Green Street Director Loves to Engage the Community in the Arts

Janis Astor del Valle, director of the Green Street Arts Center, says the center’s people, young and old, keep her job interesting. She relies on the help of Wesleyan students to create a invigorating artsy environment at the center.
Posted 12/04/06
Q: When did you come to the Green Street Arts Center?

A: I first came on board in February 2006 as assistant director; then, when the director resigned in March, I became the interim director. I was promoted to director in June.

Q: How did you find out about the GSAC initially? What drew you towards working there?

A: About a year ago, my partner and I became engaged — I lived in the Bronx at that time and she was in Branford. Neither one of us wanted to make our home in New York, so I started job searching in Connecticut. I came across the Green Street job announcement on NY and immediately felt this was the position and place for me! I was drawn to the fact that it’s a project of Wesleyan and a community arts center designed to serve as an anchor for the city’s revitalization efforts. While in grad school, 2001-04, I had worked for the Point, a community arts center in the Bronx that actually served as a type of model for Green Street. But once I graduated, those looming student loans made me panic, and I took a job as a grants manager for a local arts council. After a year and a half there, I discovered I really missed working with children and the community in general. Green Street seemed like the perfect fit.

Q: Where are you from? Where did you grow up and go to college?

A: I’m a Bronx-born Puerto Rican – I don’t like to say Nuyorican, because I’m proud of my Bronx heritage! When I was 7, my family relocated to New Milford, Connecticut, where I lived until age 22. I started out at Western Connecticut State University, and then I took a year off and became a radio announcer for a local “Lite Music” station. I almost got fired for playing Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer and anything by Joni Mitchell. I was forced to stick to the playlist, which included such “hits” as The Carpenters’, Close to You, and Barry Manilow’s Tryin’ to Get the Feelin’ – needless to say, I wasn’t feeling it. So, I fled to New York City, in an attempt to recapture my Puerto Rican roots, and to finish college. I finally graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 1988 with my bachelor’s of arts in theater. I received my MFA in film from Columbia University in 2004.

Q: What is your personal interest in the arts?

A: I am a writer/performer/filmmaker, but most of my experience has been in theater, as a playwright and actor.

Q: What is most exciting to you about working at the GSAC?

A: The people – our students, younger and older, the staff, faculty, Wesleyan student volunteers, the community itself. There’s a wealth of talent here, and they all inspire me on a daily basis. They’re also so incredibly dedicated.

Q: Green Street recently had a “growth spurt.” Can you elaborate?

A: We’ve more than doubled our enrollment in the After School Arts Program since last spring. We now have 53 children, 41 of whom attend five days a week. Adult classes like salsa and belly dancing are so popular that next semester we’re offering intermediate levels of each. Our weekend events – Open Mic, Coffeehouse, In the Limelight and Sunday Salons – have been attracting people of all ages from all over Middletown and beyond. It’s an incredibly exciting time for us.

Q: How do Wesleyan students get involved with Green Street?

A: Wesleyan students are so vital to us, especially to our After School Program. The offer homework help, they serve as teaching assistants, they facilitate free arts activities and are instrumental is helping us improve the program. Wesleyan students are the backbone to our program. They create an invigorating and fun-filled program.

Q: What are your personal goals for the arts center?

A: My penultimate goal is to have something happening in every room here from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. But that’s within five years.

Q: Does Green Street have any upcoming events scheduled?

A: A lot of cool events are coming up in the very near future. On Dec. 8, we are absolutely thrilled to present Wesleyan Vice president for Finance and Admininstration John Meerts and his band, The Remainders, as well as the Wesleyan student group, The High Lonesome. And on Dec. 15, Wesleyan alumna Amy Crawford brings her jazz ensemble to Green Street. On Jan. 20 from noon to 4 p.m. we’re hosting a Free Art Day, where people can check out our facility and get a taste of the some of the classes we’re offering this spring. The complete schedule will be on our Web site by Dec. 15, but in the meantime, I encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more about us to visit
Q: As the director, do you get to mingle with the kids much or are you mostly behind the scenes?

A: Unfortunately, I feel too much like a principal at times, making rounds. I do get to see some of the children’s performances, like the break dancing and tap classes. They’re amazing! I’d like to get involved in all the classes a bit more, even teach a section of creative writing. I started making a kaleidoscope with the art and science kids, but then I got called away for something, I can’t even remember what, and I never got to finish my kaleidoscope! I’m trying to arrange my schedule so that I can cut back on outside meetings and make myself more available to the children. I have started hosting the After School Program’s “Town Meeting” again, which occur every Thursday. That’s a great opportunity for me to check in with the kids, see what’s working for them or what areas of the program may need improvement, maybe go over certain rules that have been forgotten.

It’s also a chance for us to showcase student performances, because, let me tell you, we have quite a lot of little hams here! And rightly so, because they happen to be incredibly talented. In fact, save this date, Thursday, Dec. 21, our Winter Solstice, where we’ll highlight students from our After School and evening/weekend programs.

Q: What goes on in a typical day for you over at GSAC?

A: Meetings, e-mail, phone calls. Meetings, e-mail, phone calls. Meetings, e-mail, phone calls. In the After School Program, it’s a mix of intervention and counseling.

Q: Who are the key people on your staff, and how many volunteers are there?

A: My indefatigable staff: Lex Leifheit, assistant director; Jessica Carso, director of Development and Marketing; Cristina D’Alessandro, financial coordinator/registrar; Shane Grant, facilities coordinator; Rachel Roccoberton, administrative assistant; Cookie Quinones, After School assistant; and, Claudia Foerstal, front desk assistant.

Q: In your opinion, is Green Street a successful endeavor for the North End of Middletown? How is it making a difference for area youth?

A: I believe Green Street is indeed becoming the anchor for revitalization that it was intended to be. Ninety-six units of mixed income rental apartments are going up right next door. And it looks like affordable home ownership is on the horizon, too, as Nehemiah and Broadpark get closer to working out a deal to redevelop a number of properties on Green and Ferry streets. I don’t think either of those projects would have happened if we weren’t here. Not only do we have Wesleyan, and, in particular, President Doug Bennet, to thank for that, but our partners as well: the North End Action Team and the City of Middletown. Together, we are proving that we can and do transform lives through the arts.

Q: What is the energy like there?

A: You can feel it, in the spirit of the neighborhood, the parents, children and families who come through our doors. They’re excited to be here, and engaged in art, whether they’re recording a CD in our sound studio, or making a cross-cultural collage.

Q: What are your hobbies? When is your wedding?

A: I love to write, mostly plays and screenplays, and listen to music – everything from Tito Puente to Joni Mitchell. My significant other, Amy, and I are engaged and planning to wed in June. I have to have a June wedding, I’m corny like that, yo! We live in Branford.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your role at GSAC?

A: I feel incredibly blessed each and every day I come to work. It’s been 11 months, and I’m still pinching myself, making sure this isn’t all a dream because this truly is a dream job. And my staff, faculty and students make the dream a beautiful reality.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor