NEA Big Read grants are awarded annually to a select group of nonprofits and community organizations to support arts-based workshops and reading programs designed around a single book. Since the program’s inception in 2006, the NEA has funded more than 1,600 Big Read programs and awarded over $22 million to organizations nationwide.
Merrimack will use the grant in collaboration with internal partners such as the Writer’s House, the department of world languages and cultural studies, the Winston School of Education and Social Policy and McQuade Library. External partners include El Taller Cafe & Bookstore, Elevated Thought, Lawrence Council on Aging & Senior Center, Essex County Correctional Facility, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Lawrence Public Library and Lawrence High School.
“The City of Lawrence, rich in arts and culture, has been a longstanding partner with Merrimack College,” said Elaine Ward, presidential civic and community engagement initiative chair. “The grant will allow the College to strengthen our ties to the community, engage in meaningful conversation and work with community organizations and small local businesses like El Taller, which has been a literary hub and haven for Lawrence residents for many years.”
The Lawrence/Merrimack College Big Read (LMBR) will initiate multicultural community art collaborations, intergenerational book discussions and host workshops and events throughout the 2021-2022 academic year. LMBR has selected the NEA Big Read book and acclaimed poetry collection “An American Sunrise” by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo as the focal point for the yearlong, arts-based community engagement series.
Harjo, who is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, is the first Native American United States Poet Laureate and she is only the second poet laureate to be awarded a third term. Her book will be used to foster community and facilitate conversations of identity, multi-generational stories, personal narrative and positionality among and between Merrimack students, high school students, seniors and general community members.
“The Big Read opens spaces for dialogue and collaborations between generations and collectives with different life experiences to explore issues of genealogy, memory, displacement and oppression in a positive, forward-looking way,” said Luis Saenz de Viguera Erkiaga, associate professor of Spanish and chair of the department of world languages and cultural studies. “Merrimack College is lucky to be working with wonderful community partners to bring this project to life.”
Merrimack students, faculty and staff are invited to participate in a host of LMBR events, which will include poetry slams and open mics, art walks in the City of Lawrence, book talks and writing workshops. Emma Duffy-Comparone, assistant professor of English, director of the Writer’s House and co-director of the Jail Education Project, will also help organize the series.
“I’m excited for the Writer’s House to help facilitate these initiatives and to provide a space for Merrimack College and the Lawrence community to connect through literature, writing and the arts,” Duffy-Comparone said. “Our collaboration with the Jail Education Project means that incarcerated people in Essex County will also be part of these conversations.”
The Big Read will officially begin in fall 2021. The opening series of poetry events, including a story walk in Lawrence and a book giveaway, will engage over 1,400 high school students. During these events, excerpts from “An American Sunrise,” which explore the intricacies of home, place, dislocation and identity, will be read both in Spanish and in English.
Future events will range from more intimate conversations with 16-20 participants to large-scale panels open to 100-plus students and community members, led by local diverse and indigenous leaders. The series will culminate in a community celebration with a mural and gallery project showcasing works of art from Lawrence residents and high school and college students.