MANKATO — Stella Schweim and Isabella Anton are passionate about social issues, so the sixth graders were intrigued to see Mankato had a summer program designed to help young people find their social justice voices through theater.
They and a few others finished up the weeklong social justice theater for youth camp Friday with a performance for family and friends at Lincoln Community Center.
The camp, Schweim said, gave her and her peers a space to talk about issues important to them.
“When I saw it, I felt like I should go because I could tell other people about what I felt about justice and what should be done,” she said. “I feel like we could actually do something about it and help a little bit.”
Women’s rights, Black Lives Matter and Pride are important causes to her. She previously didn’t have many opportunities to exercise her voice on the topics, she said, another reason the class was appealing.
“I get to share things with others and actually share my voice for what I think is right,” Schweim said.
Anton hopes to advocate for people with disabilities. As someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, she said she wants to speak out in support of people who’ve been name-called or excluded for having the condition.
“I want to really make it known that everybody should be treated the same,” she said. “I want to try to have people hear my voice.”
Longtime local disability rights advocate Wilbur Neuschwander-Frink directed the camp. She’s founded Open Arts Minnesota, a nonprofit promoting and providing artistic activities to people with diverse abilities.
Art and theater have played important roles in furthering social causes, Neuschwander-Frink said. The last year or so is evidence of it, with social justice movements focused on policing inspiring artists to get their messages out in the form of murals, spoken word and other creative mediums.
“Artists, creative people are feeling very empowered,” Neuschwander-Frink said. “They can actually see how the use of arts can create a thing for people to look at and have some deep knowledge as a human being about the experience.”
Organizations funding art have taken note, she added. The camp, sponsored by the Mankato Community Education and Recreation Department, received grant funding from Prairie Lake Regional Arts Council.
Leading up to Friday’s performance for family and friends, the young people learned about how poems, chants and personal “I am” statements can be used for social justice. They discussed what issues matter to them in circles, while reading works by artists — one example being an artist who wrote about experiencing homelessness.
The group came out for their performance wearing masks they created, another technique Neuschwander-Frink has found helpful over her years of advocacy.
Creating a space for compassion, she said, is what the week was about. It gave the young people a chance to find their voices without fear of judgment.
“It gives me so much hope as a person who’s done this work a long time to see the maturity of the participants,” Neuschwander-Frink said. “These young women are developing these ideas and stating them in the world. They want to do something to make a difference and shine their light.”
The social justice theater for youth program will again be offered between Aug. 9-13 at Lincoln Community Center. For more information, call the Mankato Community Education and Recreation Department at 507-387-5501.