Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Leah Nelson is HECUA’s student blogger for Media and Movements Fall 2021. Leah is a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in independent studies. Read on to learn about the guest speakers who joined students for the first few weeks of the program!
Participating in the HECUA program Media and Movements has been very different from being on campus at the University of Minnesota this fall. I have come to appreciate the small classes and guest speakers available in HECUA programs. Learning directly from my peers and people doing activism work in my community has been extremely inspiring, as it connects me to the larger purpose of my education, which is to become an adult who works to create social change.
One of the guest speakers that visited our class was Julia Dinsmore, a local community scholar, artist, author, and educator. Her work, which centers on her experience of poverty, includes a poem that she read during class called “My Name is Not ‘Those People’”. The poem details the many misconceptions that people have about poverty, and the negative impacts that occur when people who are experiencing poverty are dehumanized. Having the opportunity to hear and see Julia deliver her poem was valuable to me because it personalized her work and made her words come to life. Her work exemplifies the idea that art can have a profound impact on how people think about systemic issues such as poverty.
In class, Julia led us in a group exercise as we repeatedly practiced saying “people experiencing houselessness” instead of “homeless people”. Person-first language can help center individuals as human beings first, rather than identifying them solely by what challenges they face. This simple action emphasized to me how important words are and how they can help shift perspectives and even change the overarching narrative regarding social issues. Julia’s words have traveled all over the world and it was an honor to hear her speak to our class.
We have made connections with several writers this semester. Tobi Haslet, a writer who has published work in The New Yorker, Artforum, and The Village Voice, spoke to our class to discuss an article he wrote called, “Magic Actions.” The article is a detailed account of the events and cultural shifts that occurred after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of 2020. As a class, we were able to ask him questions about the article and gain insight into his worldview. Ironically, even though Tobi lives in New York, I had already become familiar with his article through interactions within my own community. I had attended a zine fest at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis the week prior to his visit, where I was able to pick up a copy of the article in zine format. The title, “Magic Actions,” is what drew me to it. Because I was involved in many of the protests in Minneapolis, I was also interested in reading about it from a more academic lens rather than a personal one. Being able to organically pick up a copy of the zine that felt especially important to me and then have a conversation with the writer was a really sweet coincidence. It reminds me of the power of words and how accessible texts, like Julia Dinsmore’s poem, “My Name is Not ‘Those People’,” can be highly influential.
Ricardo Levins Morales is another media activist that spoke to our class. He met us at Longfellow Park in Minneapolis with a huge satchel of art to share with us. His work includes colorful illustrations accompanied by powerful statements on social justice issues. Ricardo shared that his intention is to create work that is medicine for the community. Media and art can soothe the psyche through representation, validation that systemic problems exist and that they are important issues, and translating feelings that often go unspoken into imagery that is easier to understand and process.
For me, the most striking thing that Ricardo shared was about his vision of the future. There are people in the future who will think back to our generation of humanity and consider us ancestors, people who not only survived, but actively fought for a better future. This was especially important for me to hear at this time, as the future is often framed as bleak and fraught with socio-ecological disaster. It is important to think about those that will come generations from now not only with concern, but also with great love and hope. Hearing Ricardo’s presentation was a medicine for me and showed that art can educate and inspire personal healing.
In addition to learning directly from community members and activists, we also learned from the land and places we visited. One of the opportunities we had early in the semester was to participate in a memory walk called Learning from Place: Bdote. It was led by two Dakota educators, Ramona Kitto Stately, and her son, Reuben Kitto Stately. The experience of learning about Minnesota history in the place where it actually occurred was extremely powerful. Due to the white, colonizer narratives I have been taught and continue to be taught in public education, the true history of Minnesota can sometimes feel remote and inaccessible. In contrast, listening to the oral history of the land we were standing on was immersive and intimate. Ramona reminded us that the land itself has its own story to tell, which inspired me to evaluate my own relationship with the body I carry and the earth that supports me. Ramona and Reuben’s sharing of stories about their ancestors resonates with Ricardo Levin Morales’ vision of the future, where a group of people come together and dedicate time to honor those who have come before us.
All of the guest speakers I have mentioned have performed ‘magic actions’ by creating art and sharing their stories with the community. Thank you to everyone who has spoken to my class so far, I greatly appreciate all of the lessons I have learned so far this semester.
Cover photo courtesy of Axel Santo Domingo.