Reflecting through writing
We are all part of a community and vulnerable to each other because we want to understand truths that are hard to articulate. There is suffering; there are things left unknown—there are many, many loose threads.
The acceptance of this uncertainty is what, perhaps, makes up a community and leads us toward conversations and dialogues. When we gather together, we are not isolated in our struggle to confront what we or others have experienced.
When Provost Renée T. White called for faculty to host Community Conversations in response to the rash of shootings that were occurring in September 2016, we responded as writers and as professors of writing. We offered to facilitate a public conversation that would, through writing, voice our reactions to the ongoing racial violence that undermines the very meaning of democracy and provide the same opportunity to colleagues, staff members and especially students.
Provost White had used the word “grapple” to describe the deeply profound struggle to articulate both what we are feeling and thinking as we witness a world grown once more bloody and filled with doubt. As writers, we understand writing as a way to grapple: It allows an inner confrontation with what, on the surface, we cannot accept. Writing is at the center of all we do; it is the foundation from which we facilitate thought in students and in ourselves.
As teachers of writing, we are called to writing as a method to collaborate—to give scope and depth to our ideas. Though we may each see the same incident, played and replayed, our perceptions differ. It is the knowledge of these differences that inspired our discovery workshop, “Writing About Images of Racism, Past and Present,” presented in November 2016.
At the workshop held in Meneely Hall, we asked attendees to focus on photographs of racial conflict and struggle and then to write about what they saw. The writing that people did was for themselves; we didn’t collect any of it. We asked them to share their responses with the larger group. Our goal was both to demonstrate that writing can be used to discover (rather than report) and to give the students space in which to consider their own responses.
We selected images that spanned generations, locations, gender, class and race, as well as different responses to oppression. The photographs were all powerful for different reasons, and we hoped that writing about them would create a deeper conversation that allowed the audience to react, reflect and respond as individuals. We also allowed students to witness our own grappling and struggle, even as we guided them through a discussion about the issues.
That November evening there was no conclusion. We all left engaged in a mutual search for understanding and a commitment to continue the dialogue.
—English professors Constance Campana, Ruth Foley, Lisa Lebduska and Angie Sarhan
In their own words
A look at the collective effort of constructing connections or go back to Close-knit
“Built by individual narratives, one at a time, the Unity Project provided us with a reminder of how communities are formed and reinforced by the unique individuals within them.”
Professor Kelly Goff
“We are a place about learning, generating new ideas and facing challenges. So we should be able to use that in response to social questions.”
Provost Renée T. White
“When the world is divided, it is easier to target and oppress groups of people. To me, community is about showing up. It is about unity.”
Olivia Benissan ’19, sociology major
“‘I see you’ is an important sentence for the 21st century, and building community is an essential task for the future, as, on a daily basis, we face interaction with diversity locally and around the world.”
Professor Russell Williams
“Community is built daily through seemingly normal dialogue.”
F. Steven Kimball ’18, economics major
“Accepting the evidence that the world is structured unfairly and that, unchecked, even our perceptions and behaviors can perpetuate that unfairness, allows us to work together toward change.”
Professors Michael Berg and Karen McCormack
“As writers, we understand writing as a way to grapple: It allows an inner confrontation with what, on the surface, we cannot accept.”
Professors Constance Campana, Ruth Foley, Lisa Lebduska and Angie Sarhan
“As a neuroscience major, I recognize the interconnected nature of everything that I have become part of here at Wheaton. Yet, I am challenged to find the connections between the sciences and social justice issues.”
Kelvin Ampem-Darko ’17, neuroscience major