Immigration, Identity, and the Arts

“I began to record our family history…thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and me.”
— Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
About the Series

Through art and dialogue, in connection with Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, we will engage in the lived experiences of different immigrant populations in Minnesota and amplify their voices, stories, and music.

American Composers Forum believes that music is a medium that can help us connect as humans, tell stories, and share experiences. East Side Freedom Library has long hosted study groups, partnerships, and community events that lift up the stories of its neighborhood in the name of justice. Together, we will host several cultural events and conversations examining the theme of “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts,” to amplify the voices, stories, and music of immigrant artists and community members wrestling with this theme. Included in our events will be discussion of, and inspiration from, Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Supported by the NEA’s Big Read project, this book aligns greatly with our theme, and resonates with so many members of our community. We are planning parallel in-person and virtual options to accommodate health and accessibility considerations. All events are free and open to the public. This page will be updated as event hosts, guests, and locations are confirmed. Check back often!

About East Side Freedom Library

The East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) has its home in the former Arlington Hills library, one of St. Paul’s historic Carnegie library buildings at 1105 Greenbrier Street, located in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

The ESFL’s mission is to inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all.  The library houses non-circulating research collections that appeal to interested general learners as well as scholars, with innovative databases and finding aids that make using the collections fun and vital.

Story is a major theme of the ESFL, and the telling and gathering of stories, through formal interviews, workshops, and small-scale public performances, will allow local residents and interested publics to learn more about the work and residential histories of the East Side.

About American Composers Forum

ACF supports and advocates for individuals and groups creating music today by demonstrating the vitality and relevance of their art. We connect artists with collaborators, organizations, audiences, and resources. Through storytelling, publications, recordings, hosted gatherings, and industry leadership, we activate equitable opportunities for artists. We provide direct funding and mentorship to a broad and diverse field of music creators, highlighting those who have been historically excluded from participation.

Founded in 1973 by composers Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus as the Minnesota Composers Forum, the organization continues to invest in its Minnesota home while connecting artists and advocates across the United States, its territories, and beyond. ACF frames our work with a focus on racial equity and includes within that scope, but not limit it to, diverse gender identities, musical approaches and perspectives, religions, ages, (dis)abilities, cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and broad definitions of being “American.”

About NEA Big Read

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. American Composers Forum is one of 60+ nonprofit organizations to receive a grant to host an NEA Big Read project.

NEA Big Read launch event as part of ACF’s Artist Equity Summit

Walker|west Music Academy

760 Selby Ave, St Paul, MN 55104
9:00 am CT

Each year ACF hosts an Artist Equity Summit that centers music creators and examines themes related to equity that impact the field and beyond. Our theme in 2022 was “Lifting Up our Youth.”

This event was the culmination of artist PaviElle French’s residency with six St. Paul-based arts organizations working together as a group for the first time. Liberation! Lifting Up our Youth was PaviElle French’s vision, and came out of our collective need and responsibility to empower our young people and give them a platform. Performances by students from Purple Playground and TruArtSpeaks took place at the convening – all original works were created in workshops with PaviElle French and other collaborators.

Vanessa Rose, ACF Executive Director, Carolina Heredia, ACF Director of Artist Support, and Clarence White, Associate Director, East Side Freedom Library provided an overview of “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” and launched our NEA Big Read partnership.

Big Read Study Group no. 1

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
1:00 pm CT

The Library’s Executive Director, Saengmany Ratsabout, hosts this discussion group on the oral tradition themes in Thi Bui’s book and the different forms of art seen as “oral” tradition and history-making. Joining him will be ACF composer and Thai-American, Mary Prescott, as well as Hta Thi and members of the Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Karen Weaving Circle. Co-hosted by the Urban Village Group.

Register here for Zoom access.

Mary Prescott is a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.


Big Read Study Group no. 2

THe Landmark Center

75 W 5th St, St Paul, MN 55102
1:00 pm CT

Presented with the Ramsey County Historical Society, Historic Saint Paul and the Minnesota Opera, this event will feature Minnesota author and Hmong-American Kao Kalia Yang to discuss her book, The Song Poet, and her collaboration with Minnesota-based composer Jocelyn Hagen about the opera version of this book, presented by Minnesota Opera this Spring. Books will be available onsite.

Register here

About Participants


Lee Bynum

As Minnesota Opera’s Vice President of Impact, Lee Bynum leads a ten-person team that listens and learns from the community to make meaningful, authentic, and mutually beneficial change.  He directs the Company’s community and civic engagement, educative, and inclusion, diversity, equity, and access initiatives.  He also consults with Aspen Leadership Group and the Inclusion Firm on equity praxis.  Previously, Bynum served on the program staff at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he supported performing arts initiatives at organizations that include Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Sphinx Organization, the New York Public Library, and across the HBCU, TCU, and HSI sectors.  Before joining the Foundation, Bynum served as the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, where he was responsible for the administration of the Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and comparative ethnic studies programs, and a visiting scholar at the Caritas Institute for Higher Education of St. Francis University in Hong Kong.  As a dramaturg, he has collaborated on the development of new works with American Opera Projects, the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and Columbia University.  Bynum received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University.


Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang wrote the children’s books A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, The Most Beautiful Thing, Yang Warriors, and From the Tops of the Trees. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color. Yang’s work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA literary awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, as Notable Books by the American Library Association, Kirkus Best Books of the Year, the Heartland Bookseller’s Award, Bank Street College of Education, the Midland Authors Award, and garnered four Minnesota Book Awards. Kao Kalia Yang is also a teacher and public speaker.


Jocelyn Hagen

Jocelyn Hagen composes music that has been described as “simply magical” (Fanfare Magazine) and “dramatic and deeply moving” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis/St. Paul). She is a pioneer in the field of composition, pushing the expectations of musicians and audiences with large-scale multimedia works, electro-acoustic music, dance, opera, and publishing. Her first forays into composition were via songwriting, still very evident in her work. The majority of her compositions are for the voice: solo, chamber and choral. Her melodic music is rhythmically driven and texturally complex, rich in color and deeply heartfelt. In 2019 and 2020, choirs and orchestras across the country are premiering her multimedia symphony The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci that includes video projections created by a team of visual artists, highlighting da Vinci’s spectacular drawings, inventions, and texts. Hagen describes her process of composing for choir, orchestra and film simultaneously in a Tedx Talk given at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, now available on YouTube. Hagen’s commissions include Conspirare, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, Voces8, the International Federation of Choral Music, the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut and Texas, the North Dakota Music Teachers Association, Cantus, the Boston Brass, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the St. Olaf Band, among many others. Her work is independently published through JH Music, as well as through Graphite Publishing, G. Schirmer, EC Schirmer, Fred Bock Music Publishing, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, and Boosey and Hawkes.

Big Read Study Group no. 3

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
12:00 pm CT

Hosted by ACF Director of Artist Support, Carolina Heredia, this event will feature Latin American and ACF composer awardees in conversation about documenting the shift in experiences through generations. This event will feature ACF McKnight Visiting Composers J.E. Hernández and Victor Márquez-Barrios. This event will be both live-streamed and in person.

Register Here

Big Read Study Group no. 4

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
1:00 pm CT


Big Read Study Group no. 5

Location TBD

This culminating event will feature discussion with the author Thi Bui as well as improvised musical performance inspired by her book, The Best We Could Do.