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Greenfield aims to lift Harriet Beecher Stowe Center's national profile

BY Sean Teehan

8/20/2018
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
Briann Greenfield is the new executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, which celebrates the life and work of Stowe, an author and abolitionist.

Briann Greenfield

Position: Executive Director, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center


City of residence: New Britain


Highest level of education:  Ph.D. in American Studies, Brown University, 2002


Executive philosophy:  "I’m a learner, and a problem-solver. So my management principle is as long as you take the time and invest, most things can be overcome."

Leaving a tenured teaching position at a state university system to work for a nonprofit museum isn't the most common of life choices. Then again, neither is living for seven years in an un-heated house that predates the Revolutionary War by nearly a century.

Briann Greenfield, the new executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, has done both.

"I wasn't interested so much in writing a second book, sitting in the archives by myself," said Greenfield, who prior to starting her executive director role in June was a history professor at Central Connecticut State University. "I wanted to work with a team, and work with a community."

The Stowe Center — named after the abolitionist author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," who used to live in the house on Forest Street in Hartford — operates under the principle that got Greenfield interested history: the past is an invaluable tool to understand the present. As its new leader, Greenfield is working to establish the nonprofit as a national cultural center known outside of museum and academic circles.

She replaces Katherine Kane, who retired as executive director last spring after two decades in the role.

Greenfield's interest in history started when she was a high school student living in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. The rural town has its own historic superlative: it's the birthplace of H.H. Holmes, America's first documented serial killer.

But it was an AP European history class she took that led her to major in history at the University of New Hampshire, followed by a master's degree in American civilization and museum studies and Ph.D. in American studies from Brown University.

While earning her doctorate, Greenfield learned the nonprofit Historic New England was looking for a resident overseer for the Eleazer Arnold House, a 325-year-old historic home in Lincoln, R.I. Cheap rent was a motivating factor for her seven-year stay there, Greenfield said, but it was far from a luxurious arrangement.

"I always say it's not like quaint New England, it's like primitive New England," Greenfield said of the house. "Fireplaces I could walk in without ducking, really cold; you can only get like a 30-degree (temperature) differential between the outside and the inside."

But it also gave her frontline experience managing a historic house, responding to inquiries and giving tours during their monthly open houses (or whenever tourists just stopped by).

After receiving her degree, Greenfield took a more comfortable job, a tenure-track position at Central Connecticut State University as a history professor. She remained there for 13 years teaching and authoring a book, "Out of the Attic: The Invention of Antiques in 20th Century New England."

While a tenured teaching job is among the most desirable positions a history major can hope for, the seemingly inward focus of academia felt a bit stifling to Greenfield.

"I really wanted to have a more public-facing frontline challenge," Greenfield said.

She joined the boards of several historical organizations in the area, including Connecticut Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2014, she took a job as executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, where she organized and promoted events and organizations that focus on things like history, literature and cultural studies.

Strategic focus

Greenfield had no intention to return to Connecticut, until the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center began a national search for a new leader.

Susan Johnson, chair of the Stowe Center's board of trustees, said the nonprofit conducted a national search that yielded plenty of great candidates.

Greenfield stood out because of her experience in museums, academics and running a nonprofit humanities organization, said Johnson, who is the chief diversity and inclusion officer at The Hartford.

The Center, which recorded $1.9 million in revenue and a $533,937 margin in 2016, is well-known nationwide in the museum world, Greenfield said, but her goal is to broaden its reach.

That's in line with the board of trustees' nearly complete strategic plan, which largely focuses on keeping the Stowe Center relevant, and broadening its appeal to a national audience.

"We absolutely are trying to increase and enhance our brand," Johnson said. "It is important, and part of our strategy."

The nonprofit's mission, Greenfield added, is to serve as a historic organization that uses the past to illuminate modern-day social-justice issues.

Her first act to carry on and expand that tradition was to make the Center's "Stowe Prize" an annual event, rather than holding it every other year. The prize is awarded to students who work to promote social justice in the vain of Stowe, as well as a nationally known writer who spotlights injustices.

Past Stowe Prize winners include writer Ta Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson, author of "Just Mercy: A Story of Love and Redemption." This year, the prize goes to Matthew Desmond, whose 2016 bestseller, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" explores poverty and economic exploitation.

"We pick an author who has the potential for broad and popular appeal, very honestly," Greenfield said, adding that the every-other-year timeframe sometimes led to missing a rising star.

The Stowe Center also just started a new house tour that focuses less on antiques and artifacts, and more on what motivated Stowe, a white woman from Connecticut, to become a central figure in the movement to abolish slavery, Greenfield said.

Knowledge gleaned from that kind of reading of history is what Greenfield thinks is important to share with the public.

"The past, for me, teaches us that the world that we live in is not … the creation of uncontrollable, unspoken forces," Greenfield said. "History shows us that we live in a world that's created by humans, by our own decisions; and what that does is gives us the power to change those decisions."

Check out a video clip of Briann Greenfield's interview at hartfordbusiness.com.