Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Writing for Social Change Project

Stonecoast and the University of Southern Maine are dedicated to working with individuals, groups, and nonprofit organizations to bring about social change needed in areas of race, gender, class, and environment. Through the power of the written word, Stonecoast has and continues to facilitate social change by bringing people together to confront inequality and discrimination while promoting acts of unification.

The goal of the Writing for Social Change project is to create opportunities for the Stonecoast community to use their passion and skills in writing and reading to create social change locally and globally by:

  • Collecting and sharing our stories about empowering the vulnerable members of our communities
  • Sharing resources for getting involved with writing-related social change activism
  • Deepening the commitment to writing for social change in the MFA curriculum by offering ongoing residency seminars, workshops, and readings, facilitating third semester projects and internships for social change, and preparing writers for careers with underserved communities

Stonecoast and members of the Stonecoast Community are already making an impact on the world around them.

Stonecoast has partnered with organizations and coordinated events in support of social change issues: 

-In partnership with The Maine Freedom Trails, Stonecoast helped to present Weaving History and Literature: The African American Oral and Written Tradition, the opening event of the 1st Anniversary of the Portland Freedom Trail.

-With the local chapter of the NAACP and USM’s Gender studies program, Stonecoast co-organized a Women’s History Month program that was held for female inmates at the Maine Correctional Center. The program included poetry readings by a Stonecoast alum and inmates from the Center.

Stonecoast Community members are also participating in initiatives to affect social change: 

Sheila Boneham, alum: For the past twenty years, I have used my own writing and my time to promote humane education. Most visibly, I have written 20 books and hundreds of articles teaching about responsible pet ownership. Some of my work at Stonecoast, including my third semester project, has been in this vein. I have also volunteered in schools (mainly) with my certified therapy dogs to heighten children's (and teachers'/parents') sensitivity to the needs and feelings of animals. As part of my visits, I have often had students write; in other cases, I have provided materials for teachers to use before and after my visits. The goal is to sow seeds of kindness, compassion, and respect for animals and people allike. I have developed my own writing prompts to this end, and have also used materials offered by the American Humane Association (which advocates against cruelty to children as well as animals) and by the American Kennel Club. The links between abuse of animals and abuse of people, and alternatively the links between compassion in either context, are well-established, and I believe that helping people, particularly children, empathize with animals through writing, reading, and other activities, helps us all. For more information about Sheila's writing, visit www.sheilaboneham.com or www.rescuematters.com.

Reza Jalali (alum) came to Maine as an exile from Iran with a long history of advocacy. He began work for Amnesty International in the 1980’s after becoming a political refugee, and eventually was elected a member of the national board.  Once in Maine, he served as the program coordinator for multicultural student affairs at Lewiston-Auburn College, and has worked with USM over the past decade in various positions, including a position with office of service learning and civic engagement. In 2008, Reza collaborated with USM’s Women and Gender Studies program and Stonecoast to host the event, “Breaking the Silence: Feminism in Modern Iranian Poetry.” Through this event, and much of Reza’s work, he aims to educate on the similarities between Western and Iranian cultures. For more information about Jalali and his work with the University of Southern Maine visit http://usmfreepress.org/2008/03/10/iranian-in-exile-makes-usm-home/.

Linda Kobert, student: I share my love of scribbling words on paper with homeless people in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a volunteer with PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry), a seasonal emergency homeless shelter,I strive to help less fortunate individuals find their voice and tell their stories. This is a one-woman grassroots effort. I set up shop in the dining room of the local day shelter every Thursday morning, bringing notebooks, pens, and a box of writing prompts, and invite whoever happens to be there to sit and write with me. It’s never a consistent group—homeless people are, by definition, transient. But after showing up every week for more than a year and a half, people have come to know what I’m about, and some have started to look forward to writing. I do this because I think it matters. It makes a difference when people can express themselves, when they have the chance to tell the world their story. I think this is especially true for homeless people, and I want to give these folks that chance.

Ellen Meeropol, alum: For the past decade, I’ve been leading writing workshops for children, adolescent and adult beneficiaries of the Rosenberg Fund for Children at their summer Gatherings. The RFC is a non-profit foundation that makes grants to aid children in the U.S. whose parents are targeted progressive activists, and to youth who themselves have been targeted as a result of their progressive activities. (RFC beneficiaries’ activism includes struggles to preserve civil liberties, wage peace, safeguard the environment, combat racism and homophobia, and organize on behalf of workers, prisoners, immigrants and others whose human rights are under threat.) Held over 4-day periods in Western Massachusetts, the Gatherings offer children, teens and adults an array of cultural workshops, such as art, dance, drumming, and creative writing. These activities facilitate the formation of bonds between Gathering participants who have experienced similar targeting, combat the isolation that can isolate activist families, and offer a voice for expression and empowerment. For more information about Ellen's writing visit  www.ellenmeeropol.com.

Alexs Pate (faculty) serves as a National Advisor to The Givens Foundation, an organization dedicated to celebrating black literature and writers. Alexs also curates the foundation’s NOMMO series, a collection of literary events in the Twin Cities, MN, that showcase African American Literature and authors. NOMMO, the Dogon word meaning “the magic power of the word” perfectly encapsulates the spirited dialogue that is characteristic of these literary events, as they provide a setting for the community to come together in “exploration and understanding of African American Literature.” 

Ruthie Rohde, alum:I recently received a nine-month grant through the VA to expand my writing program for homeless veterans enrolled in a residential treatment program at a VA hospital in Bedford Massachusetts.  I work from the premise that everyone is a “natural born writer” and that each of us possess a wealth of memories and experience that can be shaped into a literary work.  I also work from the premise that the process of accessing material, shaping it into a crafted piece of writing, and sharing the work with empathic readers has the potential to provide emotional healing and growth. As a teacher I begin by getting participants interested in their own and other’s stories through having the group read aloud short works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry which I then use as the basis for a prompt. Participants are then asked to freewrite for ten minutes after which individuals volunteer to share what they have written and the rest of the group provides positive feedback about what stands out for them in the piece shared.  The expanded program will include drop-in writing labs, monthly readings and talks by published authors, opportunities to attend literary events in the greater Boston area, and help with submission to publications and competitions.

Elizabeth Searle, faculty: For over a decade, I have been involved with a Book-Building project that helps kids tell their own stories and make their own books. It began at the PEN/New England Book Fair at Boston Medical Center in inner-city Boston, where PEN/NE and Reach Out and Read gave new books to kids. We helped them make their own: kids dictated to PEN volunteers on typewriters and then illustrated their stories. The Book-Building project has continued helping children put together books or magazines of their creative writing and artwork. Most recently, the program has focused on the MissionSAFE program for ‘at risk’ kids run by PEN volunteer and author Nikki Flionis. PEN has also done Book-Building with the Somerville Family Center's Girls2Women group, in a 'special needs' class at a Dorchester school, with the large Boston shelter Families in Transition, the Lowell Shelter House of Hope, as well as at other family shelters in Lynn and Roxbury. An offshoot of this project continues at the Burke School in Dorchester, where PEN and BookBuilding volunteers help students launch their own ongoing Literary Magazine, SPLASH! Recently, students who worked on SPLASH! entered their creative works in the Naked Truth High School Writing Contest co-sponsored by PEN and the New England Institute of Art.  For the past several years, winning students have read their works aloud at the reading at the Institute of Arts in Brookline. Kids have great stories to tell and I'm happy to have heard and transcribed many of them over the years via Book-Building.

Suzanne Strempek Shea, faculty: I came to this kind of work due to connection with the subjects. As a breast cancer survivor who wrote a memoir on her treatment experience, I have given talks on the healing power of writing and have workshopped with survivors of a variety of illnesses and traumas. As a resident of a town that just missed being slammed by a Category 3 tornado that ripped a 39-mile path through Massachusetts on June 1, 2011, I felt compelled to work with those affected. Later that year I volunteered to do a writing workshop at a library in one of the towns. I subsequently was invited to an adjacent town to do six weekly workshops, and was paid for that work via a grant funding projects for tornado survivors. For most of the dozen participants, it was the first time since the tornado before that they’d spoken or written about what they went through. The resulting essays and poems filled a book, “Writers on the Storm,” that also was funded by the grant and was donated to libraries along the tornado’s route. I love this work and would do it again in a heartbeat.

If you’d like to learn more about writing for social change or have a project in mind contact Stonecoast alumna Elli Meerpol. Email:  ellenmeeropol@gmail.com.

 

Resources: Writing for Social Change