Focus On: Ellis Freeman Family

Trey Ellis and Dr. Amanda Freeman and their blended family have lived in Westport for almost a decade. Mr. Ellis is an award-winning screenwriter, novelist, essayist and producer whose work ranges from the 1995 film Tuskegee Airmen, featuring Lawrence Fishburn to the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Dr. Freeman is a sociology professor at the University of Hartford who focuses on poverty and policy. She is also a contributor to the Atlantic. In 2019, their son Chet, now a Harvard University sophomore, was the first-place winner of TEAM Westport’s Diversity Essay Contest. 

We moved to Westport 9 years ago from the Upper West Side [of Manhattan]. Our daughter, Maia who is now 14 was entering kindergarten and we weren’t happy with our zoned options. We wound up getting off the waiting list at the public school we wanted on the same day we actually moved to Westport. We were looking for a suburb with great schools, the beach and the arts that was roughly in between Hartford and NYC.

We are a blended family. Maia lives at home with Pamela who is three and a half. Our son, Chet, 19, [Staples, 2019] lived here until he headed off to Harvard where he is now a sophomore and Ava, 22, recently graduated from Columbia and moved to Boston to take a job in data analytics with Wayfair. We all lived together back in Westport for the first six months of the pandemic.

We live in a small house and we were intensely bonding during the first six months home altogether. In September, Chet decided to live with some friends in Boston even though his classes were online. Ava had signed a lease on an apartment in Boston with a friend back when she was assuming she’d be working (somewhat) in person, so she also moved to Boston in September. We didn’t see the kids again until the holidays and had them quarantine for a few days and test before coming home.

Taking covid precautions with someone immune-compromised in our household somewhat hampered us taking part in Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations, but this movement has drawn attention to many of the issues that are important to us and hopefully will lead to real and lasting social change.  

Trey: I have been teaching online at Columbia’s graduate film school but also working on various projects inspired by this tumultuous year. I’m currently writing a fictional podcast about social justice for Futuro Media and the Kellogg Foundation that I’m very proud of.

Amanda: As a sociology professor and someone who writes about social issues impacting low- and middle-income families, the pandemic has called attention to many issues of inequality and in many ways created more work for me.

…the pandemic has called attention to many issues of inequality…

In terms of social issues, we feel that the town has dealt with the pandemic extremely well. We were a famous early hotspot but the town government has been extremely cautious and communicative.  The issue of inclusion in a super wealthy town or really any town built around single-family home ownership is problematic.  We need to do much, much, much better.

The public discourse [around social issues] thanks to Team Westport and frankly the WMHC [Westport Museum] has been excellent. However, we wish we could all figure out a way for more action and real change for Fairfield County. We worry a great deal about the lack of racial and economic diversity in Westport. We worry about the loss of the artistic community that can no longer afford to live here. 

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Minnie Lee Seo

Korean-American Westporter Minnie Seo graduated from Laurelton Hall in Milford in 2020. She majors in Music Education at UCLA College and spoke at the #StopAsianHate rally that took place in downtown Westport in April.

I believe that racism is the biggest crisis we are facing today. It is a huge topic and I would never want to dilute the seriousness of it, but it is a multi-faceted beast that lives within all problems of our lives today. Climate change, sexism, ageism, etc. are all intertwined with racism. It’s the root of many problems, but goes unchallenged a lot of the time. 

I believe that the world is changing, but it is changing very slowly. I believe we are finally seeing other points of view that can dissolve our ignorance, but this is happening on an individual basis. My world is always changing, I am always learning new things, but sometimes I see Westport, and I see the structures of supremacy that reign [here and all] over this world. I am reminded that some have chosen to uphold hurtful traditions rather than to break the cycle, and stick up for those from under-represented communities. Westport, I feel, will be the most difficult place to change because it is resistant to change. It allows little room for those who don’t fit its narrow standards.

I think that Westport is doing extremely poorly on these issues. There doesn’t need to be investigations to show that a school with a student body population that is more than 80% white is non-inclusive.  I do not know how to describe it very eloquently, but for most people of color, when we enter a room, state, town, etc. that is mostly white, our guard has to be up. 

I feel like the community is coping with the major events in the nation very superficially but the issue we are specifically dealing with Westport is not just respecting people of color, but also breaking the notion that somehow racism doesn’t exist in Westport. I have often seen people view themselves as “above” racism or “seeing no color,”–basically viewing themselves as separate from the issue, even claiming at times that racism does not exist. If our first hill to climb is getting the community to accept that racism exists within Westport, we have a long way to go if we want to be directly supporting ethnic minority communities. 

Page BreakI think that my life in Westport has been filled with isolation, exclusion, and violence, which is something I think myself and other members of my family have always known, but always kept to ourselves. Now it seems like that exclusion and violence is very much public, and there is no way to really avoid it. From the time immigrants step foot into this country, there is a kind of generational trauma that is handed down. This stems from the various times the large (white) majority have painted immigrants as dangerous. For my family, this can be seen in the new wave of “Yellow Peril“ that has consumed this nation. It’s brought out our survival skills, where we must rely on each other, keep our heads down, protect our elders, and hope for the best. 

My biggest hope is that we learn that loving or taking care of others requires more than just holding affection in our hearts for people: I love you, and so I will wear a mask so that you will hopefully not get sick. I love you, and I care for you, so I will learn and make sure that the actions I make will not hurt you or others like you. I fear that many people will become complicit if they do not take time to analyze their own fears, passions, and flaws. Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend, but continuously analyzed and improved upon.

Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend

Westport Museum encourages donations to Stop AAPI Hate as well as following them on social media as they continue to address anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic.

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

One Year On: Re-Focus on Nicole Gerber

Nicole Gerber was one of the first Westporters to be featured in the Westport in Focus series (her interview posted March 26, 2020).  At that time, she had taken a step back from her role as co-director of AWARE CT. In October 2020 she began doing fundraising and development for Wakeman Town Farm. The Museum asked for her thoughts on the past year in quarantine and her work on the 2020 Presidential Election. 

This has been a real journey for me. When this first started I had a positive outlook on the situation. I believed this was temporary. We’re all going to go into quarantine, we’re going to spend a few weeks sort of hunkering down, reevaluate our priorities, and emerge from this as a stronger, healthier, better community. A year later, after experiencing a full range of emotions related to the pandemic, I still believe that we’re going to come out of this in a better place than when we entered.  

About seven weeks into quarantine, I started to become agitated and depressed. My outlook on the situation darkened. There were times when all I really wanted to do was run out of my house screaming and hug the first person I saw. I started speaking with a therapist for the first time in twenty years, and I learned how to lean into my amazing support system and friends. Like so many dog walks, Zoom happy hours, and virtual cooking dates became my way of connecting with friends and extended family. I also developed a deeper appreciation and affection for my neighbors because there have been times when they were the only people I saw for days and weeks on end.  

The truth is that for us this last year has been a gift.  I feel like we got a bonus year of very close time with our children who, at ages 14 and 12, would normally prefer to be with friends over family. For years my husband had an intense travel schedule for work, and we really only spent time with him on weekends. But this past year my husband and I got to spend real time together, we rediscovered each other, we worked on our marriage, and the kids got to know him on a deeper level. We’ve had some rough moments, but I wouldn’t change any of it. It was in those moments that we got to know each other, ourselves, and we grew as a family.  

I’m hopeful that people have used this time to take stock of their lives and are being kinder and gentler towards each other. I am also hopeful that we are becoming more conscientious of our impact on the environment, and that we take real steps to heal our planet. Because I feel like this pandemic is the result of humanity being very abusive to our surroundings, environment and ourselves. It’s as if Mother Nature is saying to us as a whole, “You really need to rethink your value system and reevaluate how you are living your lives.” 

As part of taking stock of my personal priorities and putting them into action, in October I started doing development and fundraising for Wakeman Town Farm. The Farm is an environmental education and sustainability center right here in Westport. Its mission is to educate adults and children in our community to live a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. So, I’m focusing my energy on making the Farm successful. 

When we first entered quarantine, I was blown away by how many of our neighbors stepped up and volunteered to help people in need, collect PPE for first responders, and in general work together to make the best of a bad situation. What I love about Westport is that people continue to be there for each other. Pandemic fatigue hasn’t curbed our community spirit. I also think Jen Tooker and Jim Marpe have been phenomenal in leading us through this crisis. I appreciate how they’ve been communicating with residents, working closely with local merchants and restaurants, and supporting the schools. That’s been amazing.  

At the risk of ruffling a few feathers, I do think we could have done better with ensuring our older children were social distancing, especially once the weather turned cooler and school started. There was a period of time that I was afraid to send my children to school because the daily number of cases coming out of the high school were high…too high! I get it. I’m a mom with children in high school and middle school. This has been very hard on our kids, but this is also a time for teaching our children about sacrifice and social responsibility. This has been an adjustment for all of us, and it breaks my heart to know that our children are essentially missing out on some of the most important school years of their lives. 

I’m afraid that once we come out of this quarantine we will return to a version of our previously crazy lives. I don’t want to go back to feeling rushed and harried, or my kids feeling pressured to over-schedule their lives.  But all in all, I think that Westport is going to come out of this a stronger and better community than when we entered it.  

In 2020 Nicole was active with the Democratic National Committee. She served as a Poll Observer in Pennsylvania on Election Day and in Georgia (for the special election on January 5, 2021).  

Danielle Dobin and Candace Banks organized the group that went to Pennsylvania. Through the DNC I trained as a Poll Observer and Voter Protection Officer. I was in Pennsylvania on Election Day. And then I was in Atlanta for the runoff elections.  

I was there to make sure that basically nothing hinky happened at the polls, that every eligible voter had an opportunity to vote and to make sure that his or her vote counted on that day. Part of my job was to act as a check and balance to my Republican counterparts, who were also trained and performing the same function as I was, and to record whether or not they were observing state election laws. I also did ballot curing in Georgia, which was so important because I witnessed voter suppression.  

There had been a spike in COVID cases across the country prompting my husband, who is incredibly supportive of what I do, to ask me to consider not going to Georgia. But it was important. So I got myself a N95 mask and a face shield and I quarantined when I came back.  

My 12 year old son was really concerned about me going to Georgia because he was afraid that there was going to be violence and that something bad was going to happen to me. But there was nothing scary or dangerous that I saw in Georgia. People were so grateful that we were there.  

The day I returned from Georgia was Wednesday the 6th– the day that the riots happened in the Capitol. The whole thing was so scary and surreal. 

It was really hard to be away from my family, but it was 100% worth doing. I never doubted that I would be of use, or that my presence wouldn’t be impactful. I always knew that going there I was going to help make a difference.  

It was really hard to be away from my family, but it was 100% worth doing.

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Roe Halper

Roe Halper was born Brooklyn in 1937 and was raised in White Plains. She studied art at Vassar and Skidmore and became an art teacher and in 1960 she and her husband Charles moved to Westport. A successful artist throughout her life, Roe became known for her low-relief woodcarvings portraying the Civil Rights era including the Birmingham Series which she was inspired to create in response to the events happening during the 1960s. An inspired creative who draws inspiration from the world around her, Roe Halper has worked in various mediums from paper to wood to kinetic sculpture, flowers to book-printing and more. She has taught art classes from her home studio for more than 40 years. 

My husband and I were very young when we decided to move to Connecticut.  I was 23 years old. That was in 1960. We came here to be far enough away from both sets of parents. It was a toll call, but near enough so they could visit and not sleep over. We moved to Westport because the New York Times Magazine had an article about buying Longshore Club. My husband was a par golfer and this is the only way we could afford for him to be able to play golf. Even though we didn’t have kids, we knew we were going to have them so we might as well be in a place which had the best school system. But the third thing was that Westport had an arts community. Now it’s true that The Famous Artists School had a philosophy of education that was completely against what I was taught as an art educator but it didn’t matter. It was a gathering of artists.  

We lived in a little cow barn on Newtown Turnpike. That first year maybe I did four pieces, maybe, because woodcut printing took a long time. And I would put a drop cloth over a table in that living room and that’s how I worked. Later we got a little house on Bayberry Lane. In that house I at least had a 9 by 12 room to work.  I was so thrilled. We filled up the other bedrooms with kids in the next few years. I’d always take off nine months after they were born, to be able to be with them and bond with them. When I became impossible to live with, my husband would say, “get thee to the art room” to get rid of all the angst. We were there for nine years before we moved to Little Fox Lane where I built this beautiful studio downstairs — 31 feet long and about 16 feet wide. It’s really beautiful and big enough to have classes.  

I have been teaching for 42 years. In my studio, sometimes I had as many as 17 kids over two days. My program was first, to have design in every project they did. Secondly, I could bring in nude models twice a year. Although the men weren’t totally nude – they wore a bathing suit–– but the women were totally nude. Because all artists have to learn how to draw nudes.  

I’ve never counted up all the students I’ve had, but I’ve had a lot of them come back to me and say that this was the one time in their life they didn’t have an assignment. They didn’t have a mark. They only had encouragement, and they were seeing an artist working at the same time. So, it’s been wonderful.  

This year, I began to get calls asking if I could teach in the summer because the schools and camps were closed. So, I began to teach morning and afternoon in July, and then in August, only in the morning. I was doing classes in person outside my studio. The tables and easels were all outside my studio. If they came in to get supplies, they had to wear a mask.  I took a week off in September when they started Staples to figure out if they could manage it, and I ended up with four kids until a week before Thanksgiving. It was wonderful. I will hopefully do it again as soon as it’s warm. If I don’t, it’s okay. At my age, I don’t need to do this full time. 

Westport has had great impact on my art.  I met all the artists in town at many democratic functions. I was so young, then. We’d bring over work and they’d sell it and it would help the cause. And I met Tracy Sugarman, Leonard Fisher, and Stanley Bleifeld. They were all about 15 years or so older than me. And they were fabulous. Stanley as a sculptor, got me into sculpting. These three guys were like mentors to me. And I appreciated that they encouraged me. And of course, Tracy Sugarman was very involved with the civil rights movement.  

In the 1960s the civil rights movement was a very, very important part of my life, as was the anti-war movement. Well, I was stuck at home with babies. We had one car. I wasn’t going to march. It wasn’t my thing. I was viewing the world and I was expressing how I felt. I did several paintings of the anti-war movement of suffering soldiers. And I did woodcarvings, not woodcut printing, but the carvings themselves. I did the Birmingham series in 1963. 

I did not have Dr. King in mind when I did the Birmingham Series, I was interpreting the events. The first block was violence to the Blacks, the second block did have Dr. King in mind “what shall we do to react against the violence”-hence the Martin Luther King approach. The third block was ready to fight back, but although I show fists, it is only to reflect ‘fighting back’ because Dr. King was non-violent.

Martin Luther King was going to speak at Temple Israel on May 22nd, 1964, a month and a half after I gave birth to my daughter. Sue Rubinstein, the Rabbi’s wife, called me up, and she said, “I want you to bring over all of the civil rights work that you’ve done. And we’ll put it in the library, and he’s going to have Sabbath dinner here.” I said, “If he wants anything, I’ll send it to him.”  Well, he did. He was thrilled to get the Birmingham carvings. And after he spoke, which was brilliant, Chuck and I went to meet him afterward privately. He invited us down to Atlanta.  

In 1966 we went to Atlanta to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the woodcarvings weren’t there. We were told, “Oh, they’re at the King house. Because Coretta King had come in and said you cannot have one of them in Andrew Young’s office, one of them in Ralph Abernathy’s office and one of them in Martin’s office. They have to be together because together they are powerful.” And they were hung right at the entrance of their home in the foyer. And when we got there, I met Coretta King–that was one of the greatest days of our life.  

I met Dr. King once previously in 1966 when he returned from Chicago feeling down about SNCC–the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee–that  wanted action now.

In 1968 on April 4, when King was assassinated, I was watching TV with the kids. And my son was six, and my daughter four, and I started to cry. And my son said, “Why are you crying mommy?” And I said “Because a great man died today.”  

I’m very lucky. My kids live in Weston. We are connected. I’m very connected with my four granddaughters. And I also have three step grandchildren. I’m lucky. That’s all I could say. It’s true, I had Passover all by myself. But I was able to have Thanksgiving with my daughters and their families. They were all free of COVID so I could do it. I can’t wait to get my shots. When I do my cousin and I are going to meet together because she is about three weeks ahead of me and we haven’t seen each other in a while. I don’t think I’ll go back to indoor swimming. I just don’t think it’s safe still. I’m not happy about it. It’s a risk I don’t need to take. I’ll just keep walking outside. I walk a lot outside.

I’m the first one to tell you that I’m very prejudiced against Trump and had been forever — since he hit the scene. But I feel very optimistic when I hear people like Biden and Kamala Harris, who is so intelligent. They, they have the brain power. Let’s hope that they can get the backing of people to improve life.  

I feel very optimistic when I hear people like Biden and Kamala Harris

I have always been very upset by the suffering of humanity. I thought when I was young that I could really make a difference. I think I have with teaching, probably because it’s very one-on-one. I’m very interested in giving the students confidence. And I know that my art has meant something. But it means something different to every person who sees it.

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Arlene Yolles

Arlene Yolles has lived in Westport since 1979. A retired math teacher, Arlene writes a blog of amusing anecdotes called (A)musings by Arlene at A long-time supporter and volunteer at the Westport Museum, Arlene is also an avid walker and bicyclist who works part time as a math tutor.

“It’s hard to believe we are more than a year into this pandemic. In February, 2020, my husband and I were on a cruise ship from Florida, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Covid-19. A week later, the very same cruise ship was quarantined for 2 weeks with passengers since many of them were infected! A couple of days after we returned we started hearing about it, but it wasn’t critical. Then, of course the whole town began to isolate from March 13, following the schools.   

The biggest change for me, like for most people, is that I’m used to seeing people every day. I am not one to stay in my house. I’m not an early riser but I used to be out of the house by one o’clock and didn’t come back until five. I used to spend a lot of time at the Y—not just for exercise and yoga classes but because there were so many people I spoke to: my Y friends. You get a lot of good advice in the women’s locker room, just standing and talking! I miss the camaraderie.   

I still go out every day for a walk around the neighborhood or I will take my car to Compo and walk around the beach. People are very considerate. When this began, you know, back in March, 2020, if somebody was coming towards me on the sidewalk, I would cross over to the other side. Or if I couldn’t, I would go six feet out into the road where no car was coming. And now I find people are doing that as a matter of course as well as wearing masks. I am grateful for the help and friendliness of our neighbors and people who live in Westport.  

Nothing in my life really prepared me for this because I’ve been fortunate — there have been no dreadful illnesses in my family. Plus, I am not a forward thinker. I like to mull over things in the past rather than think about the future. So, I couldn’t imagine something like this. Did my personal life prepare me for this? Not really, but I think I’m coping well considering that this is totally different from my usual life.   

Everything is a new experience. The good thing is that we’re in touch with everybody from everywhere, it doesn’t matter where the person is, you can be connected online. My background as Math teacher serves me well with computer literacy.  I’m 76 years old and I know a lot of people my age who have trouble with stuff like this but I’ve learned what I need to learn about Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.  

My husband, Marty, knows so much about technology and electronics as an electronics engineer that we’re never at a loss.  We enjoy many cultural activities online from places we used to buy tickets from like the 92nd Street Y and The Music Theater of Connecticut. Lifetime Learners offers us classes. We also take advantage of local theater productions, library programs, and of course the Westport Museum’s activities, all remotely. We’ve attended a virtual Bas Mitzvah, Thanksgiving, a Seder, Sabbath services and, sadly, a funeral.  My Thursday night poker game has gone virtual so that’s something I look forward to each week! 

I’m not tutoring online — it wouldn’t be the same experience and I feel sorry for teachers and parents of school children during the pandemic. Both my daughter and step-daughter are teachers and find this a very challenging time.  A friend of mine teaches pre-school and that’s a nightmare!  How do you teach little ones how to tie their shoes, take care of bathroom activities, etc. without getting close to them?  

I’m personally more afraid of getting sick with COVID than of dying from it.  I have a pretty good immune system. I’m very healthy.  I am a biker and a swimmer and look forward to going back to the Y when I feel it’s safe enough. Maybe after my second vaccination!  My other fear is that people I love may get sick. My hope is that we look at things a little bit differently in the future and realize how much we owe to neighbors, friends, relatives, loved ones. My hope is that we should learn from and keep some of the things we’ve adopted such as being considerate, caring, and helping people who are less fortunate, like elderly or sick people.

 I hear good stories about people helping others but I’m disappointed that the numbers are increasing, although it was predicted with colder weather and schools opening up.  I think Westport is doing well; I see people being responsible, wearing masks and socially distancing.  What I don’t see, however, is what happens in their homes. I fear that here, as well as in cities across our nation, people are exhausted from restrictions and yearn for company (as I do) and invite friends and family into their homes without sufficient caution to not spread the virus.  When I see large crowds on the news – many people not wearing masks – it’s worrisome.

If we are ever faced with another pandemic, I hope we’re better prepared. And I hope that our nation’s leaders prepare us earlier, not say it’s a hoax or it’s not happening. And take a real hard look at how we are set up in our hospitals. It’s easy to say eh we don’t need this, nothing like this has ever happened in 50 years. But when it happens, you need it. And so don’t be so fast to get rid of it. You know? Equipment or a committee or whatever.

We have to take care of ourselves and our planet.  This isn’t the first virus we have encountered and it won’t be the last.  We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow. We all need to pull together to combat such devastating medical emergencies as this and those that will arise.” 

We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.