See more of the story

Like most students at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), students in the Entrepreneurial Studies program develop their art skills. But the aspiring entrepreneurs also learn how to use those skills outside of school, perhaps to start businesses or hold leadership roles in agencies.

One team of students in that program has gone a step further, learning to use their art in the global fight against human trafficking. And they're teaming up with an unlikely partner to do it: a Rome-based network of undercover nuns.

"This is so prevalent and there's so much gravity and weight behind this issue," said Madison Mead, 26, who led the student team. "So what can we do as artists in our community to have a conversation, to get right out into the world and say, 'Hey, this is happening, this is terrible, none of us can probably understand, but we can do whatever we can to join forces and try to help.'"

So, how did a group of Minneapolis art students wind up using their art and entrepreneurial skills on behalf of a Rome-based organization that deploys nuns around the globe to rescue trafficking survivors?

It began with several organizations in different parts of the world joining forces.

In 2021, the chief creative officer of Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm, reached out to Nancy Rice, who teaches integrated advertising at MCAD.

Edelman was doing pro-bono work on behalf of Talitha Kum, a network of more than 2,000 nuns stationed in 70 countries. The nuns identify, rescue and rehabilitate people who have endured forced prostitution or slave labor, often accompanied by beatings, starvation and other abuse.

Talitha Kum nuns help, for example, by operating shelters for migrants, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Or they visit women who've been lured into prostitution with the promise of fancy jobs — often with the unwitting encouragement of their families. When the nuns locate survivors, they offer comfortable places to live and educational and vocational opportunities.

To help support the nuns, Edelman established a web page called "Super Nuns" on Patreon, a website through which followers can pledge support to artists, including painters, photographers, videographers, podcasters, writers, musicians and more.

The Super Nuns page contains art and stories celebrating the nuns' work and the heroism of human trafficking survivors. A limited number of signed prints are given away randomly to the page's supporters.

But the company needed help to drive potential donors to the site. They turned to Rice.

In addition to teaching at MCAD, she has a long and successful history in Minneapolis and Chicago advertising, having held senior creative management posts at a number of prominent agencies, including founding partner at Minneapolis' Fallon McElligott & Rice.

Rice is a big believer in having students work with real clients, where they contribute to real-world campaigns and acquire work samples that give them a head start when they set out on their careers.

"I teach the way I learned, which is being thrown right into the fire, with real circumstances and real business challenges, from clients' organizations that I believe will have merit to the students' learning," Rice said.

"In other classes, they may do posters, prints … here, they come up with a core idea and make sure it works across multimedia challenges. I believe it's never better than when an actual client is involved."

Rice has the students work on projects in teams, the way people do in the professional advertising world. Mead and several of her entrepreneurial studies classmates were eager to take on the challenge of raising public awareness of Talitha Kum's work.

Typically, they might create a social-media campaign, Mead said. But that didn't seem like a big enough way to address a subject as serious and important as human trafficking.

The result was "Joining Forces: The Super Exhibition," an outdoor art exhibit the students held in May on the grounds of MCAD and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The mission was not just to call attention to human trafficking but also to drive visitors to the Super Nuns Patreon page.

"We are very big on how can we create an experience nowadays, with everyone so jaded by random posts on social media," Mead said. "How can we go beyond the screen and really … engage our community?"

Justin Lees, 28, an MCAD student on Mead's team, agreed. "The way we created this campaign was this idea of joining forces," he said.

Making a dent

The nuns earned the name Super Nuns through their undercover surveillance and rescues. Similarly the students, "as artists, have superpowers, and we recognize those powers as something that can change the world, or at least make a dent," Lees said.

The team contributed their own art and gathered more from artists in the community to be featured in the exhibition, using prompts related to Talitha Kum's work. The exhibition itself featured posters telling the story of Talitha Kum's work, and QR codes that led visitors to the Patreon page, which also has a virtual tour of the exhibit.

The students' idea won approval from their partners.

"I was deeply touched by the sensitivity of the group of the MCAD students. They understood deeply the heart of Talitha Kum," said Sister Gabriella Bottani, international coordinator of Talitha Kum.

Edelman, too, gave the project a thumbs up. "These really smart, creative agency people were saying, 'That's a really great idea,'" Lees said. "That took it to the next level."

Mead, Lees and other classmates hope they can continue working together after they graduate (Mead this May, Lees next year), perhaps forming their own agency or other organization.

"I'm personally a dreamer, I've got big ideas," Mead said. "But I know I need my classmates around to make it tangible."

"We're all individual artists," Lees added, "but we see the power of joining forces and working together."