Christopher Hantman, a Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) alum, graduated with a degree in English/Communications. Following his time at MCLA, Hantman worked for Barrington Stage Company and the Adams Youth Center as an afterschool counselor, however, community building has always been the center of his passion. Joining the MCLA Arts Center for Service and Citizenship as the new Community Engagement Coordinator, it’s clear he has a great understanding of the Northern Berkshire’s need for fervent individuals that are willing and able to give life and new meaning to the region.
In the following interview, we will explore the responsibilities and impact his department has made in the Berkshires and communities alike.
On average, how many students and residents of the community do you service? How many students are involved with the Community Engagement office, typically?
Per week, well that depends. On busy weeks, such as this one, we send out around 80 to 300 or more students. That’s typical of our annual Day of Service. On our low weeks, maybe 30 to 50 students. ‘Write Stuff’ is one of our programs. It originally started with our MCLA students going to schools in the Berkshires, but since it was difficult to get them there we have the schools bring them here. The program serves 5th to 7th graders and is meant to get the kids excited about writing. We also show them different jobs that involve writing, take the children on trips to the Beacon Newspaper’s office, and give them exercises like creative and story-writing. This is coordinated by MCLA students, so it’s organized on Thursday’s this year, in accordance with our student’s schedules.
Because of the high-income gap and the fact that this town is typically low-income, a lot of our students may be behind in terms of their reading and writing capabilities. So some of the meetings involve working with the students on their social skills through writing. After finishing school, the kids are a bit riled-up but they’re all great kids. At the end of the semester, we compile all their writing into a book and allow them to read a selection aloud.
Of all the issues that face the North Adams community, which is of the most significance to you? Which ones are you particularly interested in?
Definitely food insecurity and the disparity between low income and high income, especially in this area. So I want to close that gap. In my time within the community, I’ve met so many wonderful people who do wonderful things, however, they’re just scraping by to live. Organizations like the Berkshire Food Project do great work to feed people and make sure their basic needs are met. So that way, they can pursue another job, learning new skills, allowing them to focus on other needs. But it’s clear, finances are tough for this town, so living in the area definitely encourages me to do something about it.
I definitely agree. Another effort I’ve seen, by MASS MoCA in particular, has been the purchase of a lot of real estate in the area. Not only does it add to the museum itself, but also created many jobs for North Adams residents and students. Which is really great.
Oh definitely! I know quite a few people who have worked for the museum.
When meeting with other organizations, how do you decide the proper amount of students and volunteers that are needed for particular projects? Also, who oversees the management of these events?
Spencer and/or I oversee the event. We don’t decide, our community partners communicate their needs to us and the ones that are of the most need, we try our best to address those. We also listen carefully to what the student body tells us. If students are interested in signing up on specific days, we try to create or seek more opportunities like that.
Not too long ago, I read about a trip to Belize that was facilitated by [the two of you].
Yes, we’ve gone about… seven or eight times. Spencer oversees and goes with the students on those. I went as a freshman here to Belize.
Really?! What exactly did your group do there? For example, what communities did you service?
So each trip we do a different service project. I can speak from my experience. We went to La Demogracia that had been hit by a hurricane the year before. My group planted 250 fruit-baring trees, which would take 3-4 years to fully grow. And that was a way in which we addressed food insecurity. Another trip involved building a walkway for students and teachers, because they would get covered in rain have to walk through a muddy route to get to the school. Keep in mind, this was a place where they still wore uniforms to school. The trips are always a bit different. Our students stay at a Wildlife Preservation, we take them on a guided canoe river tour, they get to really immerse themselves in the culture, eat traditional food, and put in a handful of service hours per day. So you get to serve the community as well as learn about it, which I think is just as important.
Based on all the insight you’ve given me, making an impact is one of the main driving forces behind the work you do. How often does your office receive feedback from organizations regarding the work you’ve done?
We have MCLA alum who are currently living and working in Belize, so we have a bit of a connection built in there. We regularly get feedback from the Wildlife Preservation regarding their needs and how great of a service we’ve done their community. Some of the other in Berkshire County, however, we try to stay in constant contact with them asking what they need and how can we be of assistance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lawrence Edwards is a creative youth development provider from New York City. His background in the non-profit and childcare sectors are extensive. These practices have included working with youth advocacy and organization, as well as managerial work supervising interns. His work with children has strengthened his patience and resourcefulness. He has served as an Office Assistant, Marketing Intern, Outreach Worker, and Camp Counselor throughout his career so far. As an office assistant, he developed strong communication skills, worked well in a team setting while possessing the ability to interpret various types of information rather quickly. Working as a Marketing Intern, Mr. Edwards learned and applied essential promotional techniques, while maintaining an active social media network for Tennis World NYC. Edwards seeks to engage communities that have not had access to enriching experiences within the arts. Lawrence Edwards is currently a junior at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, majoring in Arts Management with a focus on marketing and community engagement.