Getting There: Reflections on Community Engagement and Activist Support

Scene report by
Patrick Danner
Chris Scheidler


The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

– bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 207

We open with a quote from bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress because we recognize the opportunities and possibilities that she discusses—the potential for educators and students to “labor for freedom.” We have grappled with similar possibilities by serving as partners in an ongoing community engagement project: the Gateway County Public School (GCPS) Storytelling Project. The GCPS Storytelling Project emerged out of a partnership between our home institution, the University of Louisville, and a nearby, combined middle and high school. The students we work with constitute an after-school club called the “Cultural Dialoguers,” which formed in the wake of the 2016 U.S. elections. Club members’ goals vary, but cohere around a few key activities and principles: inclusive space-making, non-judgmental discourse, a collective goal of raising voices, and the desire to translate their work to suit activist events in Gateway. These students come together after school to engage one another with open minds and hearts. In practice, this work takes different forms. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, for example, students paused ongoing projects in order to unpack their reactions with their peers. Later, they incorporated footage of their own walk-out against gun violence into a self-directed documentary short.

The authors of this scene report represent current and former managers of the Project. In this report, we reflect on our experiences in that amorphous, unpredictable role. To the extent that our experiences are generalizable, we suggest that community engagement work shares affinity with social movement organizing and activist support. In fact, we believe this is an unspoken truth, as the field’s engagement with figures like hooks, Paulo Freire, and Saul Alinsky suggests. And as the field takes up matters of social justice in a contentious era, we must take these scholars to heart once more in order to critique the material labor of working for communities as community-engaged composition workers.

Engagement and/as activist support

Throughout the development of our partnership, we’ve turned toward community engagement scholarship to more ethically frame our day-to-day involvement and to address issues of sustainability. Although there are more ways of doing that work than we could summarize here, what Thomas Deans (2000) recognizes as a shift from “writing for” toward “writing with” succinctly summarizes how we understood such engagement early on. Further, we quickly learned that communities have the most to benefit—and most thrive—when partnerships are defined and shaped by community needs rather than the institutional demands of the university (Cushman, 2002; Goldblatt, 2007). This community-first ethos has treated us well in our everyday approaches to the GCPS student artists and activists. It has allowed us to recognize the existing work of the Cultural Dialoguers as valuable and honor our “responsibility to engage in work that will result in substantive social change” (Williams & Brydon-Miller, 2004, p. 244). However, such a focus on the immaterial components of ethos caused us to ignore the real, pragmatic concerns with insufficient institutional support—concerns that are often more immediate and real to precarious participants and graduate employees. Moreover, our relationship toward institutional support occluded a critique of institutional constraints.

Our work with the Cultural Dialoguers required that we frame our primary role as the brokers of institutional constraints on Cultural Dialoguer work. In many ways, we have come to operate as a counterpoint to the authorities (their teachers) in the room, facilitating activity without directing it and allowing local leaders—those that Alinsky (1946) identifies as sharing the same aspirations, hopes, desires, and even tragedies as those they purport to lead—to rise up around the projects the group undertook (p. 89). Such leadership has emerged among spoken word student-artists who stage mass events, among students who organize walk-outs and marches, and among those who come into the space with a particular tact in facilitating empathetic conversations around issues of gun control, mass incarceration, racism, sexual assault, and so on.

Our primary stance, after a few false starts, has been to honor this organic leadership and the community of students that cultivate it. We not only facilitate the discussions students have and the projects they take on, more vitally, we provide critical activist support: material support aligned with their organic goals. We provide composing help, most notably by providing the digital tools—the audio and video equipment we have access to—that they use to craft their documentary, audio, and video projects. We help them write, storyboard, record, edit, organize, and present their work to various audiences on their terms and with the material they request. This stance moves us away from traditional community engagement work that, for better and worse, often relies on the consensus of institutional goals (here, our home university and the public school we have partnered with). Instead, this approach places us in a position to take cues from the tactics of movement organizing and activist support.

In what follows, we trace some tensions brought on by socially engaged work: time constraints, mobility constraints, and technology constraints. By entering the GCPS space as an activist support network, we were afforded heightened visibility of the material constraints outlined below and can now move to address those constraints in supporting our community partner.

Kairos/chronos

There is great interest among graduate students in joining us on the GCPS project, but very little available time. Graduate life swings between moments of significant flexibility and moments of unmovable schedules. We cannot choose class times or courses to teach. Schedules for meetings are often inflexible. Even our research requires meeting a range of private and institutional deadlines. The Dialoguers, too, feel the weight of inflexible schedules. As new activities launch at their school—e.g., as different sports become “in-season” or rehearsal for a school play starts—students often peel off midway through the development of their projects. Anecdotally, many of them point to college applications and the relative weight of student activism as opposed to, say, something more traditionally “marketable” like joining the track team. They vacillate between similarly inflexible schedules of busing, jobs, and family obligations. Students often pop in for only a few minutes before being picked up. They sometimes come late due to conflicts with other activities. And though they make the most of their time in that space and with the resources on hand, they regularly lament that it’s never really “enough.” Yet, in this moment—after Parkland, after Kavanaugh, after Trump—activism, and what we can do to amplify activist voices, is too important to put off. The Dialoguers feel this, too.

In other words, we recognized early in our collaborations that this project has an abundance of kairos but a dearth of chronos. Awareness of time constraints and the way time operates at GCPS shapes the project at all levels: from the brainstorming and invention of media for an upcoming protest all the way to the attendance of special screening events. Of course, it would be careless to lose sight of institutional time scales. However, by embracing the organic time scales of GCPS Dialoguers as representative of activist organizational work, we are more effective as artistic and activist collaborators. To adjust to such constraints, we have to expect and anticipate that students show up late or not at all, that they leave early to start their shift, and that any work left undone at the end of our day doesn’t follow them home and become additional labor on their already stretched time. As Ron Scapp notes in his dialogue with hooks (1994), “there’s [a] community beyond the campus that these students belong to” (p. 163). To ignore these communities—and the Dialoguers’ vital relationships to them—would be to ignore that lived reality in favor of institutional expectations. Although this ethos has frustrated institutional authorities—particularly those authorities who crave more “polished” work—we steadfastly work on the Dialoguers’ schedule alone as a way to gain the trust necessary to be their activist support.

Mobility

Mobility has always been a constraint for our project. Our first meeting in 2016 required a rental car, bus lines, and graduate students’ cars. As the project continues, on any given night before our weekly meeting we often exchange texts about transportation: who can pick up the technology from the department; where can we pick each other up; where do the bus lines overlap? Of course, it’s not lost on us that mobility is deeply privileged. Between the handful of graduate students, adjuncts, and faculty members engaging with GCPS, there are a few reliable vehicles for regular transportation. Yet, transportation is equally a concern for the Dialoguers, who are generally in more precarious living spaces and often too young to drive.

The mobility of these students is thus tied directly to the issues of kairos and chronos that plague uncomplicated project development. These issues were exacerbated in spring 2018, when budget cuts caused GCPS to stop providing the “activity bus,” a service that was the only available transportation home for many attendees. As GCPS students are often bussed from the other side of the county, the only alternative is, often, an inordinately long commute for parents and caregivers. This barrier similarly hindered engagement in the end-of-year “Documentary Premiere” event in 2018, as scheduling across institutions required a day-time event and budgets precluded us from finding transportation for many of the students who wrote, directed, and starred in the documentary.

The spaces in which we and the Dialoguers operate and move among reveal the ways in which institutions further restrict mobility within activist spaces. That is, mobility doesn’t only mean transportation to and from our locations, but also the accessibility of these locations. As an after school project, the Dialoguers are often locked out of school spaces that are meaningful to them and kept from traveling to community spaces that inspire them. Whether such restrictions manifest in the locking of school doors at the end of the day (prohibiting students from filming outside) or restricting their work to a handful of unlocked classrooms once in the school (once memorably leading to a break-in of the music room for music video filming), such issues of mobility often lead us as activist support to find workarounds in the face of restricted movement.

As Freire (1993) would suggest: because their home institution restricts their physical movement,  the Dialoguers are constrained in ways they can “name their worlds” (pp. 88-91). This fact is undeniably true when we consider—particularly in a documentary project—that limiting the video and audio students can obtain would limit the range of things they can say through this medium. Yet, in our present moment, what are the ethics of allowing a student into school through a side door after hours? What does it mean to use classroom space without teacher permission? In short, our activist support stance means a bulk of our work is iteratively contending with these very questions and adjusting when our workarounds are ineffective.

Technology

Money and resources also circumscribe the ways our community partners can name and critique their worlds. And institutions, of course, are constrained by budgets. During the years before budget shortfalls, our home department was able to purchase two handheld digital video cameras, two Zoom H5 audio recorders, one Zoom H6, one (now broken) camera stand, and four multi-directional microphones. Additionally, we had access to other departmental equipment. We had two MacBooks; both of which had limited storage capacity, and neither of which had working chargers. On the surface, this is a good, working start for digital storytelling projects. Yet complications abounded.

Many of the projects these students undertake are labor intensive and technically intensive. These projects often require off-site recording, video editing, visual design, and audio work. We can rarely provide all of this within the guidelines of our home institution’s equipment check-out policy, let alone the 90 minutes we have with students when they can meet. Moreover, many of the students, given the economic demographics of the Dialoguers, are without access to the production equipment outside of the thin weekly windows we’re on-site.

And, understandably, GCPS has a strict Internet access policy. As we are not school employees, we cannot connect to GCPS’ Wi-Fi (though one author gained Internet access, falling through a gap in security, which allowed their personal laptop to function as a third editing and storage space for the Dialoguers). The classroom we currently work from is in a basement, so connecting via a cell phone hotspot is impossible. Moreover, our home departmental policy is that equipment can only be checked out for 48 hours. This, combined with transportation concerns, makes it (at times) nearly impossible to gather and return the equipment in accordance with departmental guidelines.

As community-engaged workers, we are perennially under-equipped and constantly reckoning with chronos across institutions and actors. However, we contend with this reality by turning again and again to our understanding of ourselves as activist support. We devise workarounds (e.g., teaching students how to best film with their cell phone cameras), accommodate Dialoguer time scales (i.e., coming early or staying late to work with subgroups of students), and advocate for them when their own institutional pressures—the demand for polished, finished work within a given time frame—are brought to the fore.

Conclusions and ways forward

An ethos of activist support requires community-engaged scholars to contend with these and other constraints on community-engaged work. Such a turn could now perhaps experience its own kairotic moment. After the 2016 election, activism and community engagement have largely taken more visible roles in our scholarship, as evidenced by the creation of this journal and the 4C4E Activist Network. Despite this increased visibility in our scholarship, however, we suggest that the material conditions of this work, especially work conducted by graduate students and contingent labor, remain undertheorized. Recently, Steve Parks (2018) has critiqued the discipline’s preparation for community engaged work: “if we claim to be a socially committed discipline, if we recognize the activism that was a fundamental foundation to our field, then we also need to claim the responsibility of fully preparing our students to take on such work in writing program and in public writing projects” (p. ). Here, we’ve offered a set of terms that might offer generalizable lenses to future activist collaborators. They represent some of the most salient constraints we felt. We and our collaborators continue to work toward solutions and call for more discussions in other venues and with reference to other community-engaged, institutionally-informed projects.

This report has built toward clear recommendations. And though we offer tentative takeaways here, we recognize that the practices developed at our site and through our project will differ wildly from, say, those developed alongside immigrant communities, disability advocates, or tenants’ rights organizations. However, at the core of our work may be some activist support practices worth remembering and worth shaping across sites and for the range of populations socially engaged scholars work for. For us, acting as activist support means picking up the background work. It means pressing against what is expected of these students by their teachers in the service of the Dialoguers’ articulated visions. It means brokering institutional expectations and using our ethos to protect student timescales in favor of those of their home institutional authority. Indeed, it means that, at times, we have to contradict institutional authority and practice in order to serve the lived realities of those we work with. Acting as activist support means dealing with the mundane and recognizing the value in it. It means taking a stance not on the front line, in the spotlight, or on camera, but making resource-rich, responsive spaces for that work to be done. It means doing what hooks (1994) would happily call working “beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable . . . so that we can create new visions” (p. 12), doing things like hoarding resources in anticipation of what those we work for may need and pushing the limits of our home institutions’ guidelines in doing so, if necessary.

Acting as activist support means running batteries from classroom to classroom, navigating archives of public domain music for student videos, and helping fine-tune language in drafts of poems and plays. In short, what Deans (2000) calls “writing with” we’ve come to consider “working in service of,” allowing those we work for to “formulate their own program” and then make demands of us (Alinsky, 1946, p. 213). In order to honor local community leadership and local community realities, the prerequisite for community engaged work must be contending with the real, material barriers that hamstring organic growth.

What we envision as activist-support-oriented community engaged scholarship is an attention to everyday constraints, no matter how mundane they might appear, in order to resist what hooks (1994) describes as knowledge as divorced from how we live—how the populations we act alongside and in service of live—and “about information only” (p. 3). Of course, we are already equipped with the skills, experience, and knowledge to critique the material demands of engagement work. Yet, too often our reflections and take-aways focus on large scale institutional movement and visions of success. Too often, the everyday labor of activist work is glossed over (and perhaps even fetishized) while that of directors and administrators is highlighted. We as community engaged scholars should become more mindful of the demands of this on-the-ground work.

Our publications and conferences should reflect the importance of attending to the everyday constraints of this work. And our discipline should model itself not from the stories institutions tell but rather from the lived experiences of day-to-day activists and activist support. Doing so will allow us to better foreground the practices, goals, and leadership of the communities we work for.

References

Alinsky, Saul. (1946). Reveille for Radicals. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cushman, Ellen. (2002). Sustainable service learning programs. College Composition and Communication, 54, 4065.

Deans, Thomas. (2000). Writing partnerships: Service-learning in composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Freire, Paulo. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Goldblatt, Eli. (2005). Alinsky’s reveille: A community-organizing model for neighborhood-based literacy projects. College English, 67(3), 27495.

– – . (2007). Because we live here: Sponsoring literacy beyond the college curriculum. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Parks, Steve. (2018). Syrians for truth and justice: Articulating entanglements, disrupting disciplinarity. In Rick Wysocki & Mary Sheridan (Eds.), Making future matters. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press.

Williams, Bronwyn T. & Brydon-Miller, Mary. (2004). Changing directions: Participatory action research, agency, and representation. In Stephen G. Brown & Sidney I. Dobrin (Eds.), Ethnography unbound: From theory shock to critical praxis (pp. 24157). Albany, NY: SUNY.

Author Bios

Patrick Danner (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of English–Professional Writing at Misericordia University. His research focuses in areas of team writing, rhetorical mathematics, data visualization, and the technical work of social action. He is currently working on a long-form study of the collaborative practices between data scientists and non-profit workers, and thinking about the documentation of mining accidents.

Chris Scheidler (he/him/his) is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Composition at the University of Louisville. His community-engagement work focuses on putting technological and artistic means of production into the hands of community activists. His current research project re-conceptualizes multimodality by focusing on how multimedia designers navigate and respond to constraints of technology, embodiment, and lingering monomodal ideologies.