended Amherst schools and the University of Massachusetts, returned to Amherst in 2019 after working in finance for the state Department of Mental Health in Northampton and the state Department of Public Health in Boston for 25 years.

She took up the cause of her late father, Dudley Bridges Sr., to bring the town’s historic Civil War tablets into permanent public view. Bridges is now the curator and docent of an exhibit of the plaques at the Bangs Community Center, which list her close relatives among the soldiers who participated in military actions that led to the origins of Juneteenth. Bridges updates the exhibit regularly with new artifacts, photographs and historical narratives.

Bridges thanked Domb for recognizing the work of her family and for helping bring history to light.

“For generations before and after me, my family has sought to share our stories, legacy and contributions to freedom, education, and the commonwealth’s success,” Bridges said in a statement. “My ancestors fought in the Civil War’s African American 54th Regiment and also the 5th Cavalry. They traveled to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, telling slaves they were free on June 19, 1865.”

A seventh-generation member of the first Black and Afro-Indigenous families of Amherst, Lopes attended Amherst schools and then college in New York City, where she began a career as a milliner and creative consultant. After returning to Amherst in 2019, she worked with her mother to find a permanent placement for the Civil War tablets.

Lopes, elected to the Town Council in 2021, last year founded the Ancestral Bridges Foundation to center the neglected and lesser-known history of her ancestors, who represent Black and Afro-Indigenous history of Amherst through arts and culture and educational programming.

Lopes said it was humbling to be nominated and recognized by one of her heroines, Comerford.

“I hope this award will open doors for increased collaboration between our Ancestral Bridges Foundation and potential partners who are also dedicated to making the future better for Black and Indigenous residents of the commonwealth,” Lopes said. “We cannot change slavery, genocide, or other events of the past, but we can work together to build a better future for generational victims of such atrocities.”

Comerford said Bridges and Lopes have made profound contributions to the Black and Afro-Indigenous communities.

“Their dedicated efforts expand our understanding of our collective history and give us a chance to embrace our shared story and move forward,” Domb said.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, nominated Forbush, calling her someone who has set an example for respect of the most disabled, disenfranchised members of the community.

“Erin has a natural ability to connect with and inspire people who are at their lowest point in life. Recently, she guided our family and individual shelters through the COVID-19 pandemic — engaging in problem-solving and answering the call 24/7 for three years,” Farley-Bouvier said.

The June 23 ceremony was held at the Great Hall of Flags, where Sarah Glenn-Smith, the commission chairwoman, said the women honored are difference-makers.

“Commonwealth Heroines use their time, talent, spirit, and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others in their community. They are mentors, volunteers, and innovators — they are the glue that keeps a community together.”