The Rural We: Gerri Griswold
Gerri Griswold is director of Administration and Development at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Conn. (The Center, founded in 1913 by brother and sister Alain and May White and comprised of 4,000 acres of protected land, is open all year round for hiking, swimming, kayaking and canoeing, camping, boating, biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fishing and bird-watching.) She’s handled bats for 25 years as a wildlife rehabilitator and educator and is licensed by the state of Connecticut and the U. S. Department of Agriculture to keep and exhibit non-releasable bats and, more recently, porcupines, for education. She and her bats have appeared on the cover of “The Weekly Reader” and in a segment for “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Griswold also serves as the morning voice of traffic on WTIC AM and WZMX FM. In 2010 she launched a travel company, Krummi Travel LLC, (named after the affectionate Icelandic word for “raven,” her favorite bird) which takes small groups on trips to Iceland.
I was born and raised in Winchester, Conn. and I live on the farm my grandfather bought in the late 1800s. I first got wanderlust in sixth grade when I saw Stonehenge in a history book. I went to the UK when I was 21, and immersed myself in all of the ancient art and archeology I could find. Luckily, I married a guy who was interested in travel, too. I’ve got a really busy life, so when I travel now I like to visit more rural, remote places where I can relax. I’m not a risky traveler, I prefer places where I can be alone or with local people. Iceland is my favorite place to travel; I’ve been there 45 times. With my travel company, I take small groups and we can get into the nooks and crannies that big tour buses can’t.
I’m a curious person and my curiosity has allowed me to have an interesting life. I have a degree in art history from NYU, and I was a professional chef for many years, but that’s an extremely physical profession. I was a full-time traffic broadcaster for what was Metro Networks, and now I record traffic reports for another company. I get up at 4 a.m. and record them in my studio here. I own a small farm, so I take care of the animals first (a bat, a porcupine, goats, a pig, a peacock, a turkey, a hamster, and a parrot that swears), then I do the radio broadcast, then I take my dog Bradley with me to work.
What first brought me to White Memorial was my work as a wildlife rehabilitator. People get an impression that this is a gigantic institution but, while it’s a big piece of property, it’s maintained by very few people. We’re the largest privately held land organization in the state and we have one of the most beautiful museums in the U.S., which includes precious dioramas painted by James Perry Wilson (whose work can be seen in the Museum of Natural History).
Alain and May White were such land junkies; beginning in the early 1900s, they began buying land and bringing it back to its natural state. They gifted 6,000 acres to the state of Connecticut, which are now some of the best state forests in the country. Alain was a published botanist, and was instrumental in the reforestation of red pines, as well as a chess master who solved German codes.
I’m the editor of the organization’s newsletters, and I arrange Saturday programming here, which is a way to selfishly bring in everything I’ve always wanted to learn about. If something interests me, I figure everyone else will be interested, too. I love extinct species — I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to learn about the dodo bird. Our whole drive is to get children out into nature. I don’t think it’s ever too early to teach kids about animals becoming extinct. It’s important to show how human greed and not being educated about this has caused the demise of species around the world.
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The Rural We: Joan Ackermann
Originally from Cambridge, Mass., playwright Joan Ackermann now makes her home in the Berkshires where she and co-founder Gillian Seidl have run Mixed Company, a theater in Great Barrington, for the past 36 years. A special contributor to Sports Illustrated for many years, Ackerman has also written for Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other magazines. She’s penned more than 20 plays, one of which she adapted into the film “Off the Map,” directed by Campbell Scott and starring Sam Elliott and Joan Allen. Her young adult novel about a teenage boy from Pittsfield, “In The Space Left Behind,” was published by Harper Collins in 2007, and she spent seven years as a head writer on HBO’s “Arli$$.” Ackermann lives in Mill River (New Marlborough), Mass. and, when not writing plays, can be found teaching a weekly Tai Chi class at Canyon Ranch in Lenox. This weekend, Friday, March 17 – Sunday, March 19, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox presents staged readings of six of her most beloved plays and, on Saturday at 4 p.m., three songs from her musical “Isabella.”
I started writing poetry when I was a kid and wrote all through my teenage years, then I wrote for Sports Illustrated, Time, The Atlantic and others as a freelancer for many years. But I’d always liked to act when I was a kid, so when I moved to the Berkshires and met Gillian, we decided to put on a play. We never thought we’d start a theater, but we found a space and put on “Bedroom Farce” by Alan Ayckbourn. Gene Shalit said it was the best thing he’d seen in the Berkshires that summer. It was a success, so we kept going.
I’ve always loved voice and dialogue, so I wrote a play called “Don’t Ride the Clutch” and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. Then I wrote another one so we would have a play to take the next year. Someone sent it to an agent and she wanted to represent me, so then I was writing plays. Campbell Scott came to see my play “Off the Map” and wanted to make a movie out of it.
I wrote a children’s book and I wrote for television for seven years; I’ve had lots of different adventures in a lot of different genres, and now I’ve gone back to plays. This fest is a way for me to regroup and strike out again. I emptied out closets in my study so I’ve got piles and piles of manuscripts all around me. In a lot of ways, it’s like a family reunion; I’m getting reacquainted with lots of old characters. I remember the characters but also the actors who inhabited them and the entire productions. That’s been really wonderful, sort of pouring through my oeuvre.
I asked to direct all of the readings because I really wanted a chance to speak to the characters directly. I’m writing a new play for the festival called “Out of the Blue,” but haven’t quite finished it yet. I’ve spent the last 10 years caring for my parents, and in the play I roam that terrain, but it has a lightness and a humor to it that will make it accessible and enjoyable for people. After the reading, I’ll keep working on it and stage it at Mixed Company. I consider Mixed Company to be my home and Shakespeare & Company my home away from home. I love those actors and the romantic spirit and energy of the place.
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The Rural We: Martin Lewis
Martin Lewis has been interested in photography since his college days in the U.K., shooting in black and white and spending long hours in the darkroom. He’s travelled widely and has a large oeuvre documenting his excursions. After moving to Millbrook, New York a few years ago, his work has taken inspiration from the countryside and the flora found here. Martin lives with his wife Emma Sweeney, a literary agent, and their two dogs, Christy and Maddie, at Sunset Hill Farm. An exhibit of his most recent work will be shown at Merritt Bookstore, opening with a reception for the artist on Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m.
Photography has been a hobby of mine since my early college days; I started when I was 18. I’ve been a finance guy most of my life, but when we moved to Millbrook, and as I get closer to retirement age, it’s become even more of a hobby.
I’m Welsh and I grew up in England, then went abroad for work. I came to the U.S. in 1986 with an American bank and got transferred to NYC. I was living in Greenwich, Connecticut after divorcing in 2013, and Emma had been living in Rhinebeck, New York, when we met at one of those PEN dinners. A mutual friend, Ron Chernow, had just written the Hamilton biography on which the musical would later be based. We were married within a year, and ended up in this old 1860 Colonial, beautiful old house that needed a bit of work.
We live on a six-acre property, a former farm, and we hope to be growing fruits and vegetables within the next year. We’re both home lovers, and we love pottering around in the garden, especially Emma.
The photographs going up at the Merritt Bookstore are more recent, taken since moving to Millbrook, and are really motivated by the landscape, plants, flowers and vegetables. They range from traditional landscapes, to photographs of plants in the style of Karl Blossfeldt, a British photographer working in the 1930s and known for his detailed examination of plants. A lot of what I’ve been doing lately is photographing plants, especially when they’re decaying, because that’s when the structure really comes out.
As I travel around, I like finding the abstract in the nature. I don’t set up a re-creation, I’m a more traditional photographer in that I like to finding the anomalies and strange things that already exist in real life.
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The Rural We: Lisa Lansing Simont
Lisa Lansing Simont is one of those people whose careers you look at and say “whoa.” Following graduation at Mount Holyoke, she was a reporter at the Berkshire Eagle, after which she moved to Washington, D.C. There she took a position at the Congressional Quarterly, then worked for Pierre Salinger. She lived in Paris for a year and a half (where she took a course at Cordon Bleu), and earned an MBA from Boston University. There’s more: she worked at Action for Childrens’ Television, then as Joan Kennedy’s press secretary, and she held several museum jobs. But for our purposes, we asked her to tell us about her connection to Connecticut. Spoiler alert: She’s a force in Cornwall.
I came to Cornwall as a baby during the war, when my mother moved in with my grandmother since my dad was in the service. From about age 7-13 I came here to be with my grandmother every summer from our home in Providence. After that we moved to Southport, Conn., and I started sailing on the Sound, so we stopped coming. I didn’t come back until I was an adult. By then my mother had moved into my grandmother’s house. I was able to pick up my childhood friendships — we’re still around!
Really settling in Cornwall didn’t happen until 1989, after my first marriage broke up, when I came to help my parents after the devastating 1989 tornado. I had been commuting from Boston, and encountered an old friend here, Mark D. Simont. We fell in love, got married, and have been here 27 years.
I retired in 2007, and had free time to serve on nonprofit boards. One of the first ones I joined was a regional board, the NW Connecticut Arts Council. The arts are just booming, even though everything else seems to be struggling. Look at what’s happening in Torrington: the arts have moved into the empty buildings. Five Points Gallery is an absolutely terrific place, and the Warner Theatre has exploded for the whole region.
I’m on the board of the Cornwall Chronicle because of my background as a reporter. I was elected to the town’s board of finance and Cornwall Historical Society. I have a pitch to people who want to move here: The benefit of joining a nonprofit board is more than doing something for your town; it’s doing something for you, too. You can learn how to run an organization, develop a budget, do publicity. Being part of a place is joining, helping out, giving back. You have a responsibility to be part of the community. And I’ve found that the happier people are the ones who get involved.
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The Rural We: Wanda Houston
Singer, actor and vocal coach Wanda L. Houston grew up performing – acting in her father’s theater company and singing with her mother, brother and sister in the Houston Singers. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Vocal Performance (with a concentration in Opera), Houston moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to continue her work on the musical theater and concert stages, which included touring with Mary Wells, The Platters, and Martha and The Vandellas; singing in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel in Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon; and acting in theater productions that toured the world. A stint in NYC saw her performing on and off Broadway, and singing with a Grammy-nominated gospel choir. Since 2011, Houston has lived in the RI region (most recently, she settled in Sheffield, Mass.) but that hasn’t put the brakes on her busy schedule. You can find her at venues throughout the Northeast performing with The Wanda Houston Band, as well as with the gospel group Brothers and Sisters, the HBH Band and in jazz duos and trios, and at the Goshen Congregational Church where she directs the choir.
I’m originally from Chicago but after college I moved to Los Angeles, for far longer than I ever should have. While I was there, I toured in a show that visited Germany, Austria and then went off to Australia for a year. I nearly stayed in Australia, but I’d always wanted to live in New York City. It had been my dream since I was a kid; my mom brought me there when I was 15. I was the second runner-up in Miss Teen Talented Chicago in 1975; I didn’t win, but we went to New York anyway. They were building the World Trade Center towers at the time. When I moved to NYC in 1999, I performed in an off-Broadway show and I was working in the producers’ office when the towers went down. Right after that I ran into an old friend from Chicago who had a theater in Sharon, Connecticut, and that’s when I first came up here, to do a show called The Diva at TriArts Sharon. That got me coming up here every weekend.
I moved here full time in 2011, which was when I moved everything, including my piano. I’ve had it since I was 7 years old and I always say, “If my piano’s there, I’m home.” When I was younger, we’d take camping trips – we were probably the only black family doing this in the ‘60s – and I always wanted to live in one of those places we’d visit. And now, it’s incredible to be able to live in one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of the country. I’ve lived up here for 10 and years and I still turn the corner and think “how beautiful.”
I’m really fortunate to have met musicians here in the Berkshires that I get to work with. There’s so much talent in this area, it’s mind-boggling. They’re just as good or better than musicians in the city.
My parents were both in the business and also raised a family, though it was tough for them to do both. For me, it was too much to also have a family. But there’s something beautiful about what performers get to do; we get to meet people and share their lives in a way that other people don’t. The arts help people experience other ways of life. We’re in rough times right now politically and we need each other more than ever. Some people say we shouldn’t talk about religion and politics, but we should talk about that because that’s life. And art helps us do that in good times and bad; we turn to it to make sense of it all.
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The Rural We: Maria Nation
Photo: Andre Baranowski of MDN.
Maria Nation is a prolific screenwriter who lives in Ashley Falls, Mass. Born and raised in California, she moved to New York in 1984, where she first started selling scripts. She moved to the Berkshires in 1997, and has been able to sustain her career without living in LA. “It’s very weird that I’ve done my entire career in the wrong city,” she says. This week and next, the Berkshire International Film Festival’s Reel Friends Film Society is holding special screening events of “A Street Cat Named Bob,” for which Nation was the screenwriter. The events (last night and next Thursday, Feb. 16) are co-sponsored by Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Conn. and Berkshire Humane Purradise.
I don’t think anybody really knows what I do. In LA I’m a dime a dozen, but unusual here. I love that “the industry” isn’t out here.
I mainly write TV movies, but that business has shrunk to almost nothing over the years. I’m often called upon to be a script doctor for European films, which is how I initially got involved with “A Street Cat Named Bob.” The director, Roger Spottiswood, who is well-known in the business, is someone I’ve worked with on various projects for 15 years. He called me out of the blue on this one. The original script suffered from a problem; it was a mix of genres. Is it a silly cat movie? Or a dark movie about a heroin addict? It’s actually both, and trying to establish the tone of these two disparate elements was a challenge.
I had three weeks to rewrite the whole script. The roles were not well written for the women characters (one of whom is played by Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbley” fame). I was actually writing while Roger was shooting.
Maria Nation with producer Adam Rolston at the NYC premiere of the film.
Mountainside Treatment Center has come in as a partner to show the film. They realized the element of connection is so important in dealing with heroin addiction, which is the theme of this story. If addiction is stigmatized, that just makes the road to success worse. This is trying to turn that around. I wanted to have that aspect in the film so it’s socially relevant and experientially accurate.
Sony Pictures released the film in Europe at a royal opening in London. Theatrical releases are so expensive, and the distributor in the U.S. is very small, so there was a small opening in New York.
I just delivered a movie that Andie MacDowell will star in called “The Beach House,” and I’ve got a couple of projects planned again with Roger. So many of the projects come in in the summer. In the last three years I haven’t had a summer because I’ve been working, which is a shame in the Berkshires. I hope to get a summer back!
My partner Robert Flores and I have touched or gardened every one of the eight acres of our property. We cleared invasives along the river, so now we have a river walk. Our garden has been on the Lenox Garden Club and on the Open Days garden tour many times. The garden used to be an extreme riot of color and very exuberant. Then two things happened: I realized it was killing me to do all of it, and that it owned me. Over the years I changed from the perennials and bulbs to boxwoods. It’s very calming, very serene — the antithesis of exuberance.
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The Rural We: Alison Larkin
Photo by Sabine von Falken
Alison Larkin is an internationally acclaimed comedienne, actress, producer, screenwriter and the award-winning narrator of more than 150 audiobooks, many of them New York Times bestsellers that have appeared on countless “Best of the Year” and “Pick of the Month” lists. The Stockbridge, Mass. resident also is the bestselling author of The English American, a novel based on her life. Larkin was born in Washington, D.C., adopted by British parents and raised in England and Africa, and returned to the U.S. at age 28 when she discovered her birth mother living in Bald Mountain, Tenn. Her celebrated one-woman show based on the novel has been performed on both sides of the Atlantic and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable organizations. Larkin was recently named Ambassador of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation in the United States, and for every Jane Austen audiobook purchased through her website, Alison Larkin Presents…, $5 will be donated through the Foundation to the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet).
I was raised in England by adoptive parents, and I came to America when I was in my mid-20s to find my birth mother, who lived in Tennessee. Afterwards, I moved to New York to become a standup comic. I realized the beauty of comedy is that you can talk about anything you want as long as you make it funny. I started talking about this life-changing experience I’d had, finding her, and wondering how I could describe it in a way that didn’t make me sound like a lunatic. I ended up creating a one-woman show about it, told from an adoptee’s point of view. This led to its sitcom development, but then I had kids and realized I loved being with genetic relatives that I actually liked, so I turned the show into a novel.
I’d been in Los Angeles, doing a lot of voice work, when we decided to move back east, but I felt I couldn’t return to the mentality of the part of Northern NJ I’d been living in or raise kids in that environment. A friend of mine asked if I’d ever thought of the Berkshires, so I came up to Great Barrington on a whim… in February. Everyone told me not to go up in February, but I came here in a snowstorm and thought “this is where I want to raise my then 9- and 7-year-old because there will be like-minded people here… and I love to ski.” That was six years ago. It’s England without the English.
The way we were able to stay up here, is the novel turned into an audiobook, and a company then guaranteed to publish a bunch of audiobooks with me, and built me a studio in my home. I call it the “audiobook cottage.” My most recent audiobook is Fairy Tales of the Fiercer Sex, which I released on Jan. 21 in celebration of the Women’s March on Washington. It’s a collection of fairy stories of girls who go on their own adventures and don’t wait around, just brushing their hair, for princes to come rescue them. One of them is the opposite of Sleeping Beauty – a girl rescues a prince. Some of the stories were written down by famous writers like Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm, but many have been folk tales for centuries. Some I knew, like The Snow Queen, and some I’d never heard of before. I found it quite inspiring; for centuries, women have been breaking the norm and passing down these tales. Being a producer of audiobooks, I’m having a merry time bringing out stories of nontraditional, complex females.
On March 17, I’m directing and emceeing a comedy improv sketch and standup show with local teenagers at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. This is one of the most exciting things I’ve done in a while. It’s all original material; the teens are speaking in their own voices through comedy. Change will come from the next generation, and that’s where I want to put my attention.
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The Rural We: Karen Bussolini
Karen Bussolini is a widely published garden photographer, speaker, writer, NOFA-Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and eco-friendly garden coach. Although trained as a painter, and boasting a successful career as an architectural photographer, she now focuses her lens on gardens. Her own garden is South Kent, Conn. has been featured in many publications, including Anne Raver’s feature, “A Hillside of Feisty Beauties,” in The NY Times. Her garden photography and writing have been published in House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens, Metropolitan Home and many other magazines throughout the world. Among the hundreds of books to which she’s contributed photos, Bussolini was the sole photographer for six of them, including The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Manual, and Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden, which she co-authored. Bussolini will give the talk “Planting The Year-Round Pollinator Garden” at Kent Town Hall this Saturday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.
I grew up in Canton Center, Conn., with Italian and Swedish immigrant parents, and we grew all our own food. We were composting in the ‘60s! When my father heard the term “organic gardening,” he was amused that there was a name for it. It just seems natural that you don’t poison your environment.
Bee on sunflower photo by Karen Bussolini.
When you look at “traditional” landscape practices, they’re so destructive. A lot of what I do is counter the mindless maintenance, the “mow, blow and know-nothing” kind that does so much damage. Herbicides and motorized equipment are untenable.
Plants that aren’t native don’t feed insects, and if there are no insects, there are no birds, and it goes right up the food chain. There’s a general awareness that pollinators are important, but some people might not understand why. Seventy-five percent of plants on earth require animals to pollinate them, but some plants and insects are more important than others. Some animals inadvertently pollinate plants, but you want to attract efficient pollinators such as bees, hornets and beetles. Bees are most important, because they don’t just sip the nectar, they collect pollen on purpose.
Bees are going extinct because the spraying of systemic pesticides is changing the quality of their food. The CO2 and nitrogen is making the pollen less nutritious, but bees haven’t evolved fast enough to tell what is “junk” pollen. To help them, don’t use chemicals, and plant to feed native bees and all pollinators from early to late season. A good rule of thumb is to have at least three things blooming at all times. Pussy willows are an important early season plant (January and February), native holly, and other things we don’t normally think of. Some flowers don’t bloom until July, but trees are almost permanent food sources. Some of the “best of the best” things to plant are willows, blueberries, monarda (bee balm), sunflowers and goldenrods. You want diversity in flower shape, as well. Flowers that open wide are easy for small bees to get to.
Bee on bee balm photo by Karen Bussolini.
When you’re shopping for plants, ask questions about pesticides. If things look too perfect, be suspicious. I encourage people to go to independent garden centers, garden club plant sales, and other places where you can talk to the people who work there. Paley’s Garden Center in Sharon is good about bringing in organic plants. I also recommend Gilbertie’s herbs, which are organic.
We can create, restore and protect bee habitat, which is beneficial to us, as well, since solitary native bees usually can’t or won’t sting, and yellowjackets will eat the caterpillars that eat your plants. We can all make a difference in our own yards, that’s why I’m pleased to be able to present this talk locally. As I say, “one yard at a time.”
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The Rural We: Christina Lowery
Girl Rising CEO Christina Lowery has traveled the world working on documentary films and producing programs for The Documentary Group, ABC, CNN, A&E, Bill Moyers and The History Channel. Now, from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley, Lowery builds on the success of the three-year-old documentary ‘Girl Rising’ with a global campaign for girls’ education and empowerment.
We live in Spencertown, and we chose this area after chancing upon the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School when my eldest son was 4. It seemed like a magical place for children to go to school and grow up, steeped in nature, farm life and the arts. I love so many things about living here – how much time we spend outside, the variety and size of farms around, and the amazing community of people, as well as the practical side of it being a relatively easy commute to New York City, where my husband and I both still work.
I have long had these dual passions in my life – storytelling and international development. I didn’t know people were filmmakers when I was growing up, but then I went to Brown to study comparative literature and met classmates whose parents had creative jobs. I was exposed to the arts, and I fell in love with theater. After college I stumbled into a job on a documentary about Cuba because I spoke Spanish. Then I thought I wanted to work in international development and so got a masters in Community and Regional Planning. But at the end of graduate school, I got the chance to work on a Bill Moyers documentary about women in the developing world and went to Mexico as a translator. That swung me back into filmmaking, and I remembered how much I loved the process of making a film about something I cared about.
Next up: a Girl Rising book launches in February.
We were living in NYC, after our first child, and I realized I didn’t want to travel so much, so I joined The Documentary Group as a supervising producer. We were approached by a funder about making a doc about ending global poverty. We talked to experts in many areas, and the thing that struck us is they all underscored that one of the keys to ending poverty is to get girls in school and keep them there. We looked at the statistics on girls’ education and those numbers blew us away. Educated girls have fewer and healthier children, and are less likely to be victims of violence or trafficking. For every year of secondary school, a girl can earn 10-20% more, contributing to the financial well being of her family. Educating girls causes a ripple effect of positive things and is the single most powerful intervention to end poverty. We wanted to bring that truth to the public. Our goal then became to make a film about girls’ education that people would actually want to see.
But in documentary film, even when you hit it big, it means you’re in theaters for maybe a month, if you’re lucky. We wanted to change minds, lives and policy. We thought, if this is such an incredible way to address poverty, why aren’t people doing it and why isn’t more money being devoted to it? The barriers keeping girls from school are many. Sometimes it’s resources – no schools, no supplies, no money to pay tuition. But in many places it’s also a question of social norms and of how girls are valued. Girls need to be valued not just for their bodies – for their ability to have children and work – but also for their minds and their potential. We’re working to change the way people think about and value girls, and the decisions the “gatekeepers” to girls – their parents, community leaders, etc. – are making about them. We’re trying to spark community-led discussion, as well as change and catalyze investments in girls’ education. We’re currently working in India, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have created a free, Common Core-aligned curriculum for educators in the U.S. We’re launching new campaigns in Central America and the Middle East this year.
You can watch Girl Rising, as well as last year’s We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World, which we also produced, online. Girl Rising is on our website and both are available through Amazon. In terms of what people can do to get involved? My advice is to do something that is meaningful to you and makes sense for your life. Have a fundraiser, be a mentor, host a screening of the film and talk about the issue with your friends and colleagues. Find something you can commit to together. Big problems can seem so daunting, but there are things you can do even if you only have 5 minutes. To me, the education and empowerment of girls is one of the most important human rights issues of our time and we can all do something to help.
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The Rural We: Van Shields
If you’ve been hearing more and more about the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass. over the past five years, that has a lot to do with its executive director, Van Shields. Under his benevolent watch, the venue has become a powerhouse of creative programs for kids, wide-ranging workshops and lectures for adults, and engaging hands-on exhibits for all, as well as being the site of some of our favorite fundraising galas. Before coming to the helm in late 2011, Shields was the director of the Culture and Heritage Museums in Rock Hill, S.C., and before that worked at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Besides his main gig, Shields is a board member of 1Berkshire and Downtown Pittsfield Inc., and is on the BerkShares advisory board. In his downtime, Shields, along with his wife, painter Peggy Rivers, take full advantage of all the culture and natural beauty the Berkshires affords, and you’ll often see their smiles at art openings and community events up and down the county.
The Berkshire Museum is my third museum position, but way before that I owned a restaurant in Humboldt County, California, where I met Peggy, at our annual holiday party. After we were married, she decided to go back to school at Columbia, and we had a bicoastal relationship, which was hard. She was telling me I should move to New York City, too, because there were so many museums there, and that’s a job I’d always wanted to have. I shrugged it off, but eventually she said “Well, I’m not coming back” and I was forced to move. I ended up getting a job at the Museum of the Moving Image, where I worked for seven years.
After that, I was the director of the Culture and Heritage Museums in Rock Hill, S.C. for 15 years. When I decided it was time for a change, in 2011, I started looking for a new job and I was so happy to obtain my current position because the Berkshires seemed like the kind of community we’d left behind in California years ago. It’s a community where people tend to be alive from the shoulders up, meaning there’s cultural and intellectual stimulation. This area has all of the indoor and outdoor things we like: arts, culture, a fantastic natural environment for camping, hiking, fishing and biking. Socially, culturally and politically, the Berkshires was to our liking.
As for the Museum, there will be two new exhibits opening at the end of the month called Tell Me More, and The Science of Color. Curiosity Incubator, a brand new experience, will open Feb. 17. Coming this summer will be a major show, Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World, and the 2017 Wine Gala and Auction on June 24, plus we’ll announce the final phases of our master plan. It’s a dramatic re-envisioning of what the Museum will be and how it will serve the community, so stay tuned.