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Creative Writing for Human Rights

The Human Rights Program (HRP) at the University of Minnesota educates students by connecting them with academic and real-world experience in the field of international human rights. A striking example of public engagement in higher education, the program serves as a connection between the University’s students and faculty and the greater human rights community. The Human Rights Program

  • provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to take classes and to conduct research in the field of human rights;
  • runs a Human Rights Minor for graduate students;
  • assists students to find work experiences in human rights organizations;
  • and brings together the University and the human rights communities to address critical human rights issues by hosting conferences, visiting speakers, and other special events.

This semester, the Human Rights Program and the Creative Writing Program in the English Department got support from the Office for Public Engagement to establish a fellowship for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student who will work with the Human Rights Program as a writer-in-residence. As described in the fellowship proposal,

This “Scribe for Human Rights? would be assigned to a specific initiative of the Human Rights Program, and closely follow the project, conducting interviews and other research in order to write a narrative piece suitable for publication in a general interest publication. The fellowship would allow, but not require, the MFA student to pursue more ambitious publication, including a book-length ms.

This collaborative fellowship builds on the strong bond between the fact-finding and case-building of the Human Rights Program and the narrative abilities of creative writers who can radiate the stories related to social justice and human rights issues that so desperately need telling.

The project ... for the first year of the fellowship is the Human Rights at Home Project of the Human Rights Program. As part of this project, the Human Rights Program is coordinating the efforts of several Midwest advocacy organizations to monitor the treatment of persons being held in Midwest jails for immigration violations. U.S. immigration officials detain over 200,000 individuals annually in jails and other detention centers; in the Midwest, an estimated 2,000 immigrant detainees are held in county jails alongside the local criminal population. The detainees include persons seeking asylum from their home country who arrive without proper legal documentation at airports or borders. The jails are frequently in remote areas, resulting in extreme isolation and distress for immigrant detainees because of linguistic and cultural barriers as well as their post-traumatic psychological state. In coalition with immigrant service providers in the region, the Human Rights Program is “mapping? the detention of immigrants in seven Midwest states: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Following this kind of project would provide an urgent and profound human rights situation to engage the creative talents of selected MFA students, including writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Currently, most MFA students are employed as teaching or research assistants, but the Creative Writing Program feels strongly that a broader array of professional experience should be available to graduate student writers. Not all writers become—or should become—teachers. But many can expect to work as writers of nonfiction in a variety of fields and forms. They must be offered this experience.

The Human Rights Program, for its part, has need of story-tellers, people who can transmit the deeply individual faces of human rights abuses and vulnerabilities to a broader audience. “Reports? alone do not serve the Program’s needs. A writer who can focus on a narrative and can write for a broader citizen-audience would greatly enhance the efforts of the Human Rights Program to get its message out to the community and the world.