By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
Fall 2019 marks the official launch of our program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UWM. My colleagues and I are also excited to welcome two new faculty members to our program: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. To help everyone get to know them better, I asked Derek and Maria a series of questions about their experience and vision for the new program. In this post, we’ll learn a bit about Derek and Maria’s background with research and part 2 will focus on their teaching and goals for the future of the program.
What is your experience with community-engaged research?
Maria: I draw on my work with the ART of Infertility to inform my community-engaged scholarship. As a resource organization, I host multimodal art workshops for reproductive loss patients to depict their experiences with grief and the reproductive healthcare industry. Once patient pieces are created, I invite patient-participants to narrate their infertility experiences through their artwork. Today, the organization has over 200 pieces of narrative art, of which, I incorporate into art exhibitions around the U.S. I understand these exhibits as evidence of how art rhetorically translates technical, scientific, and medical experiences into accessible experiences for non-experts to grasp and ignite community-engaged action. My purpose is to act as an ally to remove the embedded cultural stigma of receiving an infertility diagnosis and create resources that educate healthcare providers, and the public at-large, on the sociocultural challenges faced by the reproductive loss community.
Derek: My research focuses on African American community rhetorical histories which means I have to do research in the archives and in the local neighborhoods. I conduct interviews with community members, walk the locations where historical events took place, and attend community events. I also like to take students on walking tours of these historic neighborhoods.
What are you currently working on?
Derek: I am currently working on my book project, “The Places We Knew So Well Are No More:” A Rhetorical History of Urban Renewal and the Black Freedom Movement. In particular, I’m focusing on the Milwaukee section of the book where rhetorical education played a significant role in helping residents understand the complexities of urban renewal. In addition, I’m working on a conference paper (National Communications Association) about St. Paul, Minnesota, which will also be featured in my book. My paper explores how race is implicated in the contested spaces and places of urban renewal policies. But more importantly, it will examine the rhetorical actions taken by residents in St. Paul in an effort to save their community from the wrecking balls of eminent domain during the 1950s and 60s.
Maria: I’m currently co-editing special issues for The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics on “Curation: A Multimodal Practice for Socially-Engaged Action”, Computers and Composition on “Rhetorics of Data: Collection, Consent, & Critical Digital Literacies”, and Reflections on “Rhetorics of Reproductive Justice in Public and Civic Contexts”. While on the surface those themes may appear distinct, the calls emphasize scholarly contributions that consider how curation may act as a response for social action.
Related, I’m working on a co-authored book project with Dr. John Gagnon (University of Hawaii-Manoa). We published “Research as Care: A Shared Ownership Approach to Rhetorical Research in Trauma Communities,” which offers a cultural rhetorical framework for collaborating with trauma participants for rhetorical research. Our book project tentatively titled, Care as a Practice: Reorienting Research in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, offers a cultural rhetorics infused methodological framework to inform the design and ethical enactment of community-engaged research projects. Our manuscript expands on and explains the idea of care as a research practice, demonstrates the efficacy of a care-centered research paradigm, and delivers concrete models for how to enact care methodologically.
One of the key concepts constantly re-emerging throughout our study of Composition and Rhetoric this semester, is the idea of creating safe spaces outside of institutionalized oppression where people outside of the "normative standards" imposed by society can feel liberated to express themselves, live life on their own terms, and embrace their multifaceted identities. The concept of creating safe spaces (or similarly, "safer spaces") is championed as an essential literacy practice in Eric Darnell Pritchard's Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy.
The term "safe space" may be generally defined (based on our readings, my own perspective, and Google's definition) as a place or environment in which a person or group of people can feel comfortable and confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. This concept is sometimes referred to using alternative terms, or altered to fit a specific situation, in some of the readings we've done, but can always be traced back to the same fundamental basis.
Safe spaces are essential to the formation of identity and understanding one's self in the relation to society as well as achieving educational success, maintaining relationships, and effectively communicating. In a diverse and multicultural city like Milwaukee, safe spaces are found in individualized locations. One prime example of a safe space supporting its community, located in Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood, is Jazale's Art Studio.
History & Development
Bronzeville is one of many once thriving Milwaukee neighborhoods that have been negatively affected by segregation and economic instability throughout the course of the city's history. However, Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood has finally begun the process of revitalization and redevelopment with the support of local businesses, organizations, community members, and, perhaps most notably, artists. In an innovative effort to help redevelop the Bronzeville area, a new program called HomeWorks: Bronzeville is working to renovate properties to create living and workspaces for local artists to own (Daykin).
One of the local artists at the forefront of this effort was Vedale Hill, who is the art director at Jazale's Art Studio. Hill was looking for a new studio space to own instead of rent, and "wanted to be in a neighborhood that supports artists of color" (Daykin). This venture eventually led to the development of the city's Art and Resource Community (ARCH) program, which "provides no-interest loans for the redevelopment of tax foreclosed properties into art studios, live/work spaces and community resource centers" (Daykin) on the condition that the artists' talent benefits the community. Hill was the first artist to receive an ARCH loan, which allowed him to open Jazale's Art Studio.
Empowering the Community
For the Bronzeville community, Jazale's is far more than just an art gallery due to the after-school programs, summer art opportunities, and youth mentoring it provides urban youth in the area. This commitment to community can be seen in their mission statement, which affirms: "Jazale's Art Studio promotes arts and education in our community by providing children with instruction and exposure to a diverse range of arts, along with homework help. With encouragement and modeling, we assist children in expressing themselves creatively while developing pride in their neighborhood... and strive to promote academic excellence."
Jazale's Art Studio serves as a safe space outside of the institutional oppressions faced by the community's urban youth who are often marginalized members of society due to their race, background, and/or class status. It is a place were restorative literacies take place, "a concept that projects literacy as integral to people's everyday lives and their production, consumption, and reception of writing and other cultural productions" (Pritchard 37), which promotes identity formation, pride, and self-love.
Jazale's could also be seen as an extracurricular site, which "refers to sites of literacy learning and practice that occur out of formal settings, such as the school" (Pritchard 81), as the community's youth comes together to create art, do homework, and share experiences with those around them. Safe spaces promote success, positive identity formation, self-love, and affirmation for the disadvantaged youth suffering from social constraints outside of their power. Jazale's Art Studio serves as a fantastic example of how the safe spaces can be created specifically their community, and sets the standard for surrounding Milwaukee communities to work toward.
Jazale's is also reminiscent of MANOS, grassroots educational mentoring program featured in Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework Litereacies by Steven Alvarez. MANOS provides members of the Mexican community in New York City's Foraker Street neighborhood a social context outside of the pressures for assimilation in language and culture, outside of the gaze of the public school system, and outside of institutionalized oppression (Alvarez 33-34). Jazale's appears to do much of the same important work done by MANOS, as both provide their community's youth encouragement, homework help, and a space to express themselves in positive ways.
For more information about Jazale's Art Studio and its programs, check out their Facebook page.
To read the full article "Artists Helping Redevelop Milwaukee's Bronzeville Area Homes" written by Tom Daykin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, click here.
Stunning is how I would describe Family Pictures, a current exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum scheduled to run until January 20, 2019. Even though I was interested in the exhibit, which according to the website “explores the ways in which black photographers and artists have portrayed a range of familial relationships, from blood relatives to close-knit neighborhoods to queer communities,” I was dragging my feet on a cold, inhospitable day to the exhibit. Fittingly, when I entered the museum, I discovered it was Family Sunday and the museum was bustling with the energy of families making the best of a cold Wisconsin day.
Even though I knew the subject of the exhibit, in some ways I was unprepared for its impact. After descending a staircase, I was greeted by the stark title included in the image above. Then, I turned left. Lyle Ashton Harris’ photo “Mothers and Sons II” in its full-color glory depicted a black woman sitting on a throne while flanked by her two adult sons. Beside it were similar pictures displaying not only powerful familial bonds between parents and children but also the dignity of the subjects within the compositions, something often denied in the photographic images populating the internet. According to the placard accompanying his work, other images by Harris offer “an intimate look at the artist’s given and chosen families and subverts various notions of familial, sexual, and racial identities.”
Harris’ work coupled with a series of photographs by Deana Lawson chronicling men with their families at Mowhawk Correctional Facility offered a diverse, fuller perspective of black males. For me, it evoked some of Vershawn Ashanti Young’s observations in his book Not Your Average Nigga: Performing Race Literacy and Masculinity. Young laments the restrictiveness “performing race” in his text, suggesting the polarization and exhaustion of conforming to an identity that cannot fully encapsulate his full self. The photographic images suggest a fuller self, a self that is rarely seen in media images of black males depicted as criminals or threatening stereotypes. All around me were images of tenderness and love, of proud sexuality and black masculinity.
Another area of the exhibit featured the work of Carrie Mae Weems, a photographer who captured the lives of her own middle class black family in response to 1965 Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s callous assertion about black communities and families. Moynihan argued, “the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society” is a result of a weak family structure. Weems counters by presenting issues such as poverty in a broader context, revealing the lives of people affected by challenges as more than simply statistics. Her photos, like those of many other artists, reinforce the strength of familial bonds. For me, her work evoked empathy and admiration, qualities not apparent in Moynihan’s somewhat dismissive statement. Just as Steven Alvarez’s research on Mexican immigrant families revealed in Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework Literacies, the families of so called minoritized populations are often sources of strength instead of impediments to happiness or success.
I couldn’t help but reflect upon the culminating effect of the exhibit. I am white and the images reflected back at me are often those that resemble me, which is something I am largely immune to. Standing among so many beautiful and diverse pictures of a population other than my own, a population often distorted by others, was moving and engrossing. Then, I thought of how much more powerful this experience might be for those that do not have the benefit of seeing their reflection everywhere they look. It made me think of the little girl standing, mouth agape, in front of former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait and of the importance of expanding the context in which we present and perceive people.
Expand your own perspective by checking out this exhibit between now and January 20, 2019.
While there, you may want to capture a family photo of your own in the exhibit’s designated space (pictured below).
On April 26th I visited Latino Arts, Inc., an arts-based organization on the south side of Milwaukee that focuses on arts programming grounded in Latinx cultures. Latino Arts is located in the same building as the United Community Center (UCC), though the programming is separate from the UCC’s. However, in the same building is the Bruce-Guadalupe Community School—a bilingual school that mainly works with the large latinx population on the south side of Milwaukee—which partakes in programming with Latino Arts, Inc. Also in the UCC building is the restaurant Café el Sol. Thus, the placement of this specific organization in this important community center speaks to the prominence that many community members hope to give arts-based programming.
Within the Latino Arts, Inc. portion of the building is a Gallery that, according to their website, “is Milwaukee’s only gallery that is dedicated to showcasing the work of Hispanic and Latin American artists, ranging from indigenous craftspeople to contemporary masters of the avant garde.” The Gallery is also open every weekday from 9:00am to 8:00pm and costs only $1, which is a suggested donation. As such, community access is clearly quite central to their operating procedures. And while the space of the gallery is not very large, the curators manage to use that space quite effectively to showcase a fair few pieces.
When I visited the gallery, the exhibit on display was titled “Expansive Threads.” This exhibit was curated by Edra Soto and focused on the integration of fiber arts into artistic practice. The exhibit also, notably, only featured the work of Latina artists. While I couldn’t take any photos of the pieces (more on that below), I was able to take a picture of the opening placard that described the exhibit itself. There the exhibit is described: “Through materials or concepts, the formal models denoted as fiber arts are being challenged by incorporating nontraditional materials, forms of display or discourses. Similar to fiber arts, this group of artists creates work that emphasizes the aesthetic and conceptual value of the work over its utility.”
As such, this display, including work from 11 Latina artists, pushes viewers to question the binary attitudes set up by Western, American culture, especially those between traditional and nontraditional (or, relatedly, contemporary) and aesthetic and utility. These artists encourage audience members to think about these issues beyond a Western frame of reference to think about the art as mixing traditional and contemporary and existing beyond the realm of the capitalist, market-driven economy.
While visiting the Gallery, I was quickly rushed in and out, which is one of the reasons for my lack of photographs. On the day I visited, some students from the Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, who were working with Latino Arts, were preparing for an evening music performance in the auditorium space which is connected to the Gallery. Thus, while they were happy to have me visit the Gallery space, my timing wasn’t ideal. And, if we’re being honest, I loved just being in the hustle of the center for that moment. Being in the Gallery at that moment helped me to see the importance of that entire Community Center on the Latinx population in the area. It is in that center that families can eat (I even saw some families having breakfast in the restaurant) while also engaging with arts-based programming focusing on Latinx artistic practices. I was quite excited to see these students, most of whom seemed to be carrying violins with them, preparing for a community performance in a space that housed such varying forms of artwork. In my brief moments there, I got a small taste of the important work, accentuated by the bustling atmosphere, that all of the different organizations do at the UCC building and the ways that Latino Arts weaves their programming throughout.