Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This month we’re delighted to feature Moira Pirsch. Moira is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and completed the Writing for Social Change program in 2007, and the Race in America program in 2010. That program has since been replaced by a similar, semester-long program: Art for Social Change.
Moira’s passion for language, writing, and arts education began when she discovered spoken word as a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Madison, Wisconsin. She didn’t find classroom experiences particularly compelling, but in spoken word she found an informal curriculum that centered the things she cared about: her community and the social justice movements growing around her.
This tension between formal and informal education continued through her undergraduate years. A self-described reluctant student, Moira enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) with the strong encouragement and support of her mother. She dove into the spoken word community on campus and in the larger community, and quickly realized that needed to switch to the College of Liberal Arts, in order to pursue an English major. Reflecting on that time she says, “the key to my schooling experience was the combination of spoken word and curricular academics. At the University of Minnesota I never really found my joy inside of the classroom.”
Moira remembers distinctly the moment that she first encountered HECUA’s Writing for Social Change program. She was a front desk worker for the Center for Community Engaged Learning, answering student inquiries and captaining the phones. Her freshman year was the first year HECUA offered the Writing for Social Change program. One day she arrived at work to find a post-it note stuck to her desk that read, “Moira, learn about Writing for Social Change.” “In retrospect I realize that note was probably more about learning details so that I could answer the phone,” she laughs, “but when I saw it I thought, this is written directly to me. Maybe they know that I’m a poet!”
Moira was volunteering for the Minnesota Spoken Word Association in addition to her school commitments that year, and when she learned that HECUA’s program structure would allow her to earn credit for an internship, she was all in. “I decided that I needed to apply right away, and I enrolled in the program the fall of my sophomore year.” That credits earned in the program would apply to her new English major was icing on the cake.
HECUA’s Writing for Social Change program (now the Art for Social Change program) was directed by poet Bill Reichard, who Moira remembers as a phenomenally supportive presence. “Bill so clearly valued each student,” she remembers. “It made me accept and consider the expertise I didn’t know I had. As a spoken word artist, you can sometimes feel insecure. I left the experience feeling like, I am a poet, I do have something to offer.” The pedagogy of the program was equally supportive, centering the lived experiences of each member of the nine-person class. Moira praises the teaching model as well, saying, “Bill’s facilitation made it a beautiful collective learning experience.”
The work they did in the classroom linked directly to Moira’s work in her internship with the Minnesota Spoken Word Association, where her title was Youth Liberation Associate. She ran youth spoken word open mics and slams (a slam is competitive, and an open mic is not) and helped to guide the youth leadership board. “A lot of the direction and leadership involved learning on my feet. All of a sudden I was responsible for running events myself. I had never done that before! It was difficult learning at the time,” she says, “but looking back on it now it was everything I needed.”
All that multi-tasking during her time with HECUA helped Moira develop the skills she needed to balance work and academics. “It was a really good lead-up to my life as an arts administrator and contractor. I had to manage my own schedule and I had to balance school and the arts community, which I’ve done ever since.” She returned to campus and deepened her commitment to organizing through spoken word, taking on a leadership role within the University of Minnesota’s spoken word club, Voices Merging. During Moira’s time there, the board grew from 13 to 60 people, and the average audience size at open mics sky-rocketed from 20 to 300. She shakes her head at the memory. “We had to hold them in an auditorium in the basement of the dental school, they got so big!” Moira felt that Writing for Social Change positioned her for success within the club. “A lot of the skills I learned during HECUA were applicable to that type of organizational growth,” she says.
As she shepherded the expansion of Voices Merging, Moira immersed herself in the world of hip-hop studies on the University of Minnesota campus. She also found time for a second HECUA program, the summer-term Civil Right Movement: History and Consequences (now Race in America).
As she moved closer to graduation, Moira created a self-designed major that fit her unique needs as a learner. It pulled courses from many different departments, all centering hip-hop as a lens for understanding the world. “A lot of the faculty in different departments at the U held the pieces of what a community arts-based education can look like,” Moira says. “I learned – maybe from HECUA – that you can curate your own educational experience.” Moira’s senior thesis was titled “Hip Hop as Inquiry.” She’d found a way to center hip hop pedagogy and education within a traditional academic framework. Post-graduation (where she was commencement speaker for the College of Liberal Arts) she decided to pursue these ideas at Harvard University’s Graduate School for Education. After receiving her Ed.M. from Harvard, she continued on to a Ph.D. program at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
When we asked Moira how someone who doesn’t see herself as at home within traditional academic spaces came to earn a Ph.D., she answers, “I have a lot of ways I try to think about myself as a student. You know, because I think, ‘I hate school,’ but I’m always in school.” For Moira, in the end it comes down to what education can offer: “I don’t like the structure, but I do love learning. As a poet that’s all you do – learn about the world and your place in it, and share that with others. When you think about academics and research, that’s all higher level education is, as well. It’s people understanding the world in these multiple ways, understanding their place in it, and sharing what that means for themselves and for others.”
As a new graduate, Moira (now Dr. Pirsch), will continue to use hip-hop education to help learners bring their experiences and understandings of the world into the classroom. How does she see her pedagogical approach? “One of the core principles of hip-hop education – and pedagogy of the oppressed – is that the student’s life is the primary text in all educational experiences. Any time I enter the class, my life is the first text that I engage. This is what I understand the HECUA classroom experience to mean, too.”
As for immediate post-graduation plans, Moira has secured a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College next year. She’ll continue her involvement with youth spoken word events and initiatives, serving as Hospitality Director for the national nonprofit Youth Speaks’ Brave New Voices festival, an annual celebration of youth poetry and poets. She’s also found contract employment in Hawaii, working with the Maui Arts and Cultural Center to build a youth spoken word community in Maui. “Yes,” she says, “it’s pretty much the dream.” We agree wholeheartedly, and encourage any young poets whose parents are skeptical of their chosen career path to refer those parents to this article.
Moira’s long-range goals build on her commitment to experiential and community-based education. “My goal in life is to figure out how we find places like HECUA that bridge and ground spaces that connect with racial justice social justice and the arts. Really, the world should have the mission of bringing these spaces together.”
When asked if she has any advice for young HECUA students, Moira responds, “Yes. Trust the process, and have faith that everything is right as it is. In all of our educational journeys there is so much room for doubt, but just remember and have faith that the universe is conspiring to help you become your best self. Oh, and also: have fun.”