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.
Spaces, safety, and love are recurrent themes in our readings for #uwm812 (Shaughnessy, Pritchard, Delpit, Paris & Alim). Discussed mainly within the context of classrooms pedagogies we learn that we as educators must make sure students feel safe in our classrooms. Eric Pritchard, for example, in his book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy highlights his personal experience regarding how he felt displaced in school, and turned to other spaces, like the local library, to engage with restorative literacy practices for reading and learning. Drawing from bell hooks’ work, Pritchard talks about the importance of “love ethics” in which love is the center piece of anything and everything in our daily lives. As much as it is crucial to create safe spaces in the classrooms, we also should contribute to create similar spaces outside the four walls of classroom—ideally in the community we live in. United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County is a non-profit that seem to be doing exactly this. They promote equity and inclusion as a part of their commitment to improve everyday lives of local communities through health, education financial stabilities. They also sponsor various community-focused programs. By participating effectively and actively through these programs, United Way makes difference in individual lives.
United Way shares success stories of their endeavors on their website. One such stories highlighted in their official website caught my attention as I was browsing it. United Way funded the Match Me Program at Ozaukee where Nathaniel, a 9-years old fatherless child met Dwight, a volunteer at United Way. Dwight helped him with his homework and also taught him how to drive a car. He also helped him with job application process and practice interviews for possible positions. Dwight’s dedication to volunteering has inspired Nathaniel as he is grown up now. This individual example of mentorship connects with some threads of “indigenous relational pedagogy” that Paris and Alim’s Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies underlines. Amanda Holmes in the book, for example highlights the significance and value the Elders carry in indigenous cultures. She remembers Rosalie Little Thunder, an Elder who deeply influenced her (Amanda) by her (Rosalie’s) lifestyle. Amanda was highly appreciative of Rosalie, “…her “practices” and manner, the protocols, values, and disciplines she spoke about—and was so keen to document, and that she lived.” Dwight was definitely a “role model” for Nathaniel, in his own words, his “superhero”. While defining Elders, Holmes does mention that they (the Elders) also “… act as role models, often assuming leadership positions in their communities.” (page#). Seen through the lens of indigenous relational pedagogies Homles underlines Dwight had tremendous influence on Nathaniel, acted as a “role-model” and helped him grow as a person—thus with Nathaniel’s “sustenance”.
Through a range of other programs they organize/fund and stories that United Way highlights in their website, I came to learn that they do provide a space for people in the community and thus build a united community where people feel safe and flourish according to their potentials. They also have plenty of volunteering opportunities. Under their “Seasons of Caring” program, United Way always recruits individuals who wants to touch lives and make a difference by engaging actively with the local communities. Learning about community-engaged activities United Way does makes me hopeful about future—creating safe spaces, spreading love
among people both inside and outside classrooms, we might one day see the change we desire—a better life-experience for people in the community—one that is built upon collective and communal efforts!
This fall, students at Shorewood High School prepared to perform To Kill a Mockingbird based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Less than a week before the premiere scheduled for October 11, protests broke out because of the use of N-word in the script, and this sparked a heated controversy as to whether the play should go on or be cancelled. One outcome of the debacle was an event titled “A community conversation about race” which was organized by the school board and superintendent as a response to “the need to engage in these difficult conversations about race and racial inequities as a way to improve our schools and our village”.
Listening to the protesting voices at the community event on October 16, I heard several people emphasize the trigger effect of the N-word caused a re-traumatization of the students of color; some suggested the actors omit the N-word in the performance , a solution that proved unrealizable due to copy right laws. To frame the protesting voices within a discussion on literacy, Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives conceptualizes, in the tradition of Paolo Freire and Sojourner Truth, literacy as “reading the word and reading the world” (80). In our case, we literally have a word that is situated in a context of colorblind racism; to help us see the potency of that word in that play, Pritchard’s conceptualization of “literacy normativity” - which describes literacies designed to sustain marginalization of racialized bodies, inflicting harm and pain - is instructive. In insisting on the play - an act of literacy normativity - to go on in spite of protests against inflicting harm and pain, that is exactly what is happening. Saliently, however, Pritchard also proposes the concept of “restorative literacies” which are literacies that heal. Pritchard writes, “Restorative literacies are part of the long African American tradition Elaine Richardson calls ‘survival literacies’. These survival literacies work to guard individuals against … ‘the living death of silence’.” (34). Indeed, the resistance expressed at Shorewood High School can be seen as restorative, an act of self-care and even love, which Pritchard defines as, “a radical praxis of freedom and self-care in the face of a social, political, and cultural circumstance in which you and your people are targeted for debasement, degradation, and in many cases, death.” (36).At the event, a student read aloud an Instagram message reacting to the protesters with racist and threatening content, reminding us these conversations do concern life and death.
Heeding the voices of resistance against the N-word in any context (and colonial ideologies that buttress it), I think the time is ripe to reconsider the benefits of asking high school students to read, and much less perform, Harper Lee’s novel. I understand that if the goal is to generate classroom dialogues about racism and equality, there are other novels and plays available that center and humanize people of color rather than representing them as minor characters (e.g. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and David Chariandy’s Brother). At the meeting, though, Shorewood High School’s drama director rather unapologetically claimed to have chosen To Kill a Mockingbird to encourage more “minority students to join [the drama club]”, and though his intentions appear to be harmless, he is, in fact, enacting a modern and subtle form of colonialism. Using Django Paris and H. Samy Alim’s Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (2017) as a lens, we learn “CSP is about complicating, sustaining, and extending what is important to students and their lives, not just what is important to educators and their agendas, whether their agendas are social justice-driven or not” (Wong and Peña, 125). The colonialist aspect of the drama director’s actions lies in his setting the agenda for the minority students; in plowing ahead and disregarding what the students might have deemed important to dramatize; and in silencing their voices when they raised them in protest against having to listen to White students utter the N-word 44 times. Many people voiced the point that this is a play; it is White characters. - not White students - shouting the word. But guess what? Testimonials confirmed White students do habitually use the N-word, and even if they didn’t, does a White person get to decide hearing the N-word in the context of a play isn’t harmful? The epitome of the modern colonial spirit is when the colonizer dictates the terms of healing and reconciliation.
In the end, whether the voices of resistance were heard or whether safety concerns were given priority, the play was cancelled, leaving me hoping for climate changes in the community, and for instructional and staffing changes at the school. -GPF
This past week, we discussed Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. While I will not and cannot speak for my peers, I will not hesitate to say that the book was an absolute tour de force. Pritchard grapples with the immense pain and hardships of those who lie outside of our heteronormative society’s “acceptable” lifestyles (particularly black people who identify as queer) with both an astute understanding of dense theory and a refreshing, unwavering optimism. While our conversation of the work was soul-stirring (a term I borrow from Rachel’s own reaction to the book), the main takeaway of our conversation was the question we closed on: Can Pritchard’s approach to literacy save lives?
Literacy’s different forms
Our discussion began with a brief exploration of what, exactly, literacy is. We reached the conclusion that traditional perceptions of literacy are outdated and inaccurate: people can be literate in all sorts of subjects and in all sorts of ways, and perhaps most importantly, just because a person is literate does not mean that they will magically be catapulted into a better life. In fact, literacy normativity, as Pritchard calls it, is “the use of literacy to create and impose normative standards and beliefs onto people whom are labeled alien or other through textscapes that are experienced as painful because they do damage or inflict harm” (28). To combat these damaging literacies, Pritchard introduces a concept he calls restorative literacies, a way of using literacy to create a space of one’s own, a refuge away from oppression where one can heal wounds and come to practice self and communal love. These spaces and literacies are not constructed in opposition to oppression, but completely outside of it, creating a space solely for those who have been hurt by literacy normativity.
Love and Revolution
Something that really stood out in Pritchard’s work and our class discussion was his focus on love—not necessarily romantic love and desire, but self care, self-worship, and communal support. While most theoretical texts come from a good place—certainly the texts we have read throughout the semester have been written with the intent of improving the lives of students, educators, and various other communities—it is refreshingly unusual to have a book like this so explicitly and unapologetically focused on self love and care.
Another term that gave power to Pritchard’s work—in fact, it’s the last word in the entire book—was revolution. Pritchard closes his book by writing, “And what this theory might do is nurture, illuminate, and enact the very self- and communal love that fuels the very literacy actions examined throughout this book. In short, a Black Queer Literacies is what I would call a revolution” (252). There are many words he could have used here, but revolution, to me, feels the most powerful. This final line feels like a true call to arms, an invitation to reject literacy normativity and encourage others to do the same to create a world where literacy does in fact live up to its traditional definition—a skill that betters the life of everyone who acquires it, not just a privileged few.
Can This Approach Save Lives?
In regard to the question I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the answer we reached as a group was yes, Pritchard’s ideas of restorative literacies, self love, and communal revolution can indeed save lives. Forgive me if I’m getting too personal here, but as we discussed this question, I was struck by an incredible wave of peace. Here we were, a small group of people with a myriad of different backgrounds, lives, interests, and goals packed around a table on a chilly Thursday night. Most of us are graduate students, not quite yet at the apex of our goals, many of us not yet immersed in the field we are drawn to. As we were discussing how we can heal and prevent damage caused by violent and oppressive literacies, how we can teach our students, our peers, our children, and ourselves, how we can construct our own worlds full of freedom and love and power—well, it certainly felt like the beginning of a revolution to me.
“Truth…..speaks…..out! Truth…speaks….out! Truth…” The chant of Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel accompanied us as we walked out of the Riverwest Radio Station– an old alternative video store reconverted, as their mission explains, in “a community platform for education, advocacy and creativity, as well as an outlet for marginalized and alternative voices”. Riverwest Radio started to emit in March 2014 after President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act in 2011. This act was the result of a long battle led by several organizations, among them Free Press and The Prometheus Radio Project against communication corporate control and inequality in media access. Local eclectic voices follow one another from one display store window to the other, where the recording tables are tightly nestled. Anybody local (from the Riverwest neighborhood or its surroundings) can make a show proposal and become a producer. They can also suggest a story and the radio will try to match them with a producer or include the story in a special event programming.
Riverwest Radio is a promising project against dominant narratives, as a peek at its show title listing suggests: The Anti (anarchist show), AbilityMKE Now! (bring abled disabled together), Ayo Sis (drag queen show), Disability Rights, Bing Bong Crunch (collective search histories), EXPO: Ex-Prisoners Organizing, Young Black & Opinionated, etc. Whether the shows have a focused or more global interest, whether they have an informative or entertaining aim, they are overall presented by a great diversity of people, which reflects the neighborhood–-one of the most diverse in Milwaukee, but where gentrification happens quickly. In this context, Riverwest Radio can help render visible “the influence of cultural structures (such as race, gender, class, etc.) on everyone’s life,” structures that “whiteness in the US (in its desire for stasis) occludes” (Ratcliffe 129). It can offer a space where rhetorical listening can happen, where listeners can understand –or rather as Krista Ratcliffe defines it in Rhetorical Listening, where they can stand under discourses, “letting discourses wash over, through, and around us and then letting them lie there to inform our politics and ethics” (Ratcliffe 28). Riverwest Radio offers a platform where diverse community stories and voices can be heard and where their listening “with intent” can thus broaden our cultural literacy (Ratcliffe 28).
Eric Darnell Pritchard in Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy underlines the importance of literacy in creating meaning in socio-cultural contexts, in building identity and in creating community. He advocates for “restorative literacies” against normative literacies that create discourses “marginaliz[ing], ostraciz[ing], and condemn[ing] people for their identities and other ways of being” (Pritchard 28). Considering the tension resulting from the stark segregation in Milwaukee and the gentrification of the Riverwest neighborhood, I was surprised not to find shows at Riverwest Radio that offer “solely resistance to or defiance of oppression and marginality”–which would contribute to “reductive narratives”(Pritchard 35). Instead, I find shows that are just addressing everyday life, politics, sports, music, literature, art, video games, drag shows, etc. By offering a safe place for diverse voices, including queer blacks, to engage literacy on their own terms, “for one’s own desires, pleasures, fantasies, hopes, and needs,” Riverwest Radio can support “restorative literacies.”
As Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel started her show by her usual chant, I left Riverwest Radio where I was interviewed for Rive Gauche (Interview #111), a show interested in French people and culture in relationship with Riverwest and Milwaukee. I felt welcomed by a community in a neighborhood I had moved in only two months earlier. At the radio, I was welcomed for who I was: a gay woman, a poet, an immigrant, without a raised eyebrow or that slight hint of discomfort when I mention my wife. I talked about my life and my poetry, with just the stumbling of words and thoughts due to the daunting microphone. It felt good.
Picture from Riverwestradio.com