Elizabeth Berman is the founder and primary supporter of the Antaeus Odyssey Artists’ Workshop. Antaeus currently offers Arts Education programs at four partner sites, but it all started with William Tell Aggeler Opportunity High School, working with young men in residence at the Rancho San Antonio Boys Home. For 16 years, Teaching Artists like Elizabeth have been leading groups of boys, court-ordered to Rancho San Antonio for a variety of reasons, through a healing journey of self discovery and expression through the Odyssey Artists’ Workshop.
Elizabeth graciously took the time to talk with Director of Development, Alice Dutton, about what inspired her to do this work, and why she believes it’s worth supporting.
You’re the original founder of the Antaeus Odyssey Artists’ Workshop program. How did that get started? What inspired you to create something like this?
After I finished a graduate program in creative writing, I was thinking about ways I could use what I’d learned to give back. I ended up at Aggeler with another program teaching short story writing. What I saw was, it didn’t seem to me like short story writing was going to help them with their healing journey. What they needed was to learn to tell their own stories. So, I left that program and I started the Odyssey Artists Workshop in 2003. It began with the idea that this was a population that could use writing as a way of healing. More often than not, these kids hadn’t yet learned the tools they needed to express themselves. But, after working through the program, when they were able to share their stories, I found that they were connecting and healing in a different way. The dynamic just changed.
I knew Kitty & Armin [Kitty Swink, Antaeus Artistic Director, and her husband, actor Armin Shimerman] through my husband Rick, who was the producer of Star Trek. I invited them to come to a reading we were doing with the boys in the program. They were blown away by what they saw, and Kitty got the idea to bring in actors to introduce the boys to Shakespeare. So then, John Prosky began working on an Antaeus-led Shakespeare program with the boys, and he came to me and asked, “What would you think of combining the programs?” So, we started alternating performance and writing. And it was very successful! Now we’re at New Village and Homeboy, and it’s all grown from that.
In the beginning, I had thought maybe I wanted to start my own non-profit. But for me, I like being in the classroom, and when you start a 501c3 you have to be a fundraiser and an administrator, and I didn’t want that. This is an interesting template, working with Antaeus so that I could do more than I would have been able to do on my own. It’s a good model for other people to follow who have ideas about smaller non-profits.
I feel very blessed to be able to do it in this way. I go to the classroom and donate my time, and I also support the program.
Have you seen the program, or the ecosystem, change at all since 2003?
Over the years, I’ve seen the students become more adaptable to it. I think writing and storytelling as a form of connection has become much more mainstream. Back then, I didn’t see writing being used in that way, as much. But now, as the years have gone by, people recognize more that storytelling can be a way of healing, connecting, and creating a community.
In your work, you focus on the students “telling their own stories.” Is that to help them work through trauma? To help them tell a more positive story for themselves?
I think they’re able to get more into the truth of their story, and it helps them work through the trauma. Because so much of what happens is, when you’re in a traumatic environment, you really only understand the narrative of your life in the context of survival. But when the boys get together, and they’re able to talk and write, they can finally connect in an honest way, a deeper way. They feel safer, and it can change their narrative. They see that, “we don’t have to bully and hurt each other, we can connect and trust each other.”
I would say, often, when the ten weeks begin, the students tend to come in sort of nervous and distrustful, they don’t quite know what it is. But over ten weeks they form a community, and there’s such a connection there. They’re excited to work together. And they’re brave! They really want to get up in front of an audience and tell their truth.
You’re both the founder of the program and its biggest supporter. If someone asked you why you support this program or why they should support it, what would you tell them?
Well, I think we live in such a deeply divided country and world, and it’s different now than when I started the program. So often, it seems like we’ve lost the ability to listen to each other, or to feel safe to tell our own truth. Knowing that our stories are meaningful, and our lives are meaningful, it means so much. Maybe it’s not a marquee thing, but I think these are the seeds we need to plant if we want a future of hope.