Last month I attended a forum in New Haven that was both thought-provoking and uplifting, despite the often painful realities of urban life that were addressed.
Hosted by the CEIO (Co-creating Effective & Inclusive Organizations) project, the forum was titled “Art Interrupting Injustice” and was attended by a diverse group of people spanning three generations.
The day of performances led by musicians, poets, and playwrights focused on problems facing the city: racism, gun violence, a dysfunctional prison system—really a reflection of the country at large—and invited audience participation and conversation.
Our musician friend Lara Herscovitch of North Guilford kicked off the program with her provocative and heartfelt songs.
Herscovitch is five years shy of being a Baby Boomer, and yet her passion for social justice, for folk music, reflects the ’60s when songs spoke directly to civil rights, workers rights, women’s rights, the Viet Nam War, etc.
We caught up later and talked about how her career today—equal parts professional singer-songwriter and deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance—was shaped by her early years, and why it’s so important to her to attempt to right the wrongs of social injustices through her work, her life.
“My younger years were influenced by classic American folk music,” Herscovitch says. “At home and at summer camp, I was listening to Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary. There was also a massive wave of feminism, including music like ‘Free to Be…You and Me.’”
Throughout her youth she says singer-songwriters were present in her life: James Taylor, Jackson Brown, Elton John, Carol King, Billy Joel, and many more.
“Singer-songwriting and folk music styles always resonated with me,” she says. “I started writing songs when I was eight. It’s how I made sense of the world.”
During high school and college, Herscovitch listened to the wave of female singer-songwriters that included Shawn Colgin, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, and Sarah McLachlan.
“Listening to them, I started to understand that I could really make a positive difference in the world,” she says.
Herscovitch studied political science in college and was on the way to law school when a volunteer gig at a homeless shelter changed the course of hercareer.
“It really made me understand suffering and put everything into a much wider perspective for me,” she recalls. “I realized maybe law wasn’t the perfect path for me.”
She got a degree in social work policy and moved into the field of international development, spending the next five years working around the world for Save the Children, helping disadvantaged communities improve their education systems.
All along she was writing songs.
“It was how I processed the world, but it never occurred to me to do anything about it professionally.”
But then three things happened.
“One—I couldn’t drag a piano overseas, so I started playing a guitar and music always kept me company when I couldn’t go out at night,” she says.
“Two—my mother was diagnosed with MS and I realized life is really short and really fragile, and I didn’t want to leave with any regrets.
“The last thing that happened (in the late 1990s) was my best friend from childhood convinced me to do an open mike,” Herscovitch continues. “I was terrified, but I did it. I knew on every level that I was home and this is what I had to do and I’ve been enjoying every step of the way since that moment.
Herscovitch observes that there’s always been a consistent vein of acoustic music and folk music fans even if it’s not as apparent now as it was in the ‘60s. She notes that a really rich community of modern American folk music is alive and well in Connecticut and across the country.
“I think there’s a wider hunger now for simplicity and authenticity and that may be why Bernie Sanders is resonating with people today,” she says. “I think there’s greater awareness of injustices in our country and our world and less fear to speak up about them.”
She also sees a greater hunger for community, today.
There’s nothing more beautiful in my mind and heart than community through music. I don’t go to temple, church, mosque, I go to music…music and the arts in general have an ability to open people’s hearts and invoke empathy more quickly than drier information delivered can,” she says. “At the core of it all is storytelling, and that we’re all human and share the same hopes and dreams and desires.”
When I asked her if she believes one person, one voice, can make a difference, Herscovitch responded with a resounding “Yes.”
“History tells us we have the ability to change, grow, evolve, adapt. I 100 percent know we can fix what needs fixing. The more people connect to make a positive difference, the quicker and better the change is. And I think leadership today is very democratic. There’s room for everyone at the table. I’ve seen it locally, statewide, and nationally. We have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”
She uses her own work at the Juvenile Justice Alliance as an example.
“In this state we’ve moved all our 16- and 17-year-olds from the adult criminal justice system as a default to the juvenile justice system where they can get the services they need to heal and repair and thrive or succeed. We’re doing a good job keeping kids out of a system who have no business being there.”
Herscovitch is currently at work on a new album she’ll be recording this spring at Dirt Floor Studios in Chester.
The songs, she says, are related to love, about being a misfit, traveling and finding home, finding courage to persist. One of her new songs, “The Bravest Thing,” is about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and inspiring people to reach for love before reaching for hate and fear.
Lara Herscovitch’s music and performance schedule is online at www.laraherscovitch.com
Amy J. Barry is a Baby Boomer, who lives in Stony Creek with her husband and assorted pets. She writes features and reviews for Shore Publishing newspapers and is an expressive arts educator. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.aimwrite-ct.net. Read more My Generation columns online at www.zip06.com.