Laura Riehle-Merrill is Director of Acting in the Community Together (ACT), a key program within Carleton College’s Center for Community & Civic Engagement. Laura first served as a VISTA at Carleton from 1998-1999 and has held her current position since 2005.Originally from the Twin Cities, she holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. Laura lives in Northfield, Minnesota with her husband and their two young daughters.
1) What about your college experience influenced where you are today?
My Gustavus education helped me appreciate diverse perspectives–there was a lot of dialogue on campus and it helped me respect and appreciate views different from my own and begin to understand my own privilege. Our campus was struck by a tornado the year in which I graduated and I was profoundly impacted by the outpouring of support the Gustavus and St. Peter communities received. Before that point, I had been very involved at Gustavus but not outside of the campus bubble. It was a turning point for me and led to my decision to serve as a VISTA (through MN Campus Compact!) the following year.
2) What is the most exciting thing that you do in your job?
Our center sponsors a community-wide garage sale called Lighten Up. Rather than tossing items into a dumpster, Carleton students donate clothing and household items. Three local non-profits partner with us, provide volunteers, and receive all of the sale’s proceeds. Seeing high-schoolers, Special Olympics athletes, and retired community members volunteering together for a common purpose is powerful. I love the excitement when the sale opens at 8 am–hundreds of shoppers are lined up waiting for our doors to open! Last year our sale raised $26,500.
3) What book should everybody read, and why?
It’s called Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber. Steingraber spoke at Carleton several years ago when I was pregnant and, after hearing her speak, I immediately ran to the library to check out her book. I love the way she weaves her own narrative with compelling arguments about environmental toxins and the need for stricter regulations.
4) Who or what is inspiring your work these days?
Really and truly, my students inspire me. A month or so ago I received an email from Libbie Weimer ’10, who’s now working on a documentary addressing the need for meaningful civic engagement in the United States. To hear her credit our center for giving her “a strong foundation to know how to serve and be served by others” made me incredibly proud. When the brilliance of Carleton students meets community engagement, anything is possible.
5) What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about the potential of Carleton’s Center for Community & Civic Engagement to create a unique place in which idealistic students, dedicated staff and faculty, and committed partners all collaborate to deepen learning while meeting the needs of the community. In my role as Director of Acting in the Community Together, I help students develop as leaders by giving them opportunities to reflect on how they may use their strengths to create self awareness and social change. Last year, 100% of our student coordinators reported that their role in ACT made them more likely to be engaged in their community for the rest of their lives. I feel a great deal of pride in knowing that I am helping our students graduate with the skills to be healthy, engaged citizens.