Amy Brenneman is best known for her TV roles on Private Practice, NYPD Blue and Judging Amy, which was based on her real life mother, who was a state superior court judge in Connecticut. As the wife and mom of two, daughter, Charlotte, and son, Bodhi, Brenneman is heavily involved in her children’s school, CHIME. She favors its unique approach to education by blending together typical kids, like Bodhi, and kids with disabilities, like daughter, Charlotte, who has cognitive challenges. In recent years, the actress has hosted, along with actor Benjamin Bratt, the fundraiser CHIMEapalooza, and has traveled as an ambassador for CARE, the humanitarian organization devoted to fighting poverty. Brenneman recently spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan.
Chet Cooper: We had a meeting recently with the conference producers of ABILITIESme happening in the United Arab Emirates. They are working with their department of education to better intergrate children with disabilities—and I mentioned CHIME.
Amy Brenneman: We actually just got a grant to develop a three-day curriculum so that people from other schools can come; one day they’ll observe a classroom, and the next day there will be seminars. The whole thing will give professional support to people who want to be inclusive, but don’t know how. It’s going to happen in the spring and, hopefully by the fall, we’ll have people come through four or five times a year. Erin Studer, CHIME’s executive director and principal, got me involved. I think I was one of the only parents to be in on the planning; it was mostly educators asking, “If you had to boil down inclusion into three two-hour seminars, what would it look like?” It was a super-cool process.
Lia Martirosyan: How did you connect with CHIME?
Brenneman: My daughter has cognitive academic special needs. I got an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for her when she was three. Back then we were in another school for a couple years, waiting to see if it was going to do it, and it immediately became clear that it was the wrong fit. But there were very few options. I actually heard about CHIME around that time, because one of the first grade teacher’s kids went to the same preschool as Charlotte. So CHIME had been on my mind. And then I saw it and immediately knew that it would be a great fit for my daughter. We’ve been there for four years. So she’s in fifth grade, and my son is in second.
Cooper: It’s great that both your kids can attend the same school. What grade level does CHIME go up to?
Brenneman: Eighth. There’s a big push to start a high school.
Cooper: How’s that campaign coming along?
Brenneman: I’m sure it will happen. Erin is very committed to it. High schools have some different, yet similar requirements. It’ll be the same sort of philosophy of project-based, accessible curriculums. A lot of the mechanics would be the same, scaffolding the academics…
Martirosyan: How does “scaffolding” work?
Brenneman: I believe scaffolding is the word they use to mean: How is this particular learner going to access this particular curriculum? The concept is to make the lessons accessible to kids with different abilities. Like right now, in fifth grade, they’re doing the Revolutionary War, and the class is reading Johnny Tremain. My daughter has an adapted version of the novel that’s better—so she can access the plot and participate in class discussions; the language is more simplified.
Cooper: I like the term “scaffolding”; it conjures up images of building around a certain issue, and then assuring everyone access to it. How did you get involved in TASH [an advocacy organization that promotes full inclusion of people with significant disabilities into their communities]?
Brenneman: Through Amy Hanreddy, who is on the California-TASH board. When we first came to CHIME, Amy was the assistant principal, and she’s an enormously important person to me. She asks me to do things and I do them, because they always turn out well.
Cooper: I was surprised to see you do that song-and-dance number at the TASH event in November.
Brenneman: Because of that conference, I got to meet Eva Sweeney, who is now a rock star to me. [Sweeney is a gender-studies scholar with cerebral palsy.] I feel like I meet so many amazing people. Comedian Allison Cameron Gray, a buddy of mine, is going to be part of the next CHIMEapalooza.
Cooper: Are you going to bring in those Pittsburgh tap dancers; the ones who do that Riverdance-style performance?
Brenneman: I know—it’s like Irish step dance.
Cooper: Isn’t that Riverdance troupe an Irish group?
Brenneman: Isn’t tap dancing like Fred Astaire?
Brenneman: Yeah. Riverdance is that weird, straight-arm, step-dancing thing.
Cooper: And there are three rivers in Pittsburgh, so maybe that’s where they picked up the name.
Tell me about your recent CHIMEapalooza event?
Brenneman: It was for the CHIME Institute, not just for the elementary school. Lots of people in our elementary school would say, “What is the institute?” because they didn’t come up through the infant-toddler or pre-school levels. CHIME Institute oversees infant-toddler, preschool and teacher training. So part of why I took over the fundraiser is I thought: I want to connect the charter school to this bigger mission. If you get there and your kid doesn’t have an IEP, and you just know it’s a great school, you wouldn’t even know how cool the school really is. Although everybody senses there’s something really special about this place, and about the care that the teachers take. When you dig deeper you realize why. It has to do with seeing each kid as an individual, and individualizing the curriculum.
Before CHIMEapalooza, Benjamin and I did this small fundraiser, and I kept thinking, This does not feel like our community. Our community is funky and wild and eclectic. So I had this vision for a night that was funky and wild and eclectic. It was a great success last year, both in terms of money raised, inclusivity and how fun it was. It’s not politically correct, “Those poor kids.” It’s really, “This is why this community feels so great.”
Cooper: So the second one was at CSUN (California State University, Northridge).
Brenneman: Benjamin and I wrote it and we included my friend Tim Daly and Lorraine Toussaint—and some performers with disabilities into it. Allison Cameron Gray did some of her stand-up; she’s amazing.
Cooper: CHIME is affiliated with CSUN; do you attend the CSUN technology conference?
Cooper: Do you know about it?
Brenneman: I do.
Cooper: Then you probably know that it deals with different issues relating to accessibility and technology. Some of the products demonstrated during the conference are life-changing.
Brenneman: How cool.
Martirosyan: Aside from your TV show and your fundraiser, what else have you been up to?
Brenneman: In December, I went to this little town in Peru with CARE; I’ve started to do some traveling for them. The program I was looking at had to do with nutrition for pregnant moms and kids. I was with this really wonderful man who’s a pediatrician in Lima, works with CARE and was my translator.
I was really struck by this one kid there. His mom came up to me; she spoke a Peruvian language and she said to this doctor, “Can you help me? My son is six years old and he doesn’t speak.” My little ears just perked right up. I said, “Tell her my daughter didn’t really talk till she was four.” And I thought, wow, what are the chances of this kid getting what he needs? But at the same time this boy is part of a town of 123 people, where he’s loved and belongs.
Cooper: Did he sign?
Brenneman: No. I think there was something ‘spectrum-y’ about him, but he wasn’t totally shut down. I thought, okay, my daughter didn’t speak at two and they said, “Get her into speech therapy,” the next day she was in speech therapy. In LA, though, we have resources. When you do international developmental work, you realize that first you need clean water and sanitation and then, if a person has a special concern on top of that, you try to deal with it.
Cooper: Was this CARE part of the woman empowerment portion of the program?
Brenneman: It was basically—I want to go. I brought my kids. They wanted to send us to Africa and I thought, I don’t know if I want to go all the way to Africa. But logistically, Peru is a very easy trip. It was a program called Windows of Opportunity, which is mostly nutrition for these villages that are pretty remote. It involves a well-baby checkup; everything we would do at a pediatrician’s office.
Cooper: It’s good that they’re doing that. One challenge is follow-up. Often times there’s such a need, we’ve done stories on the Mercy Ships, where people literally walk for days to be seen by a doctor. The lines are so long sometimes they can’t be seen. Then they have to go back home and the ship doesn’t return for another year, if it comes back at all.
Brenneman: That’s right. But I think what CARE really wants to do is train local people. That’s the only way it’s going to have any legs to stand on.
Cooper: The Mercy Ships are looking to do that, too. They do try to bring other local health care facilitators onto the ship to learn, but the equipment can present challenges.
Brenneman: I’m sure.
Martirosyan: What are you working on creatively, these days?
Brenneman: I pitched a movie to Showtime the other day. My friend, Rodrigo Garcia and I had an idea about a year ago about a mother of a pretty seriously disabled kid. And whenever I pitch the script, it’s sort of like we have to pretend there’s no CHIME. We’re making the kid about five, so they’re sort of coming out of that cocoon of adjusting and meeting the Eva Sweeneys of the world. People might think, who would want a disability? Nobody, right? And then, okay, but what is this CHIME-like community? And look at how vibrant and life affirming it is for everybody. Because it’s about authenticity, acceptance and communication—all this stuff that’s interesting.
We were talking about casting. So Gail Williamson, of Down Syndrome in Arts & Media and Rodrigo knew each other from somewhere else. It was interesting, because Rodrigo is just an amazing storyteller, but he doesn’t know of this disability world at all, so I’ve been sort of leading him along and we had this great meeting with Amy Hanreddy. And at the end she said, “What’s really cool is, you could cast a doctor with a disability.” Rodrigo got really nervous. I was like, “It’s okay!”
We talked about it later, and we’re not there yet, but I said, “Hypothetically, what is it about that idea that makes you nervous?” And he said, “I have to direct.” It just is a new thing for him.
There’s this parallel to this in the piece that I put together for CHIMEapalooza 2013. It’s a piece about Brown v. Board of Education, which integrated the nation’s schools in 1955, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. They said, “It’ll never work, it’ll be disruptive.” And then it actually worked out.
Cooper: But sometimes when you look at history, it doesn’t work so well, like giving women the right to vote.
Brenneman: That’s right; it was a terrible idea!
Martirosyan: That’s why I love watching Jon Stewart. He grabs a lot of footage from things people have said in the past and then uses it to comment on current events to show how hypocritical they are.
Brenneman: I said to my husband the other day, “Who else does this?” He was doing a segment on the head of the NRA, and he was saying, “We can’t make any changes,” and then Jon Stewart said, “The basic idea that’s gaining traction is a much better ID system,” and then they found that same guy 15 years ago saying, “Well, basically, if there’s a better ID system…” He literally said that. It’s on film.
Martirosyan: I always think of how incredible Stewart’s team is. They find all this archival stuff, and sometimes within very tight time windows. I don’t know why politicians don’t do it. Are you politically involved?
Brenneman: I am and recently I got really involved with Prop 30 [which increased some taxes that were allocated to education], too, because I thought, man, CHIME is going to go down the tubes. I went down to this empowerment center in Inglewood and made phone calls. I was so freaked out.
Cooper: Have you become more of an advocate since becoming a mom, or have you always been that way?
Brenneman: I’ve always spouted off. (laughs) I’m obviously very opinionated. The vast majority of my friends in the circles that I run in send their kids to private schools. And I would have, too. But I grew up in the public school system and then you have a kid with an IEP, and actually by law the public schools should service kids with IEPs. Now we find ourselves in this public school that we dearly love. The fact that California is 47th out of 50 states in what we spend per pupil is sick. It’s really sick—how about putting some money in to it?
I had the radio on this morning and heard, “The Pentagon may have a couple more furlough days because of these trigger cuts,” and I thought, “Good.” (laughs) I mean, I feel bad for those people, but they’ve had it pretty good for a long time, so okay, a furlough day or two.
Martirosyan: How did you first get into acting?
Brenneman: I started doing plays when I was in seventh grade and I never stopped.
Cooper: Spouting off?
Brenneman: Spouting off. CHIME had a wonderful woman who’s still a good friend of mine who ran this theater program in Connecticut, the town I grew up in. It was very, you know, 70s, so it was all about self-expression. I vaguely knew there was this profession called acting, although every time I’d bring it up to my parents, they were like, “No. That doesn’t exist.” So there wasn’t anything pre-professional about it, but it was all about self-expression and community. I just loved it. But when I went to college, I didn’t major in acting, I majored in religion.
Cooper: Where did you go to school?
Cooper: Where’s that?
Brenneman: (laughs) Cambridge, MA. I was into Hindu stuff. Then I lived in Kathmandu and ended up getting into Tibetan stuff. But then, while we were there, we started a company.
Martirosyan: You started a theater company in Kathmandu?
Brenneman: No, sorry! (laughs) That would have been awesome! Right out of college we started a theater company that was community-based and we would create theater around our concerns. I’m always circling the same bunch of interests.
Cooper: And what are your major interests? It wasn’t disability back then.
Brenneman: It’s really community-based theater, self-expression. What I did for CHIMEapalooza is put out a call for people to submit stories to the CHIME community on the subject of school or inclusivity. My favorite thing is when people offer their stories. Then, as a theater artist, I shape them into an experience for an audience. It’s all about the stories.
Martirosyan: CHIME is a great story. How many students does it accept? Is there a limit?
Brenneman: Yeah, there’s a waiting list. People drive in from 40 zip codes. It’s crazy. There’s nothing like it, really. There’s a school called WISH in Santa Monica; it’s sort of a sister school. CHIME has a methodology for doing this thing. You can have inclusivity if you happen to have a really cool principal who’s interested in it. But back to your point: There are usually about four applicants for every slot. And then CHIMEapalooza was such a success and Ben and I did publicity around it. Then it jumped up to eight applicants for every slot! It’s not like we have any more space!
So I said to the principal, “I feel really bad!”
Cooper: Oh, no! Unintended consequences.
Cooper: You’re really a mean person!
Brenneman: (laughs) I’m a terrible person. But you know, really what we hope to do and I think professional development will help, is it to make it look better. Our campus is just so ghetto.
Cooper: It looks like a public school.
Brenneman: It just looks like crap and I became beautification queen, I asked, “What’s our budget?” And it was nothing. We have no money.
Martirosyan: And yet you have a waiting list.
Brenneman: (laughs) The school looks a little better now. But also, where we put our resources is in staff. First of all, there are about 20 kids per class and in that classroom is a general education teacher, a special ed teacher, who usually has three different classes, but they’re present, and then up to two or three paraprofessionals for kids who may need support in different areas. That’s a lot. That makes the model appeal to everybody, because who doesn’t want to have small classrooms and more teachers? So our field looks like crap, but we have really happy kids.
Cooper: I’ve been there twice. It doesn’t look like a private school. But it’s a good feel.
Brenneman: Yes. People walk around and there are these mini-classrooms especially for younger kids, and outside the classrooms will be a little trampoline. It’s for kids who have a hard time sitting. “Okay, she needs to jump.” There are accommodations. I teach a class there; I’m going to teach this afternoon.
Cooper: What are you teaching?
Brenneman: It’s called playmaking. It’s basically generating material for theater. There’s a guy who does traditional plays with the kids, like The Wizard of Oz or whatever. The stuff that I love is creating characters and all the different elements of a performance. So we do movement, physical stuff and I’m teaching them vocal warm-up.
Last week was really wonderful. They wrote more autobiographically, which they were shy about at first. We were doing a warm-up, we’re on the floor—and we have two nonverbal kids, so they do the warm-up in their own way. But there was this one kid that I didn’t really identify with any particular disability and he was walking around, eating snacks. I thought, okay, can you sit down and do the warm-up? That’s when I realized that I didn’t know what his diagnosis was. Maybe he’s got a diffcult time sitting down. My heart just kind of opened up. As long as you’re not being disruptive, which he wasn’t, I think CHIME just gives you a little bit more slack, especially with an after-school program where they’re coming off of a big full day.
Cooper: Did the kid engage eventually?
Brenneman: Oh, yeah. He’s a fantastic kid. With nonverbal kids it’s always awesome to figure out how they can communicate. One kid I know very well, so I know when he’s engaged. One kid I don’t know as well.
Cooper: Do they have augmented devices to speak with?
Brenneman: They do. One of them has a really wonderful aide, Sonya, who has really become part of the class; and the other, his aides come and go, so he hasn’t been quite as consistent. I love it, because I love self-expression. First of all, it’s a jewel. Something gets offered up.
I’ve wanted to teach this class for a while. I love creating a safe space for the kids. Last week, they started talking about bullying.
Cooper: What are their views on bullying?
Brenneman: As an example, this girl said there were some girls on the playground who wouldn’t play with her. Honestly, between you and me, I feel like kids use the term “bullying” as sort of a catch-all.
Martirosyan: What does a parent have to do to get their child an IEP?
Brenneman: If there are any concerns that the child might need special accommodations, state law dictates that the school has to provide speech and occupational therapy. As well as adapt the curriculums to the students. There are these goals that my daughter has — we sign off on it and it’s a government document.
Cooper: I often hear from parents about the struggle they have with different schools to update and evaluate. Have you experienced anything like this?
Brenneman: When my daughter was three, we got her an IEP in the brave new world of special ed. I was so ill-equipped and there were two different days of evaluations. The first day she was miserable and had this epic tantrum, it was so embarrassing. And then the second time she was evaluated, she was delightful. A friend of mine said: “You want the kid to freak out on evaluation day, because then you get more services. You get behavioral, you get this, you get that.” My friend went on: “I deprive my kids of naps and food before their IEP.” (laughs)
CHIME has a wonderful speech therapist. By law, your child is going to get an hour a week, but it’s just not enough. Right now, Charlotte’s terrible with her sense of time. She’ll say something’s going to happen tomorrow, even if it’s any time in the future; it could be a month from now or next year. So that’s been a goal: drill down on her language. Her speech person knows that; her teachers know that. Honestly, though, it does come down to the parent. I can’t even tell you how many times we’re like: “Where’s the person who’s supposed to be running this show? Oh, it’s me!” (laughs) I’m the mother.
Martirosyan: It’s really tough on parents.
Brenneman: One of our founders has a son with a pretty severe disability; she wrote something called, IEPs for All.
Martirosyan: At the end of your class at CHIME, will there be a performance?
Brenneman: A small one. The co-teacher and I love this process. The kids ask, “Are we going to do a play?” I say, “No, we’re not going to do a play! Everybody does plays!” And at the end I looked at the co-teacher and said, “They really want a performance.” (laughs) So I think we’ll show parents, or whoever wants to come, the kinds of things we do. It’s really important for us, especially in this product-goal-oriented moment we find ourselves in, to go, “We’re not going to have costumes, but we’re going to do something.” I’m actually going to look through their writing and start crafting a little production. You should come.