Kristine Sorensen: Helping young artists tell their stories


It’s clear that Kristine Sorensen loves the art of storytelling. The executive director of In Progress, Sorensen has spent her career capturing stories on film and teaching others to do the same.

Sorensen always knew she wanted to be a teacher, even as a 3-year-old, but her love for film making came later. She made her first Super 8 films when she was about 10. In college, she focused on getting her teaching degree, but quickly became disillusioned with the education system.

“School was more about conformity than it was about learning,” Sorensen says. “It really wasn’t affording (teachers) the ability to help young people excel. At that time (early 1980s), most young (teachers) I knew were quitting the field.”

Sorensen decided, instead, to go to business school and eventually landed a summer job at Target Corp., where she managed a number of young people, many in their teens. It was the beginning of an early career, but something was still missing for Sorensen. That’s when she turned to film school.

Initially she thought she’d focus on the business side of film making, but then an opportunity came along that changed her life. She was given the chance to teach a video class that involved taking a group of young people who were in the a treatment facility up to the source of the Mississippi River and, along with science and art teachers who came along, she was tasked with helping them document their own stories.

“It just blew my mind,” she says. “At that moment, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life and everything since then has been about how we facilitate young people having a voice.”

In 1987, Sorensen went to work for Film In the Cities, a media arts center that provided educational and production opportunities to Midwest artists. She eventually became an education director, developing media arts programs with schools and community groups throughout Minnesota. One of those opportunities included partnering with Ronald Buckanaga, director of an alternative program for Indian youths living on the North Side of Minneapolis. Sorensen helped develop and implement a summer video arts program for the program.

In 1993, Film In the Cities closed shop. Sorensen started her own video production business while looking for opportunities to work with young people again. Her next opportunity came from The McKnight Foundation, which provided support in transitioning Film In the Cities’ media programming to Native American communities.

That’s when Sorensen began working with Native Arts Circle’s Executive Director, Juanita Espinosa.

“The conversation was all about how to encourage a different train of thought,” Espinosa says. “There were no rules about how you take a picture and the more you knew about how to dissect and understand the power of what you had, the stronger your story could become.”

To watch Sorensen, a Caucasian, come into the Native community and encourage that understanding when others had come into the Native community before her and defined the story and the pictures for themselves — instead of from the perspective of Native people — made a distinct impression on Espinosa.

Sorensen developed a reputation with many in the Native community and beyond for helping, but not hindering, those working to share their own stories. She would work late into the evening with students, all-the-while managing not to give into the temptation to finish the project for them.

“So often when people are doing projects they kind of get tired and it’s like, ‘I want to rest now, let me just finish that up for you,’ but she didn’t do that. She kept encouraging them to tell own their story,” Espinosa says.

In 1996, Executive Director of the Center for Arts Criticism Bienvenida Matias invited Sorensen to partner with her to teach a workshop for Latino youth living in Crookston, Minn. The collaboration marked the birth of Fresh Voices, an ongoing media arts program that is now a national model.

In 1998, as Fresh Voices continued to grow and expand, a 14-year-old aspiring media artist named Sai Thao approached Sorensen with her interest in teaching and pursuing a career as a media artist.

“She was the first one that said how can I do what you do?” Sorensen recalls. “I said go over to this place and go intern over here and see what happens. She did all those things and came back and said, ‘All right, I did that. How do I do what you do?’ ”

Upon receiving a St. Paul Companies Leadership In Neighborhoods grant to travel and expand her knowledge of how media arts learning and media production takes place, Sorensen took Sai Thao, along with five others, to Chicago. Through that experience, Sorensen and the young artists learned about each other and began the first discussions about how to further opportunities for young media artists. Following the Chicago trip, youth artist Mina Blyly-Strauss introduced the name “In Progress” and, under Sorensen’s leadership, a nonprofit was born.

In Progress began to receive national recognition for its artists, with photo and video exhibits in New York, California, Arizona, and other states. Today, In Progress continues to work in partnership with communities and schools, such as the Four Directions Charter School in Minneapolis, which has implemented a permanent media arts program that serves more than 100 students each year.

In September 2003, In Progress moved into a studio in St. Paul and by the end of 2004. In Progress was serving 1,000 young artists annually.

“Sometimes dreams take generations to achieve,” Sorensen says. “I worked with a young man who said it’s hard to have a dream when you’ve never seen anybody achieve their dream.”

Over the past few decades, that’s the leadership role Sorensen has been playing — helping young people from disadvantaged or minority communities achieve and share their dreams. Her success is evidenced by the fact that some of the students who were sharing their stories through video and photos in the 1980s are the adults who are leading in their communities today.

Sorensen continues her work at In Progress, often hunched over a video-editing workstation with a student or tucked in the basement studio helping a student record a rap song. She embraces the state of being which most others casually dismiss as a burden: The state of being “in progress.”

It is in growing, encouraging, teaching and developing the artists around her that Sorensen thrives.

Note: This is another in a series of profiles by The UpTake of leaders whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, cities and states better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor, The Uptake