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Brenda Berkman Visits Pingree

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Brenda Berkman Visits Pingree

Nicole Capozzi, Arts & Life Editor

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On October 31, a fascinating woman named Brenda Berkman will be coming to Pingree to speak to the community.  Berkman was one of the first female firefighters in New York City, after opening a lawsuit against an unfair physical test which seemed to have been designed specifically to keep women out of the force.  It was around 1977 when Berkman took and failed the discriminatory test, and it wasn’t until 1982 that a new test had been developed.  Berkman took the new test when it was completed, and she was one of 40 women in New York City that became the city’s first female firefighters.During the fight for a fairer test, Berkman had to swear an oath that she would give up her current career plan, which was to go into law, because it was thought that she may only be fighting the physical test as a publicity stunt, but Berkman proved her intentions and was able to join the force.  

However, even after Brenda Berkman became a firefighter, her struggles as a woman on the force continued.  She described that there was harassment and even anonymous death threats toward her because she joined the force, and she didn’t always feel like some of the men had her back when they went into dangerous situations.  Berkman knew she was capable of success as a firefighter, though, so she didn’t give up on being a firefighter despite the struggles she faced.

In 1996-1997, Brenda Berkman served as a White House Fellow, which made her the first professional firefighter to ever receive the fellowship and demonstrated her capabilities and importance to the future of her field.

In 2001, as a firefighter in New York City, Berkman was involved with the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Although Berkman had taken the day of 9/11 off, when she heard of the attack she and other off-duty Brooklyn firefighters raced to the scene to help.  Berkman not only lost close friends and colleagues to the catastrophe, but she was also upset to see that many accounts of the day focused only on the firemen and policemen, with not as much acknowledgement of the first responders, some of whom also lost their lives to the attack.  Berkman also felt that the heroism of many female officers, firemen, and first responders were not given the proper credit for their actions, and instead, women were talked about in only the more traditional roles as widows or nurses.

Brenda Berkman retired with the rank of captain in 2006, and she began leading tours at the 9/11 Tribute Center, which tries to employ people involved in the tragedy so personal stories can be shared in tours to better convey the emotions of the day to visitors of the center.  Now, she is an artist and remains an advocate of gender equality, at one time saying “I think that girls and young women should know that while it may not always be easy, it’s valuable to not take no for an answer. It helps open the doors to others in the future, and it not only helps women and girls to have these stereotypes broken down—it helps boys and men too. Nobody, whether you’re a boy or girl, should be forced into a box just because you happen to be born one gender or the other.”

 With her printmaking, Berkman chronicles environmental and social issues and strives to keep alive the memory of 9/11 with her work.  She also hopes that women will continue to join the force as firefighters, as she believes women have plenty to offer to the field.  As of September of 2016, only 0.5% of the firefighters in New York were female, an extremely low number considering there were 10,500 firefighters in New York when the data was gathered.  However, it is inspiring to know that progress has been made in the force, and Berkman has provided an excellent example for future female firefighters, demonstrating that anything is possible if a person works hard to achieve their goals.

Berkman has left behind an inspiring legacy in both the field of firefighting and in art, bringing awareness to all sorts of important issues, from human-caused tragedies like oil spills to the natural disasters like the tsunami in Japan in 2011.  Berkman also found a way to deal with her own scars from 9/11 through expression in her art, helping both herself and hoping to help others cope with the attack.  Brenda Berkman also hoped to honor those who served and those who lost their lives on 9/11 through her many projects related to the catastrophe, even bringing together other artists to make a collection about different people’s perspectives from their experiences on 9/11.

One of Berkman’s projects about the 9/11 tragedy is titled “Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center.”  Inspired by other artists that had chronicled cultural and architectural icons in the past, Brenda Berkman created prints about the building of the new World Trade Center building.  She began the project in 2013, with her first print in the series being her self-portrait standing over the site of the World Trade Center.  The last print in the series was finished three years later, and it is the only print done in color.  The goal of the project was to show the new World Trade Center from many different perspectives, which includes views of the trade center from New Jersey and the five boroughs of New York City.  Also, some of the images are of the trade center in all four seasons, with added details of animals or trees that reference Berkman’s inspiration from French and Japanese artists.

Brenda Berkman is sure to give an amazing talk at Pingree, and for anyone who would like to learn more about this astounding woman’s experiences, she was the subject matter of a PBS documentary called Taking The Heat, which chronicles her trials and tribulations in more detail.  The documentary was released in 2006 and is available on Youtube.

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Brenda Berkman Visits Pingree