The Power of Writing

For the past several years, the United States has seen the legitimate concerns of the working poor and the legitimate concerns of the historically marginalized placed into a destructive opposition. Out of the ferocity this generated, a virulent and powerful rhetoric of racism and sexism has spread over these concerns, distorting their roots and damaging potential solutions. So today, in the United States there is a deep concern about what might happen next. At such a moment we might ask, what can something as simple as the act of writing accomplish? How might writing enable individuals to overcome divides in the project of building a greater whole?

Here is one example worth considering. In the late 1970s, a time of significant economic and cultural transformation in the United Kingdom, when immigration intersected with industrial collapse, the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP) emerged. Initially, the FWWCP was a small set of writing groups located in London, focused on sharing their writing with each other and finding a collaborative way of speaking about what was occurring in their neighborhoods. From these simple origins, however, the FWWCP grew into an international organization that expanded outwards to the Americas and the Middle East. In the process, it also became an organization that supported hundreds of authors and published close to one million books that expressed its collaborative vision of justice.

Yet here is the most important point about the FWWCP. Each published author, each book, emerged from a local writing group in a local community. These groups worked to bring together all the community elements that were suffering under this great economic and cultural transformation—the dispossessed worker, the recent immigrant, the victims of gender and racial oppression, and many others. In these small, intimate moments of sharing words, of using language to build a new way of understanding across conflict, a recognition of a common humanity emerged—a sense of humanity that bridged divides and created a path forward. From these groups emerged writers, then books, and then local moments of collective activism around literacy education, labor rights, and cultural justice. Given a voice by the power of writing, these diverse individuals formed a collective that fought for a more just and equitable future for everyone.

Today, that struggle continues.

I suggest that one way in which we might use our positions as teachers and as researchers is to join with our local communities to create writing groups which actively seek to draw together those populations that have been asked to see their neighbor as the Other. We should work with communities to establish the conditions in which writing across conflicts can create a new common sense, an inclusive vision that draws out what is common in the name of an expansive collective justice. We then need to ensure that this new vision circulates in the classrooms and in the streets through which we walk every day. This, I believe, is the task at hand and the power of writing.

Finally, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the world would have continued to be unjust whichever candidate was elected last November. There were clearly stark differences, but our work would not be over in either case. Racism, sexism, and hatred are not new. They exist within the very language in which we speak and the institutions in which that language circulates. Today, our work has become harder, but we do not have to act alone. Indeed, if we expand our vision, our sense of the power of writing, we might find there are entire communities waiting to welcome us into the important work ahead.

Stephen Parks, Associate Professor, Writing and Rhetoric, Syracuse University

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