Amy Brenneman: Social Justice in Her Baby Bottle

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In December, actress Amy Brenneman travelled to two villages in Peru. There was no running water. No electricity. No cars. No glass in the windows. Her surroundings were primitive and a stark contrast to her life in L.A.

Yet she completely related to the women she met there: They were all mothers.

“It was a totally visceral feeling of ‘I am just like you,’” Brenneman says. “We are the same. It’s just luck of the draw and, in that way, it makes me even more excited and empowered for this kind of activism and support because these mothers are just as good as me if not better. They want the same things.”

A few years ago, Brenneman read the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and was inspired to get involved. “Their thesis is that the solution to many of the world’s problems—poverty, human trafficking, violence against women—is the education of women and girls.”

The actress, who recently completed filming the final season of the ABC hit drama Private Practice, travelled to Peru as an ambassador for CARE, to observe its Windows of Opportunity Program. The program focuses on maternal and child health specifically on nutrition for pregnant women and support for breastfeeding.

At the first village, Violeta Velasquez, a mother told Brenneman that her son was six years old and did not speak. “My daughter has some cognitive disabilities and was a very late talker,” Brenneman says. “I just completely related [to this mother] in a very specific way. I said to the doctor, ‘Please let her know my daughter didn’t talk until she was about four.’ This woman you just knew she was a great mom and I just thought, ‘What are the chances that her child is going to get the services that he needs?’ Here in Los Angeles, if your child isn’t talking by two, they’re in speech therapy the next day. Yet at the same time this child is a part of a small village who know him and love him. He will always be looked after. I thought, ‘Wow that’s kind of what you want for your kid to be safe and provided for.’”

Brenneman’s husband, producer and director Brad Silberling and their children, Charlotte, 11, and Bodhi, 7, accompanied her to the second village, Guayacondo. Her daughter and son played with the children of the village for hours. “It was incredible,” she says. “To my kids, these kids were really fun. They didn’t have a common language but the games were recognizable.”

The next day after her son had time to reflect on the experience, he asked his mom why the children’s hands were so dirty. “I said, ‘Bodhi think about all the things you didn’t see. You didn’t see a car, you didn’t see electricity, you didn’t see computers.’ And he hadn’t really thought about it because the kids had been so fun. But it was that moment of, ‘Wow they’re just like me but they don’t have all the stuff.’”

It was important to Brenneman to bring her children with her on the trip. “It was partly the election cycle and all of the language of have and have nots,” she explains. “It was just getting toxic and I thought, ‘Now is the time to have their minds blown.’ I was very very happy with how it went and what they got out of it.”

Activism and social justice were probably in her baby bottle, she says. Her parents instilled in her the belief that individuals can contribute in ways that will have long lasting effects. Her mother, Judge Frederica Brenneman, was part of the first Harvard Law School class to admit women and the second woman appointed to the bench in Connecticut. “In terms of juvenile justice in Connecticut, my mom has helped write the laws that are now in place,” she said. Her dad, environmental lawyer Russell Brenneman, started the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.

When Brenneman was a student at Harvard University, she did a semester abroad in Kathmandu, Nepal. “That was a real game changer for me,” she recalls. “I think unless you’ve spent time in a developing country, it’s just hard to even articulate.”

After college, she was part of the group that founded Cornerstone Theater Company, which brings theater to geographically remote areas and creates a theater production that reflects the community and its issues. Over 25 later, the company is still thriving in Los Angeles. “Cornerstone is really the template for marrying the social justice and the activism work with the juicy stuff and the arts stuff which is my other love,” she says.

The New London, Connecticut native is also involved in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. She suffered from ulcerative colitis and has been extremely open about her disease and how surgery made her healthy again. “There’s a lot of embarrassing parts of this disease,” she says. “I outed myself pretty spontaneously on The View and I was happy to do it. Because it was something that personally affected me, I want to have people know that but I also don’t want to have it be my only thing.”

The 48-year-old has been a life-long supporter of abortion rights and said that advocacy work is the only area where she’s ever received any kind of backlash. Nancy Keenan, the former president of National Abortion Rights Action League, is one of Brenneman’s mentors. “She makes activism really attractive,” Brenneman says. And Keenan has also helped her have a sense of humor about the fact that 40 years after Roe v. Wade, women are still fighting for their right to an abortion. “Nancy said it’s best to think of it never being done so you’re not surprised,” Brenneman says. “Every generation is going to have to reiterate this position . . . Other women did it for me, I’ll do it for my daughter.”

Brenneman plans to continue to work with CARE and hopes to become involved with its program that works in post-traumatic areas. “They work with kids and get their stories out and create pieces of theater for arts therapy,” she explains. “That really interests me partly because self-expression has saved my life. I have feeling that’s going to be my little niche.”