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Connecting to Culture

Friday, July 10, 2020

Trinity interns build community with music, storytelling, and archiving at the Carver Center

by Jeremy Gerlach

Mai Vo ’22 and David Lonergan ’21 are spending their summer helping build, preserve, and rediscover a vital part of San Antonio’s community.

For more than 75 years, the Carver Community Cultural Center has been a hub for cultural and artistic exchange on San Antonio’s predominantly Black East Side, hosting artists and performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong.  

“This is a beautiful time to be at the Carver Center,” Lonergan says. “We’re at this amazing genesis as an American culture that the Carver Center is right in the middle of, and they’re providing this new perspective to people who might not understand the history of San Antonio’s East Side.”

Vo and Lonergan are both recipients of Trinity’s coveted Arts, Letters, and Enterprise (ALE) internships, which match Tigers with humanities and arts backgrounds to area nonprofits. Thanks to the ALE program’s partnership with USAA, students earn invaluable business experience and are fully paid for their work, while nonprofits get skilled hands for invaluable work that might otherwise be tough to fund.

Mai Vo collage

Vo, for example, is a double major in piano performance and communication with a minor in film studies. She is from Hanoi, Vietnam, and is a Janet S. Dicke Scholar. Vo eventually wants to be a concert pianist for orchestras and a well-rounded performing musician, and she is interested in a career in the performing arts and nonprofits that support the arts.

“Being a concert pianist is my dream, but what’s happening right now [with COVID-19] might threaten that, even in 10 years. So I’m grateful I can explore different options within the music business,” Vo says. “I want to spread my musical voice. I’m from Vietnam, and there aren’t that many Vietnamese pianists out there right now, so I want to be able to represent my country in some way.”

At the Carver Center, Vo is putting her musical talents to work in multiple ways. She’s working on two separate children's storytelling series, including “Carver Story Time” with George Williams Jr., Ph.D., which focuses on telling stories about the Black community and raising awareness through kid-friendly content, and “Cultural Connections,” which tells stories about race, culture diversity, identity, and sexual orientation with local celebrities and dignitaries.

Vo serves as a music producer for these series, even composing her own originals to accompany the stories read by Williams. “I’ve gotten to be very creative this summer,” Vo says. “It’s a learning experience, because I’ve been playing the piano for a long time, but I’ve learned enough now that I can create music, too.”

Lonergan, a Spanish major, is working with the Carver as an archivist to help restore records of famous poets, musicians, and artists that were lost during renovations in the early 2000s. He is also working as a video editor for a project in which local celebrities read books to children over the internet using pre-recorded videos.

In classic liberal arts fashion, Lonergan is picking up a versatile set of skills through learning how to interact with clients, tweaking some graphic design skills, marketing through social media, and diving into video editing. “This is all going to tie beautifully into my archiving project,” he says. 

Recovering this heritage is a process that Lonergan is particularly moved to accomplish.

“I had no clue the Carver Center was originally a church before it was a branch of the San Antonio Public Library,” Lonergan says. “I also had no idea the extent of the famous playwrights, musicians, and artists that came here over the years.”

“We still don’t know the full extent of all the names that have passed through the Carver,” he continues. “But that’s the journey of discovery: We want to find these names as a center. That’s what’s beautiful and amazing to me about archiving. You could be revealing to the world something that only people who have passed away knew about.”

David Lonergan with DFW skyline

Both Vo and Lonergan say they’re thrilled that their ALE internships have connected them to a strong community at the Carver, even at a time of widespread isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re so open and welcoming at the Carver, and it’s been a unique experience,” Vo says. “I feel a sense of connection to them. We have a wellness event every week where we’re all cooking the same recipes or exercising. These little things build a community. My employers have been great working with us on what skills we expect to get out of this internship, giving us more tasks that we want to do.”

“This is a small team,” Lonergan says, “but we're so close-knit that there’s a big sense of community. We meet online, we talk, we plan next steps together. If the sound technician needs help from the stage manager, or the box office manager, we just come together and solve it. It really feels like Mai and I have been accepted into a family in these six weeks we’ve been here.”

Vo and Lonergan say this type of community-building experience is exactly the draw of applying for one of Trinity’s ALE internships.

“If somebody wanted to follow in my footsteps,” Lonergan says, “I’d say go into this type of internship with an open mind, and every expectation removed. The Carver Center has some amazing ideas, and you can be a part of helping them work.”

Vo doesn’t know how her musical future will pan out, but supported by all this creativity at the Carver, she’s glad that she’s getting the chance to workshop some new career paths.

“I’m really lucky to be able to work and use my summer time in a useful way while being away from home,” Vo says. “I’m so glad to be doing something that satisfies my curiosity and allows me to explore different career options. Even though I’m sitting in one place, now I’m really getting the chance to think about how I can help with my music, anywhere in the arts.”