Addressing Global Hunger Through a Midwest Lens

Art exhibit with commentaries about 'What is hunger?' attached.

Sarah Manasreh is a College of Music doctoral student pursuing a degree in musical performance. In 2014 Manasreh became the coordinator of the community composing project, #MidwestHungerIs, a community awareness program that engages in the practices of writing, literacy, creative storytelling, music, and the arts. The goal is to express the meanings of hunger, from literal to metaphorical—everything from issues of food accessibility to the question, "What are we hungry for?"

The project is led by Trixie Smith, director of the College of Arts and Letters Writing Center, and associate director Dianna Baldwin. Aiming to design a pedagogical instrument for increasing awareness and creating innovative approaches to activism and knowledge production, the #Midwest HungerIs project is collecting written input from community members of all ages. From those written stories, text will be selected for choral compositions by more than a dozen composers whose work will be assembled into a performance in the Wharton Center on April 14, 2016.

Manasreh's background as a music teacher and performer contributes to her awareness of the budget cuts and diminished funding that affect the arts. "In 2001 Michigan provided $26 million in arts funding. In 2010, Michigan led the nation with an overall 80 percent cut, dropping from $7 million to just $2 million," said Manasreh. "These budget cuts do not just stop with arts programs, but expand to afterschool programs, welfare, and programs that help homeless populations."

The project is highly collaborative, engaging university and community partners who represent a broad range of ethnicities, ages, socio-economic strata, and ability levels, including: the Greater Lansing Foodbank, Power of We Consortium, AmeriCorps Program, Imagine Flint, COFY Center, Fiction 440, Sistrum, Garden Project, Lansing Writers and Readers Guild, Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA), the Camera Shop, MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH), Poetry Center at RCAH, Broad Art Museum, MSU Museum, MSU Library Special Collections, Abrams Planetarium, W. J. Beal Botanical Gardens, LookOut! Gallery, and REACH Studio Art Center.

All of the partners are local. "The idea was to find a theme that affects us from the local level to a global level," said Manasreh. "The hunger theme is partly because we're in a farming area. We're also using it as a metaphor."

Below and facing page: Photo Voice sessions with young participants in the #MidwestHungerIs project.

Sistrum Lansing Women's Chorus is one of the project's most active partners. "Trixie sings with them. She's had a dream to create a community composing project with both writing and music for years," said Manasreh. Other choirs, such as LanSingOut and all of the Community Music School choirs, are also working with the project. Likewise, composers with ties to Michigan have been commissioned to create the original musical compositions.

Philip Rice is a fourth year doctoral student in music composition who also works for the Writing Center. He is one of the Michigan composers who has gotten the project in touch with other composers and worked on the #MidwestHungerIs committee. Rice, who will be composing for the project, said "As a Michigan composer, I'm always excited to do things that are connected with the Midwest and its traditions. Choral music education is hugely important in Michigan, so I love that this project engages that, and supports Michigan composers. As a composer who works with text, the anthology is especially interesting because the quotations in it are so candid and varied. There are lots of possibilities to combine things—bits of a sentence here or there, a description of an experience, part of a poem, etc. All the material kind of makes sense in different configurations because it's all about hunger. I feel like I'm preparing a meal. You need lots of different moods and textures to make a good musical composition, and all those things are present in the writing. I think composing it into music will be very exciting and satisfying."

Anyone is welcome to submit an essay to the anthology. The website includes writing prompts that inspire questions to ponder and write about: What nourishes you, besides food? Why do families come together to eat, daily and at holidays? Have you ever hungered for something other than food? When you look to the stars, what do you think about and hunger for? What role can you play in the Greater Lansing Foodbank, a member of Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network? "Sometimes the prompts become part of the writing, like call-and-response," said Manasreh.

The program is funded in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. "We were funded last year for the second phase of the project," said Manasreh. "We also have a match from the Writing Center."

"The writings are sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and they reflect the diversity of the audience we are reaching out to dialogue with," said Manasreh. "Some people wrote poetry. There was a lot about wanting more farmers' markets and fresh food. There were some responses about cultural and gender inequality. It was a mix."

There are challenges for Manasreh. "The writings will be compiled and matched with composers who will be connected with community choirs. The composers can use the writings however they want. They have to be Michigan composers or at least have a Michigan connection. Composers have been matched with choirs and will be working directly with them to create their new compositions. We are hoping to premiere about 18 original compositions and will record them on our Community Composing album," she said.

Class in session

The performance on April 14, 2016 at the Wharton Center will include a mass choir that brings all the local choirs together. The benefit concert will be free and open to the public. "The concert will coincide with an exhibit at the Broad Art Museum featuring original images and stories composed by area youth in response to the question, 'What is Hunger.' These are the result of two PhotoVoice projects, one over the summer in Flint, Michigan, and one in the fall with the REACH Studio Art Center in REO Town, Lansing," said Trixie Smith. A great deal of coordinating, cooperation, and community engagement went into making it happen.

"I'm thrilled with the opportunity to add this to my professional and academic portfolio," said Manasreh.

Visit for further information, or to join the project.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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