Charter Oak Cultural Center - Winner Nonprofit Organzation of the Year
Promotes Diversity While Serving Community
Hartford Business Journal
June 29, 2009
Hartford’s Charter Oak Cultural Center is located in what is Connecticut’s oldest original synagugue structure. Built in 1876, the building hasn’t formally been used as a synagogue since the 1930’s. But it has passed through diverse and spiritual hands ever since, including long-time use as a Calvary Baptist Church. Finally, in the early 1970s, it changed again into a multicultural arts center.
Though the building is no longer used for traditional religious observance, Donna Berman, executive director of Charter Oak for the past eight years, and an ordained rabbi, thinks of the center as a holy place.
“The seeds of peace are planted here,” she says. “We bring people of all ages, backgrounds, faiths and cultures together through the arts. In our polarized society, people they may never otherwise encounter, meet and engage one another here. It’s a glimpse of what the world could be like.”
Berman said that the center serves more than 15,000 people annually, and provides free before and after school programs to more than 500 children throughout Greater Hartford. The center sponsors hip-hop dance instruction and performances for area youths, eclectic art exhibitions in its downstairs gallery, interfaith panel discussions on controversial topics such as Connecticut’s recent death penalty debate and more. It is the among the area’s strongest outlet for “indie” music in Connecticut, giving aspiring groups and individual performers a venue to air their creativity before audiences of 100 or more who regularly attend their concerts.
“We’re supporting our young people in the community in doing things they might not have attempted before and providing a safe, wholesome and loving environment in which to do them in,” she said.
It’s a safe haven for the young, too, she added. One of the center’s hip-hop dance teens recently told her that he had been picked on that day at school by other youths. “Rather than fight back,” she said he told her, “he said, ‘I knew I was coming here – so, let’s dance!’”
This has a ripple effect, Berman pointed out. Many of the center’s youth help out the local community by participating in things like the center’s organic garden project. From preparing the ground and planting the seeds to harvesting the bounty later in the year, center youths grow vegetables they then use in preparing recipes and meals they provide to Hartford’s homeless. The center also sponsors a food stamp project, challenging people to live on the average food stamp allotment of $3 a day and donate the unused portion of their daily expenditure to the center. The amount collected is used to purchase goods for the food pantry across the street from the center.
Michael Gannon, director of philanthropy for The Hartford, a benefactor for the past several years, said that Charter Oak really stands out among the finest of its kind.
“They really have their doors open wide to everyone in the neighborhoods, so they find a way to help everyone — from adults to kids to parents of the kids to even folks in the suburbs who attend their programs but probably would not otherwise come in to town. They’re in one of the poorest neighborhoods in town, yet they have the broadest sets of constituents you can imagine. They fill a critical gap for many in and out of the city.”
Berman said Charter Oak is honored to be recognized. “[It means that] we’re having an impact in our community,” she said, adding that the true measure of their success “is by how many lives we touch.”