Standing strong on Bestor Plaza opposite Smith Memorial Library is the building known as the Colonnade, the bottom lined with shops, with more business on the second floor.
There you will find Alyssa Porter, the new director of youth and family programs, who started work just before the 2019 season opened. In her position, she oversees the work being done at Children’s School, Boys’ and Girls’ Club and the fledgling Club Plus program, among other youth and family programs and initiatives at Chautauqua.
Porter, who graduated from Ursuline College with a bachelor’s degree in English, had worked in the humanities for several years before coming to Chautauqua. Following her graduation, Porter worked at Girl Scout camps and science outreach programs before eventually going back to school for a master’s degree in recreation administration and leisure studies from the University of Toledo.
After realizing her passion for outreach and youth programming, Porter went on to work in the arts education department at the Cleveland School of the Arts in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where she ran after-school programming for seven years.
“Over the course of my career with the school district, I was … doing various arts programming initiatives,” Porter said. “Most recently, I was with the City of Shaker Heights in the recreation department; running park programming, outreach community program development and focusing on multigenerational programs and youth programs.”
After working at length with these schools and communities to integrate arts and literature in a way that was inclusive to all groups, Porter eventually found Chautauqua Institution and fell in love with the values upon which it was built. Porter said she felt a connection to the sense of community Chautauqua offers.
“Something that I’m passionate about is figuring out how community organizations can break down barriers to make sure that we’re reaching our most at-risk or disenfranchised populations,” Porter said. “I believe that the power of communities is found within our community organizations and our cultural institutions; within our recreation venues, our parks, our green spaces, places that bring people together, for community building. I also believe that we cannot reach the full potential of those assets without having as many voices as possible at the table.”
Going forward, Porter wants to create an inclusive space for all people to build a stronger community within Chautauqua. Porter said she would like to include inclusivity training and in-services for seasonal and year-round employees, specifically ones working in youth programming.
“What’s important to me when we think about including people who may not have a very large voice here in the community, the first thing that I believe that we need to do is ensure that we are creating spaces that are safe for all people,” Porter said.
Porter also hopes to increase involvement of families from neighboring communities in Institution programming. Recognizing and finding ways to accommodate parents’ work schedules, she said, is an important place to start.
“When we talk about breaking down barriers for people to be able to access our programs, some of it comes down to really looking at the logistics (of) a working parent who’s here in the county year-round: What does it mean to take my child to a program that begins at 9 a.m.?” Porter said. “Is there something that we can do to adjust times, or add additional supports or additional resources, to be able to better support those families?”
Supporting those families, Porter said, means considering: “How do we start to break down transportation barriers?” It also means looking at financial resources, “to be able to support families who may or may not be able to pay the cost of enrollment in our programs,” she said.
“We do have scholarship programs already here on the grounds for our youth programs, but what we may need to look at there is how people are receiving information about those scholarship programs,” Porter said.
For Porter, the answers to these questions are in a grassroots movement of building relationships with communities, one that will encourage people to join the conversation and reach out for information. She said that programs such as Chautauqua Opera Company’s Opera Invasions and collaborations with Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center are integral to building bonds with students and families.
Building community between the Institution and the region will be conducive to bringing in more families to Institution programming, Porter said. She believes having these integrated programs will foster a sense of belonging, when students can recognize different people from the Institution, and will break down barriers — real or perceived — to the Institution.
At the root of Porter’s push is a love for Chautauquans and Institution staff. She understands the power of people coming together, and with her sights set on the future, she’s mindful of the past, and the integral aspects that have made Chautauqua, Chautauqua.
“From what I’ve seen, this love for Chautauqua is a connection — connections that they have been able to make here over the years or within the first couple of days,” Porter said. “I believe that one of Chautauqua’s main assets is our people. You really see that in the way that people develop relationships year after year. My daughter is here with me this summer and every day when she goes out to the plaza, she’s making a new friend; I love that we have an environment where that is still possible for kids and people. As we become more and more disconnected as a society, that becomes more important.”