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Coils of barbed wire against a blue sky.

An estimated 1,800 to 2,300 immigrants--from countries and regions including Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Bosnia, Southeast Asia, Central America, and Ecuador--are currently detained in Midwestern states. Many are detained indefinitely.

Stories that need telling

Scribes for Human Rights drive public engagement in critical issues

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Oct. 11, 2006

Once upon a dinner party, professors Patricia Hampl and Barbara Frey began talking about the links between their work. Hampl teaches writing and Frey teaches international human rights at the University of Minnesota.

Frey, director of the Human Rights Program, said she wanted to get human rights issues out into public consciousness. Hampl, a Regents Professor in the Department of English, expressed her desire to see master of fine arts (MFA) writing students find "more dynamic ways to work with narrative."

"It became clear that she had stories that needed telling--and we had people who would like the chance to tell them," Hampl says. "I want to see [MFA] students engaged deeply, beyond their own lives. I want them to have a chance to find truly stunning and essential material."

Scribes for Human Rights was born from that conversation. The program is dedicated to providing MFA students a chance to serve as a writer-in-residence for the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts.

"I want to see MFA students engaged deeply, beyond their own lives," says Hampl. "I want them to have a chance to find truly stunning and essential material."

Hampl and Frey raised half the seed money for the program from individuals who have supported human rights projects in the past, holding a fund-raiser in the Campus Club last September. The other half came from the University in funds from the Law School's Human Rights Center and in a seed grant from the Office for Public Engagement.

As the recipient of the Office for Public Engagement Seed Grant, Scribes for Human Rights had to commit to engaging with the public. It set out to achieve this goal in two ways: each scribe's research and fieldwork would allow him or her to go out into the community to collect data, and the eventual publication would serve as a means of disseminating information about a significant issue to the public.

The program created a fellowship to be awarded to an MFA student in creative writing who was willing to go out into the community and conduct research on a specific human rights issue, create a narrative piece about the issue and their experiences and submit the piece for publication.

The first topic selected was immigrant detention in Midwest jails.

"We really wanted to get this story out, especially in the context of the whole immigration debate," says Frey. "We want people to understand what happens when the rubber meets the road. In theory, illegal immigrants seem like a big, bad idea, but we want people to know what it means on an individual level."

The first student awarded the fellowship was Laura Flynn of San Francisco, California.

Inaugural scribe

Laura Flynn
Inaugural scribe Laura Flynn

Flynn began her research in January as a third-year MFA student in the Creative Writing Program, with a focus on literary nonfiction. She came to the project with significant experience: for six years, she worked in Haiti on human rights, education and economic development. She was enthusiastic about the fellowship.

"It made a lot of sense because it brought together two big areas of interest that I have--human rights and writing," says Flynn.

Nationally, the number of immigrant detainees has tripled in the past ten years. An estimated 1,800 to 2,300 immigrants--from countries and regions including Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Bosnia, Southeast Asia, Central America and Ecuador--are currently detained in Midwestern states. Many are detained indefinitely, and immigrants are held alongside the general prison population, often in facilities intended for short-term jail stays. Access to counsel, difficult under any circumstance, is exacerbated when immigration authorities move detainees from facility to facility with little or no notification to their attorneys.

Frey aided Flynn in gaining background on immigrant detention, providing her with the means to contact and interview human rights advocates, read reports and research immigration in the Midwest area. After researching for the better part of spring semester, Flynn spent the summer out in the field, visiting two detention sites and viewing 15 immigration hearings, following the individual stories of 25 detainees in Minneapolis, Iowa, Chicago and Nebraska.

"I don't think anyone has any idea that it's going on right now, that people are held right here, in St. Paul, in detention for long periods of time," says Flynn.

Currently, Flynn is writing the first draft of her narrative, "trying to figure out what direction to go" with all the material gathered over the last few months. Once her piece is completed, Flynn will pitch it to national magazines. She considers continuing her research in hopes of a possible book publication.

Flynn will read an excerpt from her work at a reception Oct. 12 celebrating the Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship. Sharing the bill will be Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Soul of a New Machine and House.

Looking toward a second year

Barbara Frey
Barbara Frey

Patricia Hampl
Patricia Hampl

The success of the initial Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship has propelled Frey and Hampl toward selection of the next topic and scribe. Based on Flynn's experience, they're tweaking the fellowship a bit, says Hampl. The next scribe will be chosen through a competitive process and will be given a range of four or five possible topics. One topic could be the Hmong Grave Desecration Project, to which Frey, her students and the Human Rights Program have dedicated themselves during the past year. The scribe will complete a summer internship and spend the fall and spring semesters developing their writing.

"I have seen the impact that the arts can have on people's lives," says Frey, "and Scribes for Human Rights seemed to be an important new initiative."


Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu .