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Student learns art of social change

By Alexandra Wertz '12
November 2, 2010

Sarah Minor '11 hands out programs at a recent performance at Patrick's Cabaret, where she is completing an internship through the Writing for Social Change program.

St. Olaf offers more than 110 off-campus study options, with programs that enable students to crawl through the ancient catacombs in Egypt or study coral reef microbiology in Australia. Yet to get a change of pace, change of culture, and hands-on experience, students need not travel far.

Sarah Minor '11 is participating in an off-campus study program that takes her just 45 minutes from her home on the Hill. Minor is part of a program called Creative Writing for Social Change that is offered through the nonprofit Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs. HECUA is based in the Twin Cities and offers liberal arts students academic internships and off-campus study opportunities.

Minor learned about Writing for Social Change through her creative nonfiction class at St. Olaf with Visiting Assistant Professor of English Kaethe Schwehn. "It seemed like the perfect melding of my interests in creative writing, visual art, and social activism," says Minor, an art history and studio art major who is applying to graduate schools to pursue a master's degree in creative writing.

Creative Writing for Social Change is a semester-long program that involves an off-campus living experience, a professional internship at an arts nonprofit, and four classes based on creative writing and social justice issues. In the classes, students examine traditional methods of literary and cultural analysis as well as share their creative writing at workshops in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The program explores the ways in which writers and literature have the power to impact communities and address relevant social issues.

Minor is the first St. Olaf student to participate in the Writing for Social Change program. There are currently 22 other students from various colleges participating in the program. While the students take the academic courses together, internships vary.

Minor's internship is at Patrick's Cabaret, an informal performance venue in Minneapolis that supports performing artists of all backgrounds and provides the community with two weekends of eclectic, experimental shows each month. Her work at Patrick's generally includes grant writing, designing materials to promote upcoming shows, creating costumes, and working at the shows.

Patrick's Cabaret hosts events that range from West African drumming to homemade costume fashion shows to poetry readings. Patrick Scully, founder and artistic director of Patrick's Cabaret, believes the venue can promote awareness and action through the arts. "We live in a culturally diverse community, and we need to hear everybody's stories — whether it's a story or a song or a poem or a dance," he says.

Minor enjoys her work at Patrick's because it's far from the stereotypical coffee-retrieving internship experience. "I really love the upbeat atmosphere of working at a performance venue where things are always moving and shows are always changing," Minor says. "It's nice for someone like me who's interested in the arts to find an internship where I actually get to be involved in what's going on instead of just doing busy work behind a desk."

And Minor is learning some important lessons as well. She’s now more aware that along with all the energy and excitement the nonprofit world has to offer, there are also inherent challenges. "The hardest part about this work is probably the realization that at this nonprofit, as at many others, if we don't get a certain grant we apply for it means that we have to cut some of our programming. The money isn't coming from anywhere else," Minor says.

Despite the challenges, Minor sees a career working in the world of nonprofits someday. Through Creative Writing for Social Change, she hopes to understand how her writing and work in the arts will prompt social change. The arts, she notes, can give a voice to people who have no other way of sharing their experiences and can help bring about justice. "Art is important, even necessary, for progress," she says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or