When Local Community Writing Initiatives Crashed into White House Public Policy—Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from an Atlanta High School

Scene report by
Lara Smith-Sitton
Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez
Paul N. McDaniel


On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum of “Zero-Tolerance for Offenses Under USC § 1325(a),” which addresses concerns of “illegal” entry into the US and asserts to federal prosecutors that they are working “on the front lines of this battle” (Sessions). On that very day, a book of narratives written by twenty-one high school-aged immigrants and refugees living in metro Atlanta—including the words of six “Dreamers”—went to press. The project, Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from an Atlanta High School, is a community writing and engagement project representing a two-year collaboration between the Minneapolis nonprofit Green Card Voices (GCV) and Kennesaw State University (KSU), as well as ancillary partnerships with three DeKalb County public high schools and Atlanta area nonprofit organizations. Through the curation of narratives in digital and print formats, GCV invited a group of faculty members from different disciplines (rhetoric & composition, social work & public policy, geography, and education) and twenty-five writing and editing students to explore the social, political, and cultural complexities surrounding US immigration policies and practices through editorial work on a book project.

What started as a community writing project supporting advocacy work by an organization grew into a transformative learning experience that welcomed direct involvement by all partners in organizational action for inquiry and activism. Doing this work in the shadow of national political debates about immigration policy prompted reflection by all involved on the political and social justice implications surrounding this community engagement initiative. Deborah Mutnik (2015) describes this as a “kairotic moment” in program development that allows for the creation of projects and programs that provide for unique democratic and civic learning and engagement experiences.

Project needs and motivations—The many components of development and implementation

The scope of the Green Card Youth Voices publication project was large, including components such as grant applications, community outreach, public events, course design considerations, writing, and research in order to support the work of an organization with defined goals and clear needs from the partnership. The young immigrant and refugee narratives created in Atlanta turned into GCV’s fourth collection of essays written by high school students. The three previous collections compiled stories from midwestern cities: Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Fargo. For this edition, GCV came to the American South, where, according to recent census data, Georgia is home to approximately one million foreign-born individuals and an estimated one-in-ten persons is an immigrant (Paul N. McDaniel, Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez & Anna Joo Kim, 2017, p. 5). Georgia also has the seventh highest number of undocumented individuals in the US—a population of 377,000 individuals. DeKalb County, where the three schools are located, is home to an estimated 49,000 undocumented Georgians (Migration Policy Institute, 2015).

The mission of GCV is to “share personal narratives of America’s immigrants, fostering tolerance and establishing a better understanding between the immigrant and non-immigrant populations” (Green Card Voices, n.d., “About us: Mission statement”). This aligns with an important facet of Jose Antonio Vargas’s 2017 Conference on College Composition and Communication keynote address, which emphasized the value of storytelling as a rhetorical tool for discussions of immigration reform. Vargas articulated the importance of more public conversations about immigration and citizenship. The stories of his childhood and current journey as an immigrant navigating US policy and practice served as his method of knowledge transfer. His experience in a first-year writing course drafting a personal narrative about his life as an undocumented youth led to a journalism career largely focused on immigration and American citizenship. He reminded the audience that despite his productive career and impactful work, as an undocumented immigrant, he has no path to citizenship and may face deportation to a country he does not consider home. Vargas is also the founder of Define America, an organization with a mission similar to GCV: “a nonprofit media and culture organization that uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America” (Define America, 2018). Within rhetoric and composition, Kathleen Blake Yancey (2016) has long affirmed the pedagogical impetus of reflection and metacognition for students to better understand the impact of life experiences in a range of contexts both inside and outside of the classroom (p. 8). These foundations made the undertaking of personal narratives and essay production a logical fit for a community writing project involving upper-level undergraduate and graduate English and writing studies students.

Breaking down the project—A plethora of pieces

To prepare for a project of this magnitudeone that mobilizes approximately sixty individuals over a few months for the student community writing component—the parameters and focus had to be established upfront. Faculty members met and divided the essential tasks. For example, Dr. Tea Rozman Clark, as the Executive Director of the nonprofit we were working with, was the team leader. She clearly explained that she would conduct the interviews with the high school students, and her staff would create the digital narratives. Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez would pull from her expertise in social work to make connections at area schools and nonprofit organizations to support the conversations on the ground at the high schools during the onsite visits. Paul McDaniel, as a human geographer, provided research support to help us map the migration of the students to the US as well as assist with onsite work. Lara Smith-Sitton focused her energies on course design and the assignments for her professional editing and internship courses as well as research structures that would allow the KSU students to engage with the project and for establishment of an editorial team led by graduate students in the Master in Professional Writing program to work with the manuscripts outside of the professional editing course. Education faculty, KSU, and the local high schools applied their expertise to bring students into the project—without their voices and stories, the project, obviously, would not have moved forward.

This represents a fraction of the collaborations that enabled the completion of the student community writing and publication pieces to come to fruition in the course of a semester. University faculty members used their personal and professional networks throughout the community to bolster their publicity, funding, endorsements, and dissemination efforts. This project was possible because of the many disciplines and abilities that comprised the team from GCV to KSU, from high school to university students, from the local community to national stakeholders. As faculty members, we were dependent upon GCV leadership for direction to avoid problems and meet the deadlines. Often, however, it was the students who, through the application of action theory principles, discovered not only efficiencies that strengthened the project but also the learning that they desired to make this a worthwhile endeavor. As Lorraine Higgins, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower (2010) explain, action theory “allows for a richer rhetorical analysis that might reveal flaws in the system and points of intervention” (p. 171). Through this project we trusted the students in both groups to come together and craft a collection that adhered to GCV’s vision (n.d): craft essays and create videos that remain “true to each immigrant’s story.” This led to structures that taught the subtle yet essential distinctions between the role of the editor and the responsibilities of the writer. The students were identifying rhetorical opportunities and problems throughout the project—concerns that they could find because they could see what was needed in the manuscripts.

This type of approach is what Paul D. McCarthy (1993) describes as developmental editing: “[the] writer and editor jointly evolve a concept or story idea . . . striving at every state to make the partial and the complete work as excellent as possible. . . . there is, of necessity, a greater closeness between editor and writer” (p. 126). Through class discussion and in-class activities, the KSU students honed this editorial method in order to expand the ideas within the essays. Because the project began with the student editors listening to the digital narratives and then transcribing them into written essays, a respect for the authenticity and unique nature of each student was emphasized. The editors had to learn how to maintain these voices within the manuscripts.

Beyond local implications—The political and the personal

In Because We Live Here: Sponsoring Literacy Beyond the College Classroom, Eli Goldblatt (2007) articulates a facet of community literacy work that the KSU faculty members found particularly relevant to the GCV project: “draw that map and, in the process, think harder about how every person from any neighborhood can get from where he or she starts as a kid to a safe and productive place he or she chooses as an adult” (p. 5). The team leaders were committed to this project because of the rich learning opportunities for KSU students, but we also had a desire to prompt productive public conversations about the topic of immigration that could lead to viable solutions in the future for immigrants coming to the US. Preparations for this project started before the change in presidential administrations, but there were dark shadows looming: immigration policies could change, resulting in the restriction of immigrant rights and the propagation of anti-immigrant narratives. While these storms were brewing, faculty members from KSU in collaboration with Dr. Rozman Clark were helping students understand that community-engagement and this project were not just about fixing the essays for publication—the two student groups (the high school authors and the college editors) were living, writing, and delving into a set of cultural and political issues up close and using their skills, abilities, and insights to craft solutions that could reshape this complex issue.

As the high school students wrote and the college students edited the essays for publication, Congress and the White House failed to move forward on continuing the needed protections provided under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Lara Smith-Sitton recalled one particularly poignant day:

I was sitting in the library at one of the high schools with students contributing to the collection. It was the week following the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, so outside the library window active shooter training of some sort was taking place. In this small space, desks were huddled together so DACA-impacted authors and KSU editors could work on the developmental editing of the essays. I recalled that early that week, this school lost a student due to complications with the flu. I glanced down, noting that I had just received alerts on my phone from CNN and The New York Times reporting that Congress would not be moving forward with DACA or any other immigration-related legislation. I paused. Here, in front of me, was a room of young individuals with hopes and dreams who were encouraging one another to put forward their best work. They had created a community for work and writing. But, outside of this safe space, young immigrants and high school students in Atlanta and across the country are living in precarious times, fraught with uncertainties.

This week created a powerful chapter in the project: not only were the narratives potentially going to have an impact in the community, but also the editing of those narratives was having an impact on the student editors—they were analyzing the public discourse, identifying the inconsistencies in media reports, and confidently forming new opinions based upon the knowledge they had procured through working with the high school students. What was even more powerful, however, was that while originally it seemed as if there were two distinctive groups of students, in two different communities, they were now united. These young men and women understood they were actually members of a larger, shared community where they were all working, studying, dreaming, and pursuing their own versions of the American dream. Their world is currently, and will be, shaped by public policies and social issues surrounding gun violence, access to healthcare, a stalemate in Washington, and, of course, unsettling immigration policies. As students found points of commonality, it moved them beyond what Linda Flower (1997) describes as a “cultural mission,” which can limit the impact of the engagement. She explains, “‘doing good’ by the lights of the service provider, this paradigm maintains a strong sense of otherness and distance, of giver and receiver. It makes no demand for mutuality in analyzing or responding to problems; it maintains the status quo” (p. 97). But the events surrounding this community work moved the students to recognize their shared community and commonalities; they were united through this project.

This project became one that embodied what Goldblatt (2007) has articulated as essential to community literacy work: it matters because we live here . . . together. The stakeholders in the project—high school authors, college editors, faculty members, and nonprofit administrators—believed this project was important and could make a difference in the lives of the young immigrants and their families. The narratives surrounding immigration and the need for more public discussion and reform became central to those engaged in the GCV Atlanta project. We thought about not only the current situations of immigrants but also their futures.

Pausing to celebrate—then, project expansion

In the Introduction to the collection, the co-editors explain an essential goal of this work: “Green Card Voices and our collaborators work every day to uplift stories of immigrants, refugees, and their families in order for all to be welcomed. Our mission is to use the art of storytelling to combat stereotypes and create empathy” (Tea Rozman Clark, Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez & Lara Smith-Sitton, 2018, p. ix). As the actions and language of the White House Administration took a stronger, more aggressive stance against immigration reform, the project continued to move forward. Amid tears of frustration and fear over the frightening absence of needed protections for immigrants—especially Dreamers—we collectively unveiled a project revealing how rhetoric, writing, and literacy studies can intersect in community writing projects to provide access to new understandings for engagement with advocacy and social justice work for university faculty and students.

On Mother’s Day in May 2018, student authors, editors, faculty members, and community partners gathered at the Alliance Theater to celebrate the work of this project. Moving from what was first envisioned as a simple class project where students practiced and applied editorial skills, the project evolved to include additional learning outcomes and an opportunity to learn about immigration in the State of Georgia and the US while seeing the many shapes and forms of social and political activism. In the words of one of the “Dreamers” featured in this project, “I will become a role model for people. I will be able to show people that it doesn’t matter where you are from, it doesn’t matter what race you are. It only matters how bad you want it and how hard you work for it. . . . You have to persevere” (Luis, 2018, p. 65). The Green Card Voices project in Atlanta is an example of an ambitious, far-reaching approach full of fight and determination that is committed to improving the lives of not only immigrants and refugees but all US Americans. Through an organizational action approach, Green Card Voices has created a sustainable model for community writing and engagement that affords access to activist practices and movements.

References

American Immigration Council. (13 Oct. 2017). State-by-state fact sheets: Immigrants in Georgia. Retrieved from https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/immigrants-in-georgia

Clark, Tea Rozman, Rodriguez, Darlene Xiomara & Smith-Sitton, Lara. (2018). Green Card Youth Voices. Minneapolis, MN: Wise.

Flower, Linda. (1997). Partners in inquiry: A logic for community outreach. In L. Adler-Kassner, R. Crooks & A. Watters (Eds.), Writing the community: Concepts and models for service-learning in Composition (pp. 5–118). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Goldblatt, Eli. (2007). Because We live here: Sponsoring literacy beyond the college curriculum. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton. 

Higgins, Lorraine, Long, Elenore & Flower, Linda. (2010). Community literacy: A rhetorical model for personal and public inquiry. In T. Deans, B. Roswell & A. Wurr (Eds.), Writing and community  engagement: A critical sourcebook (pp. 167201). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Luis. (2018). Green card youth voices: Immigration stories from an Atlanta high school. In Clark, Rodriguez & Smith-Sitton (Eds.), Green card youth voices (pp. 618). Minneapolis, MN: Wise.

McCarthy, Paul D. (1993). Developmental editing: A creative collaboration. In G. Cross (Ed.), Editors on editing: What writers need to know (pp. 135–42). NY, NY: Grove.

Migration Policy Institute. (2015). Unauthorized immigrant populations by country and region, top states and counties of residence, 2010–14. Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/unauthorized-immigrant-populations-country-and-region-top-state-and-county.

McDaniel, Paul N., Rodriguez, Darlene Xiomara & Kim, Anna Joo. (2017). Receptivity and the welcoming cities movement: Advancing a regional immigrant integration policy framework in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. Papers in Applied Geography, 3-4: 355–79.

Mutnik, Deborah. (2015). The right time: Building the learning community movement. Learning Communities Research and Practice, 3(2): article 10.

Define America. (2018). About us: Our mission. Retrieved from https://defineamerican.com/about/.

Sessions, Jeff. (6 April 2018). Memorandum for federal prosecutors along the southwest border. Office of the Attorney General. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1049751/download.

Green Card Voices. (n.d.). About us: Mission statement. Retrieved from https://www.greencardvoices.com/home/about-us/.

Green Card Voices. (n.d.). About us: VisionRetrieved from https://www.greencardvoices.com/home/about-us/.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. (2016). Introduction. In K. B. Yancey (Ed.), A Rhetoric of reflection (pp. 322). Boulder, CO: UP of Colorado.

Author Bios

Lara Smith-Sitton (she/her/hers) is the Director of Community Engagement and Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. She teaches writing and rhetoric courses as well as oversees the graduate and undergraduate internship program. Her publications and research areas include community writing, engaged scholarship, internship program design, and 18th- and 19th-Century rhetoric. 

Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Social Work and Human Services at Kennesaw State University. She teaches courses in nonprofit management and leadership as well as overseas undergraduate internships and senior capstone research projects. Her community-based participatory research unpacks the nonprofit sector’s role in facilitating immigrant integration. You can learn more about her work at https://works.bepress.com/darlene-rodriguez/.

Paul N. McDaniel (he/him/his) is Assistant Professor of Geography at Kennesaw State University. He teaches courses in urban, population, regional, and human geography. His research and publications focus on the processes of immigrant settlement, adjustment, integration, and receptivity in cities and metropolitan areas. You can follow him on Twitter @pnmcdaniel and atfacultyweb.kennesaw.edu/pmcdan11/