‘Transforming Lives for 30 Years’: Photography exhibit tells the stories of LitNet – theberkshireedge.com

Some people are learners for life.

For those who sign up to work with a tutor at the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet), there might be an end goal in sight, such earning a GED or becoming a U.S. citizen. But for many, including LitNet learner Sylvana Proaño, reaching one goal seems only to reveal the next goal. Proaño has no plans to graduate from tutoring any time soon.

“If I come back and ask for help, they [LitNet] will help,” said Proaño, who has been studying with tutors at LitNet for 20 years. “The staff never asks, ‘Why do you want to have a tutor?’ They never say, ‘That’s your limit, let’s give space to another student.’”

Sylvana Proaño
Sylvana Proaño. Photo courtesy LitNet

Proaño first came to LitNet, an organization with the mission of “transforming the lives of adult learners, both immigrant and U.S.-born, through the power of literacy, education, and advocacy,” to work on her English after moving to the United States from Ecuador in 1996. Then, she stayed on with the organization to receive tutoring for her U.S. citizenship exam as a recipient of the Matthew and Hannah Keator Family Scholarship for New Americans. Now an established citizen who is proficient in English, she still meets with a tutor to work on writing, grammar, and speaking. These days, she is employed by the Pittsfield-based family services organization 18 Degrees and often sends her clients to LitNet. She said she now works on a different level with LitNet, more like a partner than a client.

Proaño describes her evolution with LitNet in a story captured in “Transforming Lives for 30 Years,” a photography and storytelling exhibit that first debuted at LitNet’s summer gala in 2021 and is now touring the county. It will be featured at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield for the month of January and is slated for month-long showings at other venues throughout 2022, including Berkshire Medical Center, Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Berkshire Immigrant Center, 18 Degrees, and the Lenox and Lee libraries. (View the full schedule of exhibits here.) Proaño’s black and white portrait is one of 17 in the show, and she beams warmly at the camera, her black hair textured in a way that only film can capture. There is an undeniable sense of satisfaction in her face that comes along with having worked so hard for something and achieved it.

In a special collaboration with LitNet to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, Stockbridge-based photographer Julie McCarthy took the portraits of LitNet learners, tutors, and leadership. Each individual featured wrote their own story of how their life has been transformed by their work with LitNet, whether they learned English, became literate, or reached their goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. When all portraits are hung together, the exhibit shares a collective story of the transformative nature of literacy.

You can feel the relief in stories such as Bruno China’s, who wept with “joy and happiness” when he finally became a citizen. His immediate family joined him in his portrait — a testament to how one person’s transformation ripples out to touch the lives of their loved ones.

Weiwei’s portrait and story, as featured in the exhibit. Image courtesy LitNet

There’s the understated pride of Maggie Curtin, who learned to read when she was 40 years old after losing her job when the factory where she worked closed. Without LitNet, she may never have been diagnosed with dyslexia nor worked through it. Curtin and her tutor Andrew Pincus are LitNet’s longest-running tutor-learner pair, true learners for life, having worked together for the entire 30 years of the organization’s existence. The fact that some learners have written a story at all is a testament to the transformation they have undergone in their lives.

“Much of my work focuses on people who are often not seen or acknowledged by society,” said McCarthy, whose fine-art photography has been exhibited throughout New England and beyond. “It seemed important to me to show the commitment and hard work of the learners and the dedication of the tutors, to give them a face and a voice.” As a portrait photographer, McCarthy often gets to know her subjects in a fleeting but intimate way. She was “impressed by the motivation and perseverance of the individuals” she photographed.

LitNet Executive LitNet Director Leigh Doherty and Founder Zoe Dalheim at the organization’s 30th anniversary gala, held at Berkshire Botanical Garden in September. Photo courtesy LitNet

“The exhibit of portraits combined with the participants’ stories allows us to see more clearly those around us and gain an understanding of their lives,” McCarthy said. “LitNet is a small organization with a big purpose and huge heart. LitNet and all those involved deserve to be seen and acknowledged and celebrated for their work and accomplishments.”

Jen Glockner, director of cultural development at the Lichtenstein, said that, as a city-owned gallery, the Pittsfield arts center strives “to exhibit what is best and most educational for the community. This exhibit has everything,” she said. “It’s artistic and highlights those who have worked so hard over the past 30 years to make our community a better place.”

The Lichtenstein Center for the Arts is located at 28 Renne Ave. in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “Transforming Lives for 30 Years” will be on display there from January 4–February 1, 2022. The gallery is open to the public Wednesdays–Fridays from 11 a.m.–4 p.m. For more details about the exhibit, contact cultural@pittsfieldch.com or 413-499-9348.

To learn more about LitNet and how to become a volunteer tutor, visit the organization’s website or contact them at info@litnetsb.org or 413-243-0471.

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