The sounds of social justice

Nationally renowned choral director Tesfa Wondemagegnehu speaks with the class about race and music.

A new class at St. Olaf College this January gave students an up-close look at how music can engage and advocate for those on the margins of society.

Students in the Music and Social Justice Interim course, led by faculty member Mark Stover, visited the Minnesota Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee each week to learn and explore the topic of music’s role in social justice. In collaboration with the college’s Academic Civic Engagement program, they also began creating a musical advocacy project in conjunction with Northfield-area nonprofits that include the Northfield Arts Guild, Cannon River Watershed Project, and Greenvale Elementary School.

“We open our eyes to the world around us, and we pay attention to the brokenness in the world to find ways that we can immerse ourselves to build authentic, meaningful relationships,” says Stover, who also conducts the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus.

Students in Mark Stover’s ‘Music and Social Justice’ class listen to guest speakers.

On campus, the class received visits from numerous musicians who provided first-hand accounts of music’s importance in bleak situations. St. Olaf alumna and composer Abbie Betinis ’01 came to campus to teach the class her song Resilience. Nationally renowned choral director Tesfa Wondemagegnehu met with the class via video conference to provide a lecture on race and music.

Students in the class also learned impactful protest songs and composed their own, which they shared during their visits to Shakopee. Each week, students and women in the correctional facility started their visit in song before exploring music’s unifying qualities and how it relates to social justice.

Kayla Carlson ’19, a student in the class, says the weekly visits to the correctional facility were the most impactful portion of the course.

“The visits to the women’s prison are so important because often people don’t have conversations about those who have been incarcerated. They are often dehumanized or just ignored entirely. Learning their names and hearing their stories has been extremely impactful because now I have an interest in doing social work in a prison setting, where not a lot of people want to work,” she says.

By using music as the vehicle, Stover says a middle ground is created where one can “find peace in a broken world.” In the prison, the distinction between prisoner and free citizen is erased. All are treated as equals, as discussion and learning is facilitated.

Stover says that “it’s been a great privilege to learn and grow from these women in Shakopee,” but the students are not the only ones gaining from this experience. The women in the facility were given the option of signing up for weekly classes with the St. Olaf students. The outpour of interest was astounding, with nearly 30 women signing up, some of whom are involved in the facility’s Voices of Hope choir. One prisoner emotionally told Stover, “I’ve been here for four years, and this is the first time I’ve felt like a human being.”

A final word form Stover involves not just one party, but all: “We’re pioneers. It’s not just my course. It’s our course. We get to own it together.”

Watch students in the class work with composer Abbie Betinis ’01 to learn her song Resilience.