Volume 1: Introduction

Liz Lane & Don Unger, March 2019

In this inaugural volume of Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal, we draw attention to various approaches to activism taking place in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. Doing so encourages us to think about what it means to understand activism as relationship building and as coalition and alliance building.

This volume emerged from 4C4Equality’s 2018 zine (Don Unger & Liz Lane, 2018) and years of grassroots organizing through 4C4E, as well as through the activist, advocacy, and engagement work that we, on Spark’s Editorial Collective, include in our teaching, service, and research, and the actions and organizations that we support in our lives outside our workplaces. 1

The current moment

In our call for submissions, we addressed the state of US immigration policy and the war on undocumented people led by the Trump administration. We penned the call in June 2018. At that time, stories broke about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” on “illegal immigration,” which resulted in a family separation policy that supposedly began in spring 2018. Throughout the summer, stories emerged detailing the atrocious treatment and conditions that undocumented people, including children, faced at US “detention centers.” More recently, we have found out that family separation began much earlier in 2017 and that the number of children separated from their parents is much higher than earlier estimates of approximately 3,000 (“‘Thousands’ more migrant children may have been separated at border,” 2019). Because of the Trump administration’s policies, reunifying many children with their families may be impossible—or at very least administration officials claim that reunification is impossible. In continuing his racist war on undocumented people, Trump shut down huge sectors of the US federal government on 22 December 2018; this shutdown represents an attempt to strong arm his opposition into providing $5.7 billion to fund a wall on the US/Mexico border.

While we focused on the political maelstrom directed toward undocumented people in our initial call, the recent government shutdown points toward how current administrative policies on immigration overlap with a widespread disdain for marginalized people. The current administration has initiated and supported policies that attack workers (Steven Hill, 2018), young people of color (Kisha Bird, Duy Pham & Justin Edwards, 2018), women (“How has Donald Trump’s first year affected women?”, n.d.), Native Americans (Belen Fernandez, 2018), LGBTQ folks (Sean Cahill, Sophia Geffen & Tim Wang, 2017), and people with disabilities (Rebecca Cokley, 2018), as well as the environment (Michael Greshko, Laura Parker, Brian Clark Howard, Daniel Stone, Alejandra Borunda, & Sarah Gibbens, 2019), and public education (Scott Sargrad, 2017)—the list goes on and on.2 Just keeping up with all the policies that tear at the fabric of our communities feels like a full-time job—on top the work we do to pay the bills.

Many of us feel at a breaking point and are left with questions about how we can fight back against these policies and actions when we can barely keep track of it all. Honestly, we can’t, but we can build alliances with others who are leading work in their communities. Spark wants to play some role, however humble, in helping to make those connections. We believe that doing so might begin by considering the landscape of activist work in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and by addressing what activist work looks like in different places and circumstances across our fields.

Individual, collective, and organizational approaches to activism

To begin tracing the contours of this landscape, we have divided this volume into three sections that represent different, though often overlapping, approaches to activism, namely individual, collective, and organizational approaches. In doing so, we employ a heuristic that draws from Hahrie Han’s (2014) research on civic participation. We see individual approaches as ways that activists develop knowledge of particular issues and how they serve as a representative for these issues in their day-to-day interactions with others. Such approaches often focus on one’s practices and habits of mind.

In this volume, submissions dealing with collective approaches to activism reflect on the contributors’ participation in mobilizations or specific events. While participating in mobilizations and events may be short lived, such actions can draw tremendous attention to an issue and help aspects of that issue permeate the consciousnesses of those not involved. Collective approaches also demonstrate social power in a way that individual or organizational approaches often do not.

Finally, organizational approaches illuminate some of the practical steps that activists take to build infrastructures for long-term or ongoing work. Undoubtedly, these approaches overlap, and many of the submissions we publish in this volume do not fit neatly into the categories in which we have placed them. Still, considering these approaches differently helps make activist work accessible. They also make the different relationships that activism cultivates visible.  We also believe that most activists employ each of these approaches. By not privileging one over another, we may be able to consider how, given the different contexts in which we live, we might approach activism differently.

Individual approaches

Submissions that describe individual approaches to activism offer a personal lens through which the contributor explores an issue or experience; they offer takeaways for readers to consider in examining their lives, and they connect to both collective and organizational approaches:

In “Moments and Movements: On Scholar-Activists Considering the Connection Between Activism and Organizing,” Berte Reyes describes their journey through activism and organizing, exploring the purpose and performance aspects of activism and considering how scholarly activism can best fit into ongoing social-justice work.

Collective approaches

Pieces that detail collective approaches to activism address a range of short-term projects and actions–from a community engagement project with far reaching implications, to a localized mass protest months in the making, to implementing cooperative problem-solving skills in and beyond classrooms, to developing and carrying out a public event that emerged from classroom collaboration. Here, “collective” takes on several meanings and addresses a variety of social-justice issues differently, yet always focuses on making the issue and the work accessible to and useful for the public, conceived broadly:

In “Designing Documents for the Undocumented: Collective Action in the Technical Communication Classroom,” Breeanne Matheson, Matthew Christensen, Diana Lees, and Eilen E. Castellano discuss a project where Matheson’s technical communication class at Utah Valley University worked with a nonprofit organization to design documents to help undocumented people who have been detained by the US government receive the information they need to represent themselves in court.

Angela Morris’ “Take ‘Em Down 901: The Kairos of Progressive Activism During a National Rise of Racist Rhetoric” analyzes the rhetorical and organizational work involved in Memphis-based, grassroots organizing that successfully removed a confederate monument from a local park.

In “Together We Know a Lot: Consensus Decision Making in the Classroom,” Avery Edenfield explores consensus decision making as a productive tool for collaboration in the classroom, urging students to consider the process of group decisions as incredibly valuable to better understanding dissent, disagreement, listening, and decision making.  

Finally, “‘Pushing Into Open Air’: Poetry, Art, and Public Space in Educating Audiences About Mass Incarceration,” by Alfredo Aguilar, Michael Borshuk, Shayla Corprew, Jill Murphy Elberson, Apryl Lewis, and Amelia Reyes, chronicles their community engagement work at a monthly art event in Lubbock. Their work addressed the racialized discourse undergirding mass incarceration in the US, and it emerged from an English class on African American Literature at Texas Tech University.

Organizational approaches

To illustrate organizational approaches to activism, we present three scene reports and one interview where the contributors describe the ongoing relationships that they developed through local activism that addresses national and international issues. Additionally, these submissions describe the writing, rhetorical work, and/or literacy skills underlying their approaches. Finally, we include a tool review that connects individual and organizational approaches to activism by analyzing how the arguments that organizers make in carrying out day-to-day work reflect larger movements for social change.

Jessica Lyn Bannon’s “We Are Your Neighbors: Making Public Space for Personal Stories in Immigration Advocacy” details a community writing partnership between activist-scholars at the University of Indianapolis and members of Indianapolis’ Latinx community; the partnership led to the publication of an anthology of stories describing what it is like to be an immigrant in the United States in today’s political climate.

In “When Local Community Writing Initiatives Crashed into White House Public Policy—Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from an Atlanta High School,” Lara Smith-Sitton, Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez, and Paul N. McDaniel describe a two-year partnership between Green Card Voices and Kennesaw State University, as well as ancillary partnerships with public high schools and nonprofit organizations in metro Atlanta. This partnership connected English, Social Work, and Geography courses, as well as college and high school classrooms, in order to collect, publish, and share stories from high school-aged immigrants and refugees.

Lara Smith-Sitton’s interview with “Tea Rozman Clark On the Power of Storytelling in Activist Work” addresses the history, mission, and advocacy conducted by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Green Card Voices.

In “Reflections on Teaching Sexual Violence Prevention after #MeToo,” Victoria L. Dickman-Burnett discusses her work teaching students in a high school English class about sexual violence. To conclude, Dickman-Burnett offers readers a heuristic for teaching about sexual violence.

Joseph Burzynski’s “Organized Labor’s Opportune Moment: The House Call” examines the house call as a rhetorical tool employed in internal labor organizing. In this tool review, Burzynski digs deeply into what the house call is and how it works in order to address how power is at play in seemingly mundane arguments and rhetorical strategies.

Looking ahead

Overall, each column, scene report, and tool review included in this volume describes activism that contributors are involved in and the ways that they relate it to their fields. In that sense, they demonstrate some of the creative forms that activism can take when connected to disciplinary frameworks or expertise, both inside and beyond classrooms. They also discuss ways that writing, rhetoric, and literacy weave through the individual, collective, and organizational approaches that make activism not only possible but successful. In the end, they remind us how the complex and time consuming work required to build these relationships often goes unnoticed when we focus on the theories behind such work or the outcomes resulting from actions at a particular location or in an event or project.

These pieces reflect the purview of our journal in that Spark asks you to focus on relationship building—on building connections, alliances, coalitions, and movements. We hope that these pieces inspire you to reflect on the relationships that you have developed with people in your local or global communities, with neighbors or strangers, with students or co-workers, and with activists in other fields or at other universities.

Additionally, these pieces offer examples of the kinds of work in which we all might engage If you are undertaking a new project or exploring connections between your activism and your work in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies in order to develop a project, and you would like to know more about the tools, resources, and organizations described in this issue, then we encourage you to check out the links on our Resources page. Finally, these submissions show us that, as Avery Edenfield says in his tool review, “together we know a lot,” and we believe that reading these submissions can boost our sense of solidarity in those moments of despair–when we feel that we are moving backwards, when we cannot be where we need to be, or when we cannot do everything we need to be doing. Together, we can do a lot.


We would like to thank the following people who served as additional reviewers for this issue:

Katherine Fredlund, University of Memphis
Wendy Goldberg, University of Mississippi
Shirley Gray, University of Mississippi
Jennifer Jackson, University of Mississippi
Nicholas Marino, Trinity College
Scott Sundvall, University of Memphis


[1] We encourage you to check out our “Resources” page, which points to some of the many organizations in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies that the Editorial Collective supports and engages in. It also provides links to the organizations that our contributors reference in their scene reports, columns, and reviews. return

[2] These links offer only a few examples. return


Bird, Kisha,  Pham, Duy & Edwards, Justin. (2018, Oct. 9). Unjustice: Overcoming Trump’s rollbacks on youth justice. Retrieved from https://www.clasp.org/sites/default/files/publications/2018/10/2018.10.10_unjustice.pdf.

Cahill, Sean, Geffen, Sophia & Wang, Tim. (2017). One year in, Trump administration amasses striking anti-LGBT record. The Fenway Institute. Retrieved from https://fenwayhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Fenway-Institute-Trump-Pence-Administration-One-Year-Report.pdf.

Cokley, Rebecca. (2018, May 25). The rights of disabled Americans are under attack. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/14/opinions/disability-access-under-attack-trump-hr-620-cokley-opinion/index.html.

Fernandez, Belen. (2018, Aug. 9). Under fire: the perpetual US war on Native Americans. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/fire-perpetual-war-native-americans-180809091526835.html.

Greshko, Michael, Parker, Laura, Howard, Brian Clark, Stone, Daniel, Borunda, Alejandra & Gibbens, Sarah. (2019, Feb. 28). A running list of how Trump is changing environmental policy. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/03/how-trump-is-changing-science-environment/.

Han, Hahrie. (2014). How organizations develop activists: Civic associations and leadership in the 21st century. NY, NY: Oxford UP.

Hill, Steven. (2018, Aug.17). A rundown of all the ways Trump is overseeing an all out, under-the-radar attack on workers. In These Times. Retrieved from http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/21391/trump_workers_labor_unions_nlrb.

How has Donald Trump’s first year affected women? (n.d.). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/18/how-has-donald-trumps-first-year-affected-women.

Sargrad, Scott. (2017, May 23). An attack on America’s schools. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2017-05-23/donald-trump-and-betsy-devos-budget-would-destroy-public-schools.

‘Thousands’ more migrant children may have been separated at border. (2019, Jan. 17). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46912915.

Unger, Don & Lane, Liz (eds.). (2018). 4C4Equality: Writing networks for social justice. Constellations: A Cultural Rhetorics Publishing Space, 1. Retrieved from http://constell8cr.com/4c4e/.