“We think writing is a really personal act that can empower students, especially students who in our current school system can feel marginalized or like their voices aren’t listened to.”
– Samantha Sencer-Mura, Executive Director, Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute
What does a school without windows tell a student about their worth or about their anticipated trajectory? How can we create spaces that instead let young people embrace creativity, write a new narrative, and speak truth to power? These are the questions on Samantha Sencer-Mura’s mind. Samantha is the executive director of Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute. She’s also a graduate of Minneapolis Public Schools, where she attended South High School. “One lesson I learned at South was that physical space is really important,” said Samantha. “When you ask kids to learn in an environment that doesn’t make them feel welcomed or valued…immediately you’re starting with some really big challenges.”
Navigating the Educational Opportunity Gap
Samantha went to college in California and eventually completed a Master’s Degree in Education at Harvard University. But she saw that her trajectory was unfortunately not the norm. “I was a student who came in with a lot of access and resources, so within the public school system, I knew how to navigate it to get what I needed, largely because of my parents,” said Samantha. She was able to earn college credits at South and go to a liberal arts college. However, while her freshman classes reflected the school’s demographics (around 60% POC), her more advanced classes as a senior did not. Frequently she was one of few students of color in her classes, which built an early political lens: Minnesota’s educational system was failing too many students of color. For a state that celebrates its educational system, it’s well-known that Minnesota faces some of the biggest racial disparities for educational outcomes.
Samantha’s own educational background and appreciation for creating safe places to learn and create make her a perfect fit to lead Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, whose mission is to empower under-resourced K-12 students to think creatively, write effectively, and succeed academically alongside a community of caring volunteers. Soon, they’ll become 826 MSP, the ninth chapter of 826 National, a network of youth writing and publishing centers. “I’ve always appreciated the angle of 826 by starting from a belief that students deserve beautiful spaces to learn in,” said Samantha. “From there, they deserve really inspiring, intentional, and well-thought-out educational experiences.”
Creating whimsical, wacky spaces in which to learn and write is exactly what Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute is all about. At its core, it is a youth writing center, playfully named Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute because it’s in a landlocked state and helps students navigate through the opportunity gap. The nonprofit focuses on writing for a variety of reasons. “We think writing is a really personal act that can empower students, especially students who in our current school system can feel marginalized or like their voices aren’t listened to,” explained Samantha. “We provide the platform, the space, and the experience to uplift and amplify their voices.”
A Safe Space for Stories
Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute also partners with dozens of area schools through creative writing workshops and tutoring. Wherever its staff and volunteers meet students, they’re striving to create a space where students feel comfortable and safe enough to be vulnerable to share about hard experiences, but also have room to be silly. “We don’t want to pigeonhole students into feeling like everything they write needs to be representative of their community and address everything, but in some ways, these are experiences that the rest of our community needs to hear about,” said Samantha. A recent example was a partnership with the All Nations program at South High School, which is specifically for Indigenous students. “I think the stories that come out of there tell a really unique perspective of the city that we live in that most people don’t get to know about,” Samantha said. “I grew up very close to Little Earth, and I learned so much reading these stories about the place that I live in that I never would have known.”
Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute used a loan from Propel to bridge funds from a capital campaign for a buildout of its new Minneapolis location. When students walk into Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute’s new space in what was a former bicycle shop, they’re greeted by an ocean-themed mural, student publications on the walls, shelves of books, and comfortable, modern furniture. “By creating a space that’s immediately different, we’re hoping to create a place where students feel welcome, feel inspired, and where some of that baggage is not coming into our space with them,” said Samantha.
Learning to Lead with a Financial Lens
As a newer executive director, Samantha applied for Propel’s Financial Leadership Cohort of smaller-sized nonprofits. “The chance to be with leaders of organizations of similar sized budgets and working from a similar place has been really nice,” said Samantha. “As an ED, you’re in the middle of everything and also all alone.”
Like many nonprofit leaders, Samantha came to the organization with a strong vision, but with less experience with raising money and managing finances. It almost feels like they are two basketballs I need to dribble at all times,” she laughed, referring to both the vision and money. “I can’t forget one of them. I’m thinking more about how I incorporate a finance lens into the way that I think about leadership, which is pretty new for me.”
If you’re looking to expand your bookshelf with new voices, check out Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute’s student publications, including the latest “Indigenous Originated: Walking in Two Worlds,” written by students from the All Nations program at South High School. You can support its mission at GiveMN and learn more about Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute at its website: http://www.moi-msp.org/.