Charter Oak Cultural Center Director Rabbi Donna Berman spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how her work with the Center helps her mission to repair the world through acts of justice.
NAN PRICE: How does the Charter Oak Cultural Center contribute to the fabric of Hartford?
RABBI DONNA BERMAN: Our aim is to do the work of social justice through the arts. We do that by providing the Greater Hartford community with access to all type of arts, from the visual arts we have in our gallery to all kinds of artistic performances including concerts, dance, plays, readings, lectures, and film. We never turn away anyone who can’t afford a ticket because we feel the arts are a human right, not a luxury. We want to make multicultural arts, in particular, accessible to everyone. Especially in the increasingly polarized times during which we live, the multicultural arts are a powerful vehicle for creating mutual understanding and the building of community across differences.
NAN: Let’s talk about some of the programs the Center provides.
DONNA: Sure. Another way we do the work of social justice through the arts is with our Youth Arts Institute, which serves 1,000 underserved Hartford youth a year by providing them with free, high-quality arts education. We offer about 55 classes a week at about six locations throughout the city, including Charter Oak. Lessons include everything—music instruction in guitar, keyboard, drums, violin, woodwind, and brass instruments; drawing; painting, creative writing; ballet; modern dance; hip hop. The instruction and the materials are all free.
We also provide programs for the homeless community. In 2010 we started Connecticut’s first street paper, Beat of the Street (BOTS). We have a monthly circulation of 5,000. Our model is a little different than other cities. We actually pay people for their published submissions and there’s an editorial board of homeless people that rotates every three months and selects what goes into the paper. We also employ people in the homeless community to deliver the paper throughout the city.
Through BOTS we created another program called Eats of the Street, which is an initiative that brings food and opportunities to Hartford. We place large pots of organic vegetables on the streets of Hartford, hire and train homeless people to take care of the pots, and allow anyone in need to pick the vegetables when they’re ripe.
Also through BOTS we offer BOTS Center for Creative Learning, which provides free education for people in the homeless community. The program is arduous; students have to complete 96 classroom hours to graduate. Upon graduation, they’re eligible to continue their studies on a full scholarship at Goodwin College. We also give each graduate a special gift—a new laptop.
NAN: Aside from attending events and visiting the gallery, how can the Hartford community become involved with the Charter Oak Cultural Center?
DONNA: There are many ways to get involved by volunteering or donating to the Center. Volunteers can teach at the BOTS Center for Creative Learning, which is an eight-hour commitment over two weeks. They can sponsor a BOTS pot (which would help us a lot). We always need volunteers to mentor kids or help with our music classes or visual arts classes just by being another adult presence. Each month, we have a family literacy program called “Read It and Sleep.” We’re always looking for people in the community to come and read a story to the kids on those nights. By the way, each family goes home with a free copy of the book that was read to keep.
NAN: As a longstanding organization, how do you continue to innovate?
DONNA: That’s a really good question. One way is by always looking for who isn’t being served and what types of programs are needed. We’re always trying to do the work of justice, so if things aren’t happening, we try to supply the missing experience. And, because we’re a very nimble organization, we’re able to create programming quickly and effectively.
For example, we read about the 1619 Project in The New York Times. The initiative observes the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. We wanted to make sure the community had an opportunity to explore, in depth, the very rich articles the Times published about the continued impact of slavery on our society today. We organized four such discussions this fall and are planning another eight for the spring.
As another example, we’ve noticed there aren’t a lot of a lot of high-quality free programs for Hartford kids ages zero to three, so we’re looking into getting some funding to be able to offer the internationally renowned program, “Kinder Music,” which is specifically designed for this age group and their unique intellectual, emotional, and physical needs.
I think that’s how we remain relevant, by looking to fill a need in the community. Because we have our staple programs, which remain vibrant—and if we create a program that doesn’t become vibrant, we let it go. It’s a nice balance between doing what we have learned to do particularly well and adding in some new things we feel are necessary and timely.