Changing the World Through Song

Posted on January 29th, 2010 by

By Lindsay Lelivelt ’11

Neal Hagberg ’81 is a man of many talents. Since graduating, he has accomplished quite a bit. Hagberg has earned a master’s degree in divinity, acclaim as a singer/songwriter, and respect as a leader/teacher in a variety of settings.

Hagberg works in small groups with students from the Changing the World class. Photo by Lindsay Lelivelt '11.

Hagberg and his wife, Leandra Peak ’83, are the folk singer/songwriter duo Neal & Leandra that has performed in nearly all 50 states.  The duo visits Gustavus regularly for performances in Bjorling Recital Hall and elsewhere.

One of their first successes, “Old Love,” has earned “classic” status and is well-known to Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio listeners. It is listed as one of the most requested songs on MPR’s Morning Show.

The Washington Post says “as songwriters, Neal & Leandra have clearly mastered the art of saying more with less.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Neal Hagberg writes inspired originals.” And the Victory Review of Seattle writes that Neal & Leandra have “one of the most sensuous [mixes] of voices I’ve heard.”

In his solo music, Hagberg discusses topics that some would consider off-limits or too controversial. “When I write, I just kind of lay it open and just [say] ‘Here’s the deal. Here’s the mess I’m in, or the mess you’re in, or this is how complicated love can be, or this is what it feels like to hate’ . . .  I take those basic emotions and put them into specific stories,” says Hagberg.

“I think that music/song provides an avenue to get people to think and talk about these uncomfortable issues which we would rather avoid,” says Associate Professor of English Florence Amamoto. “And providing a human face, as Hagberg says, makes it both more immediate and personal; it underlines the human complexity—and cost—in ways that statistics and abstract arguments can’t.  Neal’s is risky but important work.”

In January 2010 and 2009, Hagberg was on campus for a few days to lead class discussions for the Changing the World course, participate in Proclaim worship service, perform on campus, and lead a workshop/conversation with faculty and staff regarding how best to equip students to handle complex social issues.  In all aspects of his work, Hagberg focuses on social justice, integrity, teaching, and the common good.

Hagberg helps Chris Johnson’s January Interim Experience class, Changing the World, challenge their way of thinking. This year he lead discussions on the meaning of grace and mercy and participated in other class activities.

“Neal Hagberg is a remarkable presence,” says Chris Johnson ’85, teacher of Changing the World, and director of the College’s Center for Vocational Reflection (CVR). “With warmth, humor, an open and generous spirit, and a gift for mindful presence, Neal reflected with us on his own professional, artistic, and vocational journey, and on the power of story to form beliefs and world-views that animate meaningful action in the world.  We were challenged and enlightened.”

Sophomore Colleen Peterson ’12 says, “Neal is a great and inspiring man with words of wisdom beyond his years. His stories are captivating and he connects well with the audience.” Peterson is a CVR intern and Proclaim leader.

In addition to singing on campus with Leandra and being a guest speaker/teacher, Hagberg is a summer mainstay in his role as assistant director of Tennis and Life Camps.  “We take the sport and use it as a tool to get people to think about their lives and how they treat others . . . it’s like working with the golden rule,” Hagberg says of the role he has filled for 30 summers.

“I feel so connected [to Gustavus] with tennis camp, in working with the Changing the World class, and with Leandra and I coming back and doing concerts . . . Gustavus is still changing me,” says Hagberg.

While Gustavus may still be changing him, he is committed to changing some things at Gustavus—challenging the way students and faculty/staff think about tough issues and work toward a better understanding on complex topics.

 

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