Contributors: Aaron Hamburger, Elizabeth Searle, and Linda Mahal
As we approach a tense Election Day 2020, we wanted to share with you some of the ways that the Stonecoast MFA Community has been using writing for inclusivity and social equity (WISE) to educate the public, empower voters, and raise money in the fight for social justice. We hope you’ll take advantage of the links we’ve provided along the way to support this important work in whatever ways you can.
STORIES: ANTIDOTES TO INJUSTICE
Novelist Aaron Hamburger cites 2017, when he joined a group of Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference attendees to lobby U.S. senators to support the arts and other causes, as the beginning of his recent wave of activism. At that time, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) encouraged Hamburger to tell the story of his grandmother, an undocumented immigrant in the 1920s, as the best way for him to support the movement for immigrant rights. Soon after, Hamburger’s article about his grandmother’s life, which appeared in Tablet magazine, became the creative spark for his current novel.
Reflecting on the role that writers can play in the quest for social justice, Hamburger said, “Sometimes as writers we see our work as frivolous or unnecessary, particularly during such fraught and deadly times as the one we’re living in. In fact, our work and our skills are the antidote to the injustice of this moment. We are needed on the front lines to repair the world.”
This year, Hamburger has written direct, heartfelt letters to voters for Vote Forward, a get-out-the-vote group. Using his platform as a writer and teacher, he has also mobilized others to write and send letters to swing state voters by the thousands.
But what do storytelling and voting have to do with one another? Hamburger whittles it down: “Storytelling and narrative are fundamental tools of politics and creating change,” he said. “It isn’t enough to tell people to support an issue or a candidate. People have to be moved on an emotional level to take action. That’s what a powerful story can do.”
From his home in Washington, D.C., Hamburger has also told stories to raise money for 31st St. Swing Left, a grassroots group that helps elect Democratic candidates, and for You Can Vote (YCV), which is hosting 100 Safe Haven Tents near polling centers in North Carolina. As Hamburger wrote, “Where Confederate flags and intimidating police presence existed in the past, friendly YCV staffers in bright orange T-shirts are on hand to protect and advise voters on their rights and call on lawyers if need be.”
YCV staff also encourage voters to “triple the vote” by texting three friends or family members to tell them about the Safe Haven Tents and invite them to vote, too. Aaron’s 2020 voting rights efforts will culminate on November 3, when he will work in Pennsylvania as a poll observer to help ensure a free and fair election.
EQUAL JUSTICE: AN INITIATIVE
Back in Massachusetts, novelist and librettist Elizabeth Searle activated her writing skills in June of 2020 to co-create Writers Against Racial Injustice. The group aimed to raise money for Equal Justice Initiative, an organization founded by civil rights lawyer and memoirist Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy. Known for its legal, economic, educational, and policy work, Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.
To fundraise for EJI, Searle and five other writers narrated their reasons for forming the group and posted their stories on social media to solicit donations. Searle wrote about her family’s sponsorship of her nephew’s Brazilian father’s immigration to the U.S., an experience that offered Searle a glimpse of the injustices of the U.S. immigration process. Searle and her co-founders’ families, friends, and friends of friends donated and spread the word. The project turned out to be wildly successful.
“Our group tapped into a vast and fertile pool of writers and readers wanting to support the fight for racial justice,” Searle said. “We set an initial goal of raising $10,000, but we were stunned when our efforts took off and we wound up raising a total of $63,268.” These funds will support EJI’s own storytelling—in courthouses and legislatures—on behalf of the most vulnerable people in America. The money will also help EJI deploy the power of storytelling at the National Peace and Justice Memorial and Legacy Museum at EJI’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial and museum use art, architecture, and artifacts to document and contextualize the history and legacy of racist terror in the U.S.
Showing up and speaking out for social justice are not new for the Stonecoast MFA community. The crises of 2020 have inspired and emboldened us to demand more from ourselves, from each other, and from our government. We’re proud of all of our students, faculty, and alums who are working in their communities on behalf of the values and practices we share as WISE writers. Whatever may come, Stonecoast MFA will continue to educate WISE writers and to help writers tell stories that “disturb the universe.”
Together—step by step, line by line, page by page—our writing community is enacting the inclusive, equitable world we collectively envision. With gratitude and solidarity, may justice prevail.