Student Spotlight: Maya Laur '24

by William French '26
April 3, 2024

Modern Culture and Media Studies

Community Engagement through Swearer:
CBLR Fellowship, Engaged Scholarship Certificate, and Storytellers program

Maya Laur ’24, Swearer Center Storyteller and Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR) Fellow, is also pursuing the Engaged Scholarship Certificate as a Modern Culture and Media Studies concentrates. Laur shares her academic and personal experience engaging through the Swearer Center, reflecting on opportunities that allowed her to put her studies of multidisciplinary art forms into practice for social good. 

Laur learned about the Engaged Scholarship Certificate (ESC) when she applied to Brown University. She began envisioning ways to merge studies in theater, creative writing, journalism, songwriting, photography and filmmaking in an engaged way that would uplift voices in Providence. Throughout her time at Brown, Laur has been committed to using art as a tool for social change. 

“I think there is something really powerful about art’s potential to play to the heart and mobilize crowds in a way that I think a textbook or an academic paper might not necessarily be able to do. I think art pushes us to have radical humanity. It gives us the ability to step into someone else’s story and to be a vessel for another person’s experience.”

Laur shares her experience taking CBLR courses through the ESC and with the Swearer Center, reflecting on how the classes allowed her to put her studies of multidisciplinary art forms into practice for social good. Soon after getting connected to Swearer, Laur joined the Center's Storytellers program, which allows Brown University students to participate in community storytelling benefiting Providence and Rhode Island communities. A natural extension of her academic pursuits and passion, Laur wrote about 134 Collaborative, a secular nonprofit that operates in the building of Mathewson St. Methodist Church. Laur illustrates her experience through two written pieces: a poem titled “Summer on York St”. and a creative profile titled “Miracle on (1)34th”, both published and available to read on Swearer’s website

     From her piece, "Miracle on (1)34th": “In the Gallery, the Tenderloin Opera Company sings to the paper mache puppets that line the far wall. Old songs, about hope and rivers and Chinese restaurants. Last month, this space was a flu clinic. The week before, a legal clinic. Now, the room is full of suns and moons. Donkeys and goddesses and one-eyed cyclops’. They listen as the company members laugh about aging backs and old friends and swap pictures of pets and grandchildren. As the air fills with song and resin and stardust.”

Laur’s studies in “Anthropology of Homelessness” (ANTH 1301) supported her community work as an apprentice for an ESC practicum with the Tenderloin Opera Company (TOC), a theater troupe and theatrical training group founded by and for unhoused individuals. The company meets once a week at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church to write plays and full-length musicals about the unhoused experience in Providence.

“It's a place to uplift these voices that I think so many who do have homes don't necessarily hear. It also gives a chance to people who have been unhoused or are unhoused to have their own voices heard and hopefully find some healing, community and reconciliation through sharing these stories. I helped edit one of the scripts for their Spring musical last June, contributed to some of their plays and offered ideas for theater exercises. I've also learned so much from everyone in the group and about the way they use this art form as a means for catalyzing social justice.” 

After encouragement from a professor, Laur applied for and joined Swearer’s CBLR Fellowship, which naturally connected to her coursework and year-long TOC apprenticeship. She continues to use her experience to guide students working with organizations in Providence that address the needs of unhoused populations. Outside of her involvement with the Swearer Center, Laur was a SHAPE (Sexual Health Advocacy & Peer Education) Educator, where she taught Sexual Health Education to students in local Providence schools. She has also volunteered with Brown Outdoor Leadership Training, leading backpacking trips.

Laur is always seeking ways to merge her activism with her art practices.

“I definitely think all of these experiences have inspired me to continue on the artist activist path and to use art as a tool for social change and try to be of service helping to uplift other people's voices or voices that go unheard whenever I can. I've learned a lot about art and activism. If you want to create, in a thoughtful, conscious way, it’s important to realize these projects can take time, and that's hard, because also some social messages are urgent. Artmaking just takes the ability to be okay with making mistakes and being willing to course correct and take feedback while also staying true to yourself and your vision.”

Now in her senior year, Laur will complete her Engaged Scholarship Certificate through a powerful capstone project, an original community-engaged play about immigration titled Yearning to Breathe Free. The title is inspired by Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty with these verses that are often quoted: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Laur’s play encourages audiences to reflect on the sentiment in Lazarus’ poem, written over 100 years ago, and how the United States has received immigrants in different periods of history. Yearning to Breathe Free focuses on a Polish-Jewish refugee who flees her home in 1919 and a Guatemalan asylum seeker escaping the political brutality of 2026 who meet on a mystical ship, share their stories and recount their struggles as refugees. The characters experience each other's lives and learn to empathize with one another. According to Laur, her play “is an intergenerational, intercontinental reimagining of immigration stories that critiques current immigration policies, weaves together immigration narratives of the past and present, and envisions a world where all are welcome.”

Laur originally thought of the concept for her play when she visited the Mexican-American border in high school where she worked to support asylum seekers and refugees. She said that meeting people and hearing about the hardships and often brutal experiences they endured at the border, as well as her own great-grandparents’ lived experiences of refugeeism, inspired her to develop her play.

For Laur, it was essential to include the community in her creative process. For six months, she workshopped Yearning to Breathe Free through a series of community theater sessions with actors from diverse immigrant backgrounds.

“We've had people share personal histories about their grandparents fleeing the Holocaust, stories about relatives who immigrated from Latin America, Asia or the Caribbean. Having the chance to find connections between immigrant narratives from all around the world and across time has been beautiful and inspiring. That was the vision, so I'm honored and grateful that it's coming to life and that people have seen something in this project and wanted to be a part of it." 

The first performance of Yearning to Breathe Free took place this March at the Rites and Reason Theatre, a research and development theatre with Brown’s Department of Africana Studies. Laur has been invited by the Wilbury Theater, a professional theater in Providence, to produce a staged reading of the show at their downtown location and she is currently raising funds on GoFundMe for the space rental and to compensate actors and collaborators. According to Laur’s GoFundMe campaign, she’s hoping to serve the community through art and collaborative theater.

“It is my hope that this staged reading will empower us all to build solidarity across centuries, continents, borders, and backgrounds as we uplift each other’s immigrant histories and imagine a world where all are welcome. Together, in this workshop, we will harness art as a tool for revolution, dream up our collective liberation, and chart our journeys, yearning to breathe free.”

Reflecting on her experience as a Swearer Center Storyteller, Engaged Scholar and CBLR Fellow, Laur is grateful to have channeled her passion for the arts into community engagement. Remembering advice she received from one of her high school teachers, Laur offers it to other students who may want to get involved in community engagement at the Swearer Center.

“‘Education of the head without education of the heart is at best meaningless, and at worst, dangerous.’ I think what that means is you should take whatever you're passionate about and ask yourself, ‘How can I use this passion for good? How can I channel this into something that will make the lives of everyone around me better?’ If you are passionate about something and you want to make a difference, change the world, make art, hold on to that passion and never let it go. So think about educating your heart; that would be my advice.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Engaged Scholarship Certificate, click here and if you would like to read about the Swearer Center Storytellers Program, click here.