by Elizabeth Searle
In describing her own commitment to activism, Stonecoast alumna and author Ellen Meeropol quotes Alice Walker: “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”
Fellow SC alumna Ruthie Rohde has spent years helping homeless and other disenfranchised people tell their stories. Ruthie quotes author Pat Schneider to explain that not knowing how to put stories together can be a “learned disability.” Ruthie says she helps her students realize that they all have “treasures waiting to be brought to the surface.”
Elli and Ruthie have both stepped up to the plate this summer to lead a seminar about uniting Stonecoast students, faculty, and alumni who are interested in writing and working for social change.
“My goal for the initiative is to jump-start discussion about writing and social change into the Stonecoast curriculum and culture,” says Elli. “I want people to consider these issues as they write, critique, publish, and develop their writing practice and writing life.”
Stonecoast MFA has always encouraged a proactive approach to social issues. In its early years, the program developed a writing “track” for students interested in focusing on social change. Many Stonecoast students have created “social change” projects during their third semesters. Through the years, Stonecoast students have taken on projects ranging from teaching memoir classes for the elderly to working with “at-risk” teenagers to leading dance and movement therapy classes at a women’s shelter.
Many SC faculty members are active on social issues as well. I served on the executive board of PEN/New England for more than a decade, where I focused on children’s literacy projects. Suzanne Strempek Shea has led writers’ workshops for those who have experienced trauma, including cancer patients and victims of recent tornadoes in Western Massachusetts. Suzanne and I were both happy to take part in the Writing for Social Change seminar and discussion led by Elli and Ruthie at the summer, 2013 SC residency.
Among the students gathered for the discussion was a current student interested in working with fellow military veterans to tell their stories and a first-semester student, Kristabelle Munson, who has taken on the role of New York’s Stoneocast “regional coordinator.”
With the advent of Stonecoast MFA’s regional communities in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West, Elli and Ruthie are helping to spearhead the effort to bring together information and support for Stonecoasters nationwide involved in a wide range of issues.
“Ruthie and I are working on making the resources section of the Writing for Social Change page on the Stonecoast website more robust,” Elli explains. “And, at the discussion circle, there was talk of creating some kind of community discussion forum on this subject.”
Elli and Ruthie are seeking information on ongoing social change activities that Stonecoasters are involved in, to add to the list. Also, they are seeking SC volunteers who might take on the role of “moderating” the proposed online discussion forum. They invite all Stonecoasters to visit the Writing for Social Change page on the Stonecoast website, which already contains a preliminary listing of some major projects involving SC students and faculty. Plans are afoot to expand this list to include projects from our national network of alumni.
Both Elli and Ruthie have years of experience in working for social change. Generously, they are willing to field questions or advise on ideas from Stonecoasters interested in joining the fray. Check out the SC Writing for Social Change webpage as a start for getting connected to the growing SC network of activist authors, paying their “rent” for living on this planet by working and writing for causes of their choice.
Elizabeth Searle is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Girl Held in Home. She is librettist of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera (produced on both coasts and showcased in NYC in 2013), a show that’s drawn national media attention. She’s taught at Stonecoast for 10 years.