By Derek Handley
While walking in the northern Milwaukee suburbs, I have noticed an exponential increase in the number of Black Lives Matter signs. Most of them have been placed in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The signs come in different types; Some with black fists, some couched with other phrases like ‘believe science,” some simply in bold black lettering with a white background. Although I am very happy to see the visible support of social justice, what I find ironic about these signs is that they appear in neighborhoods where African Americans (or anyone that is not of the “Caucasian Race”) were excluded from buying a home up until 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. With less than 5% African Americans in many of these suburbs, some have labeled Milwaukee as the most segregated city in America. This segregation is due in large part to the racially restrictive housing covenants, which was a cornerstone of institutional racism.
The history of racially restrictive housing covenants and their central part in institutionalizing racism has returned to the forefront of our national consciousness with the emergence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism and ongoing movements for racial justice. In the first half of the 20th century, racial covenants prohibiting non-white people from buying or occupying housing and certain parcels of land were used throughout U.S. cities for segregationist purposes. A covenant is a type of contract included in a property deed referring to the conditions attached to housing or land. The violation of covenant conditions comes with the risk of foregoing a property. Racially restrictive covenants began appearing in deeds with greater frequency at the turn of the century, becoming commonplace and withstanding court challenges throughout the 1910s, 20s, and 30s (To learn more about restrictive covenants see Mapping Prejudice).
But these covenants did not go unchallenged by African Americans. The resistance to housing covenants in cities such as Milwaukee highlights the impact Black residents in northern cities had on housing debates and civil rights activism. Black agency in challenging racial covenants strategies of resistance have shaped and continue to influence movements for racial justice.
To depict this struggle visually, Anne Bonds of the UWM Geography department and I have begun working on a digital project called “Mapping Racism and Resistance in Milwaukee County” (MRR-MKE). With the help of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice team, our public humanities project will examine racial housing covenants and resistance to them in Milwaukee County through GIS mapping, archival research, and rhetorical analysis. Analyzing and depicting Black agency from within the contested space of Milwaukee County will provide a more complete narrative of the impact of racial housing covenants, as well as expand our understanding of the various methods of resistance across scales employed by Black community members. One example of resistance was when Zeddie Quitman Hyler asked his white friend to buy property in Wauwatosa (a suburb of Milwaukee) and then sell it to Hyler. Despite community resistance, Hyler built his house in 1955 and remained there until his death in 2004. Through mapping and rhetorical analysis, we seek to better understand Black Milwaukeeans--such as Hyler--and their allies as complex actors in the narratives of their own lives.
Our research is animated by the following questions: What is the historical geography of racial covenants in Milwaukee County and how does this spatial patterning connect with contemporary geographies of segregation and racial inequality in the Milwaukee metropolitan area? How did racial covenants operate in the specific urban and racial context of Milwaukee County, together with other discriminatory housing policies and racialized patterns of development? Finally, how and where were restrictive covenants enforced and how did Milwaukee County residents resist them?
To answer these questions, we will be working with community partners and local residents to help with the research. Our plan is to recruit citizen researchers by holding community workshops on racial covenants in Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs; to visit high school and college classes; and to use various social media platforms. The outcomes from this research will include an interactive, digital resource about covenants and challenges to them in Milwaukee County, a collaboratively produced map visualizing the geographies and temporalities of covenants and covenant resistance, and a dataset of racial covenants that will be accessible to the community, policy makers, and other researchers.
Working with the community means that the MRR-MKE project is more than just an academic endeavor. Through community workshops that will engage Milwaukee County residents in the process of examining racial covenants, our project will support broader conversations and dialogue about structural racism and resistance to it in one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas. We hope that this scholarly project—co-produced with the local community—will help us to get a little closer to understanding how systemic racism works in our country, and to begin thinking of new ways to address housing problems in Milwaukee. It will also provide a concrete way for those wonderful people who have placed Black Lives Matter signs in their yards to support ending systemic racism.
By Madison Williams
On Wednesday, October 21st, UW–Milwaukee hosted a long awaited and much anticipated virtual talk with Dr. April Baker-Bell on her book, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. During her talk, Baker-Bell discussed how Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and white linguistic supremacy are normalized through teacher attitudes, curriculum and instruction, and pedagogical approaches. Her talk was followed by a critical discussion with participants, facilitated by Baker-Bell, to engage in more intimate conversations about Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and how to implement Antiracist Language Pedagogies in the classroom.
With over 100 attendees from all over the country, Baker-Bell’s virtual talk was undoubtedly a huge hit—and it couldn’t have come at a more kairotic moment. The urgency of Baker-Bell’s call for an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy is proven critical given everything that’s happening in the world right now: the recent protests against racial inequality and police brutality; exacerbation of inequalities as a result of the pandemic; toxic partisanship in the U.S. along racial, ethnic, and religious lines; and increased attention to systemic racism nationwide. Linguistic Justice is a call to action in pursuit of Black Language liberation through the critique, resistance, and reconstruction of the linguistic status quo.
A Call to Action
In her book, Baker-Bell presents Anti-Black Linguistic Racism as “a framework that explicitly names and richly captures the type of linguistic oppression that is uniquely experienced and endured by Black Language-speakers” (Baker-Bell 8) in schools and in everyday life. Using ethnographic examples to illustrate how Black students navigate and negotiate their linguistic and racial identities across multiple contexts, Baker-Bell demonstrates the negative impact traditional pedagogical approaches have on Black students’ language education and self-perception. As a response to this injustice, Baker-Bell makes space for a new way forward through Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy, a pedagogical approach that intentionally and unapologetically places Black language at the center to critically interrogate white linguistic hegemony and Anti-Black Linguistic Racism.
Dr. April Baker-Bell began her virtual talk by discussing the importance of raising critical consciousness and recognizing Black Language as a language in its own right. Baker-Bell emphasized the way Black Language represents lived experience, beginning with her positionality having grown up in Detroit with Black Language as her mother tongue. It wasn’t until she began teaching that she was faced with the “myth of standard English” and developed a full understanding of language politics at the intersection of language, race, and power. Baker-Bell argued that little has changed over the past 80 years in pedagogical approaches to Black Language education, as English teachers are still expected to teach (and privilege) White Mainstream English (WME).
According to Baker-Bell, previous Black Language Pedagogies (such as Eradicationist and Respectability approaches) share common features in that they center whiteness and perpetuate anti-blackness. The counterstories shared by Baker-Bell’s students in her book challenge existing pedagogies and common beliefs that code-switching functions as a strategy for survival, as Baker-Bell indicates, “These instances are clear reminders that code-switching into White Mainstream English will not save Black people and cannot solve racial or linguistic injustice, and we cannot pretend that it will” (31). Therefore, antiracist pedagogies cannot be centered on whiteness, which is why Baker-Bell’s Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy takes a transformative approach by centering Black Language instead.
In navigating pushback to this pedagogy, Baker-Bell explained the need to critically engage in conversation to show understanding and do the contextual work so that students (and parents) understand the historical, political, and cultural context surrounding Black Language and White Mainstream English. She demonstrated how “what we want to believe to be true” (like doing well in school will translate to equality and equity) hasn’t worked in past approaches to Black Language Pedagogy, and if the classroom doesn’t mirror the facts of existence in the real world, we’re doing pedagogy wrong. As Baker-Bell powerfully articulated during her talk, “Black lives in your classroom won’t matter if Black Language doesn’t.”
Doing the Work
Baker-Bell prefaced the critical discussion following her talk by stating that she would not be answering questions that recentered whiteness because we need to dismantle the system, not adjust to it. While fielding questions about how to implement an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy in the classroom on an individual level, especially within institutions that may be resistant to the idea, Baker-Bell maintained that the work of Black Linguistic Justice is both micro and macro. She supports anything that goes against typical language standards because any move in the right direction is valuable, no matter how small--we need to take the opportunity wherever and whenever it presents itself.
Many of the participants were concerned with how to deal with pushback to this pedagogy, especially from parents. Baker-Bell pointed out that code-switching hasn’t helped or changed anything so far; we can’t make it work just because we want it to, so we need to do something different. Moreover, when dealing with people who are explicitly racist, Baker-Bell explained: “If you come up against racist nonsense, you have to put it in a box and avoid it.” Although participants taking part in this critical discussion were located all over the country, we all shared a common interest in learning how, as teachers, we might utilize our individual privileges to further social justice pursuits and push for Black Linguistic Justice within our various contexts with the resources we have available.
In both her book and virtual talk, Baker-Bell consistently emphasized the gravity of this call to action for linguistic justice within the current racial and political climate, advocating for “linguistic, racial, and educational justice for Black students” through her framework for an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy (34). Baker-Bell contends, “the Anti-Black Linguistic Racism that is used to diminish Black Language and Black students in schools is not separate from the rampant and deliberate anti-Black racism and violence inflicted upon Black people in society” (3). Baker-Bell challenges us all to go beyond limited ideas about what writing is, where it happens, and what counts as “good” writing by responding to her call to action for Black Linguistic Justice. To learn more about Baker-Bell and her work, watch the book trailer for Linguistic Justice here.
This month, the research team that Rachel, Madison, and Chloe are on (along with graduate students Claire Edwards, Gitte Frandsen, and Anis Rhaman as well as Dr. Maria Novotny) received a grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for our project entitled “Antiracist Teaching Practices for Writing Across Disciplines at UWM.” Our project proposal was selected as part of the Antiracist Action Grant Program—an initiative to promote antiracist action across campus—funded by the Office of Research and the Division of Global Inclusion and Engagement at UWM.
Through this project, we hope to motivate UWM instructors to critically examine their language ideologies when responding to student writing, foster cross-campus dialogues about the ways that racism impacts teaching practices, and provide resources for taking anti-racist approaches to writing instruction and assessment. Ultimately, our goal is to foster spaces of honesty, collaboration, and social justice so that this project can encourage instructors to support, sustain, and learn from our students’ diverse literacy practices.
To pursue these objectives, our plan is to develop and facilitate an Antiracist Pedagogy Seminar during Summer 2021. Instructors from all departments will be invited to attend this Antiracist Pedagogy Seminar, which will include a series of discussion groups and workshops, to discuss readings, examine their implicit biases, and develop anti-racist writing pedagogies. The desired outcome of this seminar is threefold:
Next semester, we will be sending out a survey for students to provide input on their experiences with writing feedback and instruction at UWM. The responses to this survey will inform our summer seminar and future public presentations about anti-racist writing pedagogy. After the seminar, we will create a set of webpages with resources for any teacher interested in combating racism in their teaching practices and uplifting the diverse literacies of our students and their communities.
As the grant program’s FAQ page states, “this program arose from a conversation around what we can do to dismantle racism here on campus. How can faculty, researchers, teaching and administrative staff and others have a voice in resolving some of the issues that people are talking about and people are experiencing on our campus?” We couldn’t be more excited to work with our campus community in an attempt to create lasting, tangible, and socially just change in the lives of students and instructors alike. We’ll keep you updated as the project moves along!
As we’re approaching the end of October, we also approach Election Day (November 3rd). We’re sure you’ve been seeing it everywhere, but please remember to vote. If you haven’t already, make your voting plan now! For those of you in Milwaukee, this website gives you everything you need to know about absentee ballots, early in-person voting, voting schedules and locations, and more.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
I am what academics might call a community-engaged researcher. Much of my research and writing involves telling people in positions of power (teachers, healthcare practitioners, health communicators) about how much they can learn from communities and their communication practices. I am interested in learning about ways that institutions can better invest their time and money toward building relationships and supporting the expertise that is already present in the community. It’s quite simple, really, but I think it’s important work. I don’t see myself as an expert, but rather, I try to leverage my privileges and resources to support and sustain the communities that I work with. Thanks to a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, I’m spending the 2020-2021 academic year working as a fellow at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI) with their Promotores de Salud Program. My role with this work is a bit like an intern and a resident researcher. Part of my time is spent in meetings and planning activities for ongoing educational programming with the promotores and the other part is spent with research activities (like interviews, focus groups, analyzing data, and writing) that are focused on highlighting the work of the promotores. So, while my colleagues are figuring out teaching online in a pandemic, I’m figuring out what it means to do community-engaged research remotely. A topic that is constantly on my mind is access.
Access and barriers to access have long been topics of interest for healthcare practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. They impact how healthy a community is and how well (or not) a healthcare system meets that community’s needs. Networks of access include many different aspects such as transportation, food security, housing, social services, family life, and more. Not only do people face barriers to accessing quality healthcare, but institutions often also face barriers to the ways they can access and connect with communities. Many of these barriers are inherent in the ways the healthcare system is set up to privilege spaces, professionals, and language practices that are separate from local communities—especially immigrant communities. One way that institutions try to “reach” Spanish-speaking immigrant communities is through promotores de salud (health promoters). Promotores de salud are often seen as lay people who can educate their communities about health information and transmit messages from institutions that are trying to reach the people where they live. Too often, the direction of information is top-down in the ways it moves from the healthcare institution to the community.
The hope is that improving access to information can lead to a decrease in health disparities and an increase in the utilization of healthcare services by these communities. But what about the information and education that can come from the community to inform and make positive changes to institutions? Part of my work this year is to lift up the stories, experiences, and expertise of the promotores de salud to help identify ways that the healthcare system might transform into something that is more just, equitable, and accessible.
So, what do these promotores de salud do? The specific role takes on different shapes depending on where they work and what institution they’re affiliated with. The promotores that I’m working with are experts in creating confianza (trust/confidence) and connecting people to resources. By building confianza with their communities, people open up to them about all sorts of things going on in their lives. They use a curriculum (CCmás) about sexual and reproductive health that was developed with input from the community. This curriculum is taught through conversations at Home Health Parties, or Fiestas Caseras, which were modeled after the Avon business model of gathering for a party in people’s homes and working as consultants. These fiestas caseras provide the space for the promotores to facilitate conversations about a range of topics on sexual health, reproductive justice, advocacy, and empowering the community. Through the support of various grants, the promotores also support non-partisan activities for civic participation by encouraging and assisting people with filling out the census and registering to vote. With the current pandemic, some of the promotores have turned to virtual gatherings to host Fiestas Caseras, and all of them continue to help connect people to resources available for legal issues, bill payments, health services, and more.
The promotores may work in similar roles with other organizations and many of them have other jobs in addition to their work with PPWI. They live within Latinx communities across the state of Wisconsin and they understand the daily challenges and injustices that immigrants from Latin America face while helping uphold essential businesses and our economy. With an understanding of the intersecting oppressions that their communities face, the promotores see their work as part of reproductive justice. By advocating for “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong), they understand that the challenges immigrant communities face in reproductive healthcare is more than simply whether or not they have access to clinics and information about reproductive health. It is impacted by whether they can pay their bills, whether they have safe environments in their homes, whether they have been denied the option to choose whether or not to have more children, whether their children face danger in the U.S. or other countries, and so much more. This complex understanding of the realities that immigrant communities face in the U.S. could inform more holistic, equitable, and compassionate approaches to healthcare.
Health promoters are experts that researchers, administrators, and practitioners should learn from and compensate for their expertise. If their expertise and experience was valued as much as the credentials of our health providers, then we might see our community education models become more dynamic in the ways that institutions could be informed by communities and relationships between them could become more mutually beneficial.
Rachel Bloom-Pojar is an Associate Professor with the program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UW-Milwaukee and a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society fellow with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar, Danielle Koepke, Chloe Smith, and Madison Williams
Last month, we made a commitment to amplify, support, and engage with antiracist writing, rhetoric, and organizations across Milwaukee. We made a promise to highlight the ways that everyday writing and rhetoric are being used to advance social justice, challenge oppression, and empower communities. In order to hold ourselves accountable to these commitments, we pledged to publish an Antiracist Action update reflecting on our actions each month, and this is the first of those updates.
Our goals for our Antiracist Action updates, beyond holding ourselves accountable, are to give our readers options for taking tangible actions to support the antiracist missions of local and national organizations as well as celebrate and uplift the ways in which various organizations and activists improve, empower, and fight for our local communities.
Communities across Southeastern Wisconsin continue to be in the national spotlight around issues of racial injustice and police brutality. To the right are just a few of the major events over the past month that have highlighted the need for increased anti-racist action and community organizing.
What We’ve Been Doing
Here are some actions we’ve taken in response to recent events. We encourage you to do the same.
Check your voter registration status and make a voting plan now. Decide whether or not you will be voting absentee or in person, then make the necessary arrangements—request your absentee ballot, figure out where you will go to vote in person, what time you will go, how you will get there, etc.
Call the Kenosha Police and Fire Commission and Governor Tony Evers to demand the resignation of Kenosha Police officials. Follow the link for contact information and a sample call script from the Wisconsin ACLU.
Sign Color of Change’s petition calling for Mayor John Antaramian and Kenosha City Council to fire Kenosha police chief Daniel Miskins.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the officer who shot Jacob “Jake” Blake is held accountable.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the NBA league office and team owners lift the strike ban in players’ union contract.
Discuss antiracism, protests for racial justice, and how to make sense of current events with your children. Here is a list of resources for talking to children about Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence. One of us recently bought the book Antiracist Baby and has added it to storytime with her child.
Talk to family members about current events, racism, and privilege. We’ve been working through some difficult conversations with family members who don’t understand the gravity of racial injustice and the necessity of swift antiracist action. Here’s a resource where Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, offers advice on conducting these conversations.
We Want to Hear From You!
Is there an antiracist cause, organization, or event that we should be featuring? We invite you to write a post on it. Here are our guidelines for submissions:
Send submissions and questions to writingandrhetoricmke at gmail dot com. For posts on upcoming events, please submit drafts at least 3-4 weeks prior to the event. We look forward to reading your posts!
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar, Danielle Koepke, Chloe Smith, and Madison Williams
August 2020 has just begun and educators around the country are wrapping up an unprecedented summer as they prepare for an uncertain academic year ahead. Here at Writing & Rhetoric MKE, we have been spending the summer engaging in weekly conversations about renewed attention across the country to structural racism, #BlackLivesMatter, and community-police relations. Starting in June, we began to shift our weekly team meetings to figure out how we wanted this website and blog to be more responsive to our current moment, to the historical injustices Black communities have faced, and to the ways we might more critically engage with challenging white supremacy in our daily lives. We began with some difficult conversations about the pervasiveness of whiteness on our editorial board, at our institution, and within our field of study. These topics have been part of our conversations for the past few years but we recognized that too often we were using language that was more palatable for white audiences by emphasizing the celebration and amplification of community writing and rhetoric across Milwaukee but not explicitly naming the types of writing and rhetoric we really wanted to engage with and support.
We continued our conversations week to week as institutions, businesses, and public figures released statement after statement (finally) affirming that Black Lives Matter. We discussed critiques of these statements as not going far enough and reflected on how we might take action in ways that did more than perform allyship. We didn’t want to just release another statement that did little more than check a box for public relations in our current moment. And we had to acknowledge what our desires were for engaging with the fight for justice and the limitations of what our small team and locally-focused blog could do in that fight.
We’re writing today to share a new set of pages on the site dedicated to our commitments to racial justice. These are meant to be live, evolving pages that will be updated in the coming months and years to continuously improve our reflection of antiracist work in Milwaukee. First, we invite you to check out our commitment to antiracist action, which includes details about what we hope to do over the next year and how we will try to remain accountable by reflecting on actions each month. By August 2021, we will review how this all went and what needs to be done for the following year to improve our engagement with and support of antiracist organizing, writing, and rhetoric with our local communities. We have created a page that features a list of relevant texts for learning more about racism in the U.S. and the fight for racial justice. This page also reflects that while reading is an important first step for many people, it is not enough--it must be accompanied with action. We have also included a page to emphasize how you can take action with local and national organizations to support activism, social justice, and community change.
Beyond creating these pages, we commit to the following actions:
In order to hold ourselves accountable to these commitments, we will publish Antiracist Action Updates every month for the next year while also inviting our readers to engage in conversations across social media about how we all are taking action for social justice in our communities. We invite you, our readers, to hold us accountable and actively participate in the evolution of this blog’s commitment to antiracist action. You can connect with us through email at email@example.com or on Twitter @writingmke.
by Claire Edwards
Gustavo Arellano describes Steven Alvarez’s “taco literacy” as an “examin[ation of] Latino immigrant communities through the seemingly simple acts of eating and talking about Mexican food.” Alvarez started this project of sorts while working in Kentucky and continues it now in New York, showcasing the variety and expansiveness of Latinx and Latinx-inspired cuisine in two very different parts of the country.
Having been born and raised in Southern California, the Midwest initially struck me as largely void of Mexican food options. But, I quickly learned that that was just ignorance on my part, an ignorance that I was relieved of the first time I ate at Conejito’s Place in Walker’s Point and had the best chicken mole of my life. As noted on their website, Conejito’s was opened in 1972 by Jose “Conejito” Garza and has been in operation ever since.
So, indeed, I first came to my limited understanding of Milwaukee’s Latinx community through food, a positioning that Alvarez seems to advocate. Conejito’s Place is located at 539 W Virginia St, placing it in the southside neighborhood of Walker’s Point which Visit Milwaukee describes as an “industrial area [that] is now a cultural and foodie hotspot.” Walker’s Point has an interesting Latinx history as Mexicans immigrated to the area in the early 1900s, many working at the Pfister & Vogel tannery. One notable example is Federico Herrera who moved to Walker’s Point in 1927 and was a part of establishing the city’s first Spanish-language newspapers.
Today, Walker’s Point is home to a high percentage of Hispanic individuals and families, though demographics on the exact percentage are inconsistent. Unfortunately, Walker’s Point is currently experiencing what many affordable, diverse, and previously industry-oriented urban neighborhoods have experienced over the last several years. With businesses like Colectivo Coffee and microbreweries opening in the neighborhood due to profits and affordability, the focus on Walker’s Point cultural history can be easily missed.
Milwaukee’s Latinx history and presence is also easily overlooked due to its absence from much of the popular conception of the city as a French and German American city. Not to mention the harmful ways that this European discovery story marginalizes American Indians, it also neglects to adequately focus on the current -- and long-standing -- diversity of the city. This skewed perception is due in large part to the primacy of the written record in historical accounts of the city’s origins. As for why these accounts often fail to emphasize significant immigrations in the 20th century, particularly those from Spanish-language countries, the answer to that is less clear.
To learn more about Milwaukee’s Hispanic-focused, -supported, and -hosted events, check out the following resource compiled by Visit Milwaukee: https://www.visitmilwaukee.org/about-mke/diversity-and-inclusion/hispanic/
Other resources & consulted works:
Claire Edwards is a third-year PhD student in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UWM. She spent several years in teaching, tutoring, and administrative positions at community colleges and online universities in Southern California before moving to Milwaukee to pursue her doctorate. She spends her free time watching movies with her husband and cat.
By Maria Novotny
During the spring 2020 semester, I taught a Cultural Rhetorics graduate seminar at UWM and I must admit that this course feels as if it took place a lifetime ago. So much in the world has since happened: the continued spread of COVID-19, the announcement made by many universities that students should expect to return to campus in the fall, as well as the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of protests supporting Black Lives Matter. With all that has since happened, I want to reflect on what my Cultural Rhetorics course may offer us now – in these increasingly precarious times.
In their Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversation, Phil Bratta and Malea Powell offer four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics: (1) the idea of story as theory, (2) engagement with decoloniality and decolonial practices, (3) constellative practices as a way to build community and understanding, and (4) the practice of relationality or honoring our relatives in practice. As a class, we discussed these pillars frequently and many students often questioned how these pillars help guide cultural rhetorics as a methodological practice. Here, I’d like to suggest how these pillars can support stakeholders in higher education so they may engage in accountable community allyship to dismantle the bricolage of injustices we face.
Story as Theory
Orients us to critically engage with whose stories are told, who is trusted to hear some stories, and why who listens matters.
Stories wield power and can influence how quickly we may adopt change. Yet, we know from the murders of Black and brown people in this country, that not all stories are told nor are they heard equally, even when they are shared. Take black maternal health for example. The Black Mammas Matter Alliance report that mistrust and racist bias in medical and hospital settings are leading factors contributing to the spiking black infant and black maternal mortality rate. Black women, their lived experiences, and the stories that they may or may not share (depending upon how safe they feel) are too often disregarded.
Cultural rhetorics reminds us that these stories matter. While Black women’s stories often do not align with dominant narratives of maternal health, cultural rhetorics offers theoretical tools to question why Black women’s stories are often muted or distrusted. The pillars of cultural rhetorics help retrain and reorient how we listen to stories, whose stories we are listening to, and how we may mistrust what we are trained to assume are “dominant” or “normative” narratives.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Lee Maracle’s book Oratory: Coming to Theory.
Engagement with Decoloniality
Helps us identify colonial systems of power that have become so ingrained into the “everyday” whereby inequity is easily disguised.
Recent calls to ‘defund the police’ have been met with polarizing viewpoints. While a recent poll finds that 61% of Wisconsinites support Black Lives Matter, a Marquette University Law poll finds that 70% oppose defunding the police. Such polls indicate clear misunderstandings about the rationale to defund the police as a supportive action of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cultural rhetorics serves as a theoretical lens to better understand how systematic structures, like the police, operate as a colonial construct reinforcing racism. For instance, by adopting a Cultural Rhetorics lens to arguments supportive of defunding the police, more clarity emerges as to why defunding is essential in order to “delink” (a term coined by Walter Mignolo) from what Toni Morrison has called ‘the white gaze’. This gaze is a practice adopted through many police practices whereby black and brown bodies must navigate how their bodies are read and thus become constructed as non-white targets which allows for public suspicion, police surveillance and/or unjustified acts of violence. Take the recent video of Amy Cooper as an example whereby a white woman uses her whiteness to reinforce her superiority over a Black man by calling the police with no warranted reason. Engaging with the pillars of cultural rhetorics – particularly decolonial theory – helps us dismantle misconstrued threats against our safety, such as the installation of fear in white bodies if we remove all policing.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing.
Constellate with Communities
Reminds us that community work happens through intersectional coalitions, bringing together a variety of perspectives.
The ripple effect of events occurring over these last four months – from March to June – have without doubt emerged at a time that has caused many to reflect on threats in their own lives. For instance, NPR ran a recent story noting because of asymptotic spread and political mishandling of the pandemic, many white people suddenly could relate to feeling as if their own bodies were at risk. This yielded increased support and allyship for Black Lives Matter. Yet, to truly constellate with communities we must think about all bodies in relationship with our own positionality.
Cultural rhetorics demands that our work be reflective as we work in constellation with others, not self-serving to reduce privileged feelings of guilt or shame. It must be in the trenches of injustice and as such it may be uncomfortable for more privileged bodies. As Natasha Jones and Miriam Williams in “A Just Use of Imagination: A Call to Action” write, “In this historic moment, when yet again the collective Black community is called forth to proclaim that our lives matter, that Black Lives Matter, we extend this idea of critical imagination to calls for justice and equality.” They conclude with this powerful statement: “Dismantling white supremacy requires your work. How might you make a difference? Just use your imagination.” Constellating with communities invites a critical reimagination of other stakeholders – beyond the Black community – that must engage in work supportive of equity and change.
Want to read more? I suggest reading Academic #BlackLivesMatter: Black Faculty and Graduate Students Tell Their Stories.
Acknowledge All of Our Relations
Demands our embodied experiences are reflected upon and accounted for in the community work we engage.
What does true allyship look like in practice? How do we make transparent the reasons for our actions, given the positionalities we embody? Ellen Cushman in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” articulates the difference between what she calls ‘missionary activism’ and ‘scholarly activism’. For Cushman, the latter option may engage in activism by either empowering communities through the achievement of goals by providing necessary resources, facilitating action through language or literacy, or situating our own ethos as a tactic to move forward a community’s need. We may do well to reflect on how our commitment to activism appears to those communities we seek to work alongside, as an accountability tool forcing us to be transparent about the objectives of our allyship.
Cultural rhetorics draws on Indigenous theory to tend to the ever-evolving process of not just developing but learning from our relationships. Such a process asks us to engage in reciprocal practices with our communities and favors methods that allow our actions to be taken as what Andrea Riley Mukavatez calls “speak[ing] with and alongside” (122) our community partners. Relationality asks us to make our own body transparent alongside the other bodies that we work in coalition building with – often this is messy and takes time. We would do well to remind ourselves of this as the protests dwindle and calls for action become less vocal. We must remain accountable to the communities we work alongside.
Want to read more? I suggest reading “Decolonial Directions: Rivers, Relationships, and Realities of Engagement on Indigenous Lands” by Rachel Jackson and Phil Bratta.
I want to close by acknowledging that these reflections are a work in-progress and still very much in formation. I come to cultural rhetorics as a white cis woman and all the privileges such identities afford me. As such, I still have much to learn and many to listen to as I try to teach cultural rhetoric practices to support community engaged activism here in Milwaukee.
Maria Novotny is an Assistant Professor with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UW-Milwaukee. Her research uses cultural rhetorics as a lens to understand and support the community advocacy practices of those diagnosed with infertility.
By Jenni Moody, Chelsea Embree, and Danielle Koepke
For students and instructors alike, Spring 2020 was certainly a semester to remember. While there was definitely comfort to be found in the fact that we were able to forge new connections through this shared experience, learning and teaching in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges for every individual. This post details the experiences of three graduate students at UWM.
Jenni Moody served as the Coordinator of the College Writing and Research composition program at UWM during the 2019-2020 academic year. After completing her PhD this past semester, she is now an Assistant Professor at Mount Mary University. Chelsea Embree is a second-year masters student in Literature and Cultural Theory. The 2019-2020 academic year was her first year teaching. Danielle Koepke is a second-year PhD student in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. During this past semester, Danielle had to balance her teaching and studies with the schooling of her children.
At the beginning of March, the WPA (Writing Program Administration) team made a short contingency plan in case COVID got worse. A few days later we had emergency meetings with the Department Chair. I sent a short email with a suggestion to take books and plants home before Spring Break, worried I was overreacting. Spring Break was extended to give teachers time to move a few weeks' worth of course content online while the university and the country assessed the situation. And you know the rest -- we didn't go back.
Our guiding principles from the beginning were honesty, flexibility, and support. Our challenge was to communicate information and resources to teachers without overwhelming them. Every teaching organization, website, and academic Twitter feed was full of op ed's on how to approach emergency online instruction. We sent emails frequently in those first days and weeks, sharing resources and ideas, clarifying broad statements from the university on grading policies, encouraging teachers to take care of themselves and each other, sharing the information we had and admitting what was still being decided by those higher up. The Interim Director of Composition sent out a survey to teachers early on asking how we could help, and those answers shaped our response. We held two optional virtual meetings for teachers to help them with technology. These provided a safe place where they could ask questions, click on buttons to see what happened, and brainstorm ways these online platforms might be helpful in their classes. We expanded our mentor groups for new GTAs into larger communities of care that included upper-level GTAs and academic staff. And then we quieted down. There were so many emails from the university about dorms closing, events cancelled, a constant spiral of change. We shifted to reaching out individually when it was needed, and keeping our composition program emails short and only for important updates. This strategy of early and honest communication that changed to less-frequent check-ins based on the emotional overload we witnessed teachers experiencing was the biggest takeaway from my time as coordinator during Covid. It made me think more critically, and with the aid of the same rhetorical awareness we teach our students, about the role of WPA communication in minimizing teacher stress.
I see teaching as a constant exercise in problem-solving, so much of the process of turning English 102 into an online course was just one big problem to solve. I learned how to make videos of my lessons using Loom (a service — which is free to educators! — that I would highly recommend), simplified my assessment practices, changed the parameters of the final project, and front-loaded a ton of content so that my students can complete the course at their own pace.
But I missed my students. A lot. When I recorded videos of my lessons, I imagined myself at the front of the classroom and visualized my students sitting in their usual spots. Pretty much every day, I worried about them. I had students who just didn’t like email under normal circumstances, and I especially worried about them because email became the only tool I could use to reach out to them. I was upset that this internet-centered experience made class so much more difficult for students who feel stronger about their discussion skills than their writing skills, and students who don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet in the first place. Once it’s safe for us to return to our in-person lives, I hope we’re all able to recognize that the internet — as amazing as it is — can’t replace everything. And I hope we collectively value our very human need to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices.
As a graduate student, I particularly missed the voices of my colleagues. Being able to spend a few hours a week discussing what we’ve read for class is really important for my learning process, and that can’t be replaced by reading online discussion boards. Even though I feel about as confident about my writing abilities as I do my speaking abilities, there’s still something that gets lost when we try to have a discussion online. An online seminar moves much more slowly, which means it’s less responsive and also takes longer to digest.
The one silver lining of this weird new lifestyle is that I’ve gotten more in touch with how my energy levels flow throughout the day, and can respond accordingly. I marked the beginning of each day with a short wake-up ritual, and I posted in my online discussions on the days I normally would have had class; otherwise, I rolled with it. I felt well rested every day, which hasn’t happened since probably childhood, and I didn’t feel like I was forcing myself to do things I didn’t have the energy for.
I remember the moment we got the official email – UWM would be having an extended spring break, followed by two weeks of online learning – I was in the middle of a seminar, and everyone was speculating over what the future would bring. I forwarded the email to my spouse, writing something like, “maybe we should get some extra toilet paper, just in case.” He grabbed some on his way home from work. We didn’t see any in stores for the next two months.
During Covid-19, all of my roles in life collapsed into one space – our home. My spouse worked 9-5 at our one desk, located in our main living space. My two kids shared devices and resources in order to accomplish their online school assignments each day. I balanced helping them with teaching my own English 102 students, tutoring online for the campus writing center, and doing my PhD coursework. A typical day felt like this: wake up, go over zoom schedule and assignments with older child, make coffee, help younger child get started on their school for the day. Warm up cold coffee. Lock myself in my room to tutor with writers who were stressed and anxious. Make lunch for everyone. Listen to what my spouse would have discussed with a colleague if he’d been in the office. Finish cold coffee. Respond to emails from my students, write discussion posts for one of my asynchronous seminars, prepare for my other seminar, which was synchronous. Hold virtual office hours for my students, read my own assigned texts while my kids entertained themselves by mostly watching YouTube and playing Roblox. Make dinner, which was most likely some form of pizza – rolls, bagel bites, slices.
There was not much creative capacity left in me to complete seminar projects, and sometimes, I let the kids skip an assignment because I didn’t have the energy to do things like go on a nature walk and find 20 different kinds of leaves. While I was in one space – home, which should have felt comforting – I was balancing changing school assignments for my kids, new levels of engagement as a PhD student, and supporting my students during this time.
As I reflect, I’m grateful that it is over. I’m also grateful for the grace and understanding from my own kids, my English 102 students, and my professors as I juggled many roles during this unprecedented time. From student reflections at the end of the semester, I was content that they wrote that I helped them get through this time and that I did not add stress. As we look ahead to all the unknowns of the fall, I hope I can continue to be flexible and supportive to others through my many roles as we work through new ways to be students and teachers at every level.
From the Editors
We’ve tried to offer a variety of perspectives on the experience of balancing teaching, learning, and other roles in the midst of this pandemic, but we recognize that these are merely three of the many experiences out there—and that this experience is not over. If you would like to share your own experience during these times, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Gitte Frandsen
When COVID-19 disrupted our F2F classes this semester and we moved online, a Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me make sense of my online teaching and focus my efforts to maintain a classroom community. Though the second half of the semester created a stressful and difficult learning environment for the students, it also gave me an opportunity to examine what I value in teaching and to reflect on how I can create a better learning environment for my students.
A Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me to understand my classroom dynamics, and especially the dynamics between the students and myself once we moved online. Cultural Rhetorics highlights the notion that all cultures are constituted by rhetorical practices that help members make sense of their world and build community. Cultural Rhetorics studies how members make meaning in and through relationships. It focuses on how material bodies interact with each other, and how our embodied experiences shape and are shaped by that relationality. Cultural Rhetorics studies cultures such as Native American cultures, workplace cultures, and crafting cultures; I would argue that a classroom is also a specific culture, albeit a temporary and perhaps more loosely knit one.
Though we had only just started developing relationships in the classroom when COVID-19 happened, I was struck by the relationships I developed with many students in spite of the distance. I had wanted to maintain a collaborative learning model online to continue learning with and from each other, but realizing how many access issues COVID-19 caused for the students, I dropped the collaborative element to simplify the expectations. I remained in touch with everyone regularly though. Students expressed feeling isolated, lonely, and longing for the relationships in the classroom, but simultaneously they cultivated their relationships with me. They reached out about their circumstances and shared personal stories. They expressed extreme gratefulness for the fairly simple acts of kindness I provided by being understanding and flexible. I couldn’t help but reflect that, ironically, though the virus forced us apart, it also made visible how interconnected we are. Models of the contagion particularly demonstrated how many people’s lives we touch, so the models became a strange metaphor for the relationality between us.
These changing and meaningful relationships with my students happened while I was struggling with isolation from many other personal relationships, and while I had to adjust to new relationships with my family, as we were all home, working and being home-schooled. All of us were trying to negotiate our new life which was difficult. I, too, was sharing my struggles with my students. And somehow there was a silver lining in these positive relationships that found a new way to grow.
Cultural Rhetorics also centers storytelling, and the potential for stories to create meaning and build community. Because my students clearly yearned to tell stories about their experiences, I gave them an option to write a research project that centered their stories on how COVID-19 had affected their lives, workplaces, or communities. I had students who were working as RNAs at hospitals and nursing homes, or who worked in retail or at restaurants. I had students who suddenly became the breadwinners of their families; students who got ill with COVID-19, or who witnessed people die from COVID-19. I had students who were struggling with their school work because retaining learning was difficult in an online learning environment, and students whose teachers suddenly gave them way more homework. There were so many stories. It was clear they wanted to tell those stories in order to make sense of all the confusion and pain COVID-19 had caused. Although the goals for the research project shifted to center personal stories over “rigorous” research, the stories that emerged had strong voices and rhetorical awareness. The students thought carefully about the genres they picked, the modalities they used to tell their stories, the audiences they wanted to engage.
COVID-19 certainly was and will continue to be tough. It has amplified many of the access and accessibility issues students face under normal circumstances: technology, food and housing security, supporting families, childcare, and physical and mental health problems. Still, I value the lessons I learned from and with my students this semester which I will take with me into future classrooms. I think the relationality between students and the teacher, as well as among the students themselves, can be strengthened by sharing each other’s stories. We can listen to, validate, and learn from others’ and our own stories and use those stories to develop research questions, explore our positionality, and think rhetorically about how those stories can make meaning and maybe make a difference.
Gitte Frandsen is a 2nd year PhD student at UWM in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Her teaching and research focus on linguistically, culturally, and socially sustaining pedagogies.