Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Collaborations and Personal Responsibility

“I’ve never been one for inaction. Anything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about”   --- from The Autobiography of Malcolm X

At the beginning of each semester, I have my students read a short excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X that has been placed in many first-year composition textbooks and titled “Coming to an Awareness of Language.”  In this passage, Malcolm X is speaking specifically of the time when he was incarcerated, yet still wanting to make our country better for Black Americans.  Because he was physically imprisoned, he decided to use the power of his words.  But, he soon came to realize his words were limiting his power, for he had but an eighth grade education, yet was attempting to effect change by writing to various politicians, including the President of the United States. Thus, he decided to broaden his vocabulary and ways of communicating by copying the dictionary word for word, page by page, and then reading aloud his own handwriting so as to truly internalize each word. 

My students are always amazed by the fact that Malcolm X literally copied the dictionary.  However, he says that he did this because he always took action whenever he felt passionate about something that needed to be addressed.

I admire Malcolm X for that, and I am a firm believer in taking action.  I’ve never been one who likes to point fingers or play the victim, for I do believe that in many situations, there can be something that ALL of us can do to make things better. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve identified some of the gaps that exist in our field between HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and PWIs (predominantly white institutions), and traced historically some ways in which we’ve gotten to this place.  Today I want to focus on taking action – on both sides.   I always worry when sharing some of the realities of HBCU life that the stories may be viewed as “excuses,” or “woe-is-me” narratives.  Let’s be clear, though.  Many of the stories I tell are not excuses, but lived realities, and they should not be belittled or ignored because those tangible conditions do impact the ways in which we function.  But, I also want to be just as clear that many of us at HBCUs have worked to take action, in the ways in which we are able, to move things forward.

On a large scale, there are three recent movements in the HBCU writing center world that really impacted me:

The first one I recall is when Dr. Hope Jackson, the former director at North Carolina A&T State University, hosted the 2009 SWCA Conference on her campus. I was, perhaps, one of her biggest cheerleaders, for I was so excited that an HBCU would be hosting a mainstream event.  Hope worked tirelessly on that conference for months (or was it years, Hope?) making sure that participants had a unique conference experience that showed them the flavor of HBCU life.  There were musical presentations, spoken word, and a great keynote address by Keith Gilyard.  The attendees and panel presentations composed perhaps one of the most diverse conference programs to date. But, this was no accident or coincidence.  I remember Hope sharing with me that she and her staff reached out to various HBCU directors multiple times via email, and how she’d then have her tutors follow up with several phone calls, encouraging them to submit proposals and attend the conference.

Remember my second blog post about it not being enough to just send the party invitation?  Hope knew this, and thus spent countless hours going above and beyond to ensure directors and tutors from diverse schools knew they were wanted at this conference.  It was a great moment. Thinking of it still makes me smile. I’m so proud of her for having that vision and making it a reality.

The second of which I am aware is when Dr. Dwedor Ford, formerly the writing center director at Winston-Salem State University, created the North Carolina HBCU Writing Center Consortium in 2012.  She was able to gather writing center professionals from 10 of the 11 HBCUs in North Carolina on her campus and we organized, engaged in professional development, and met once or twice or year, at times with tutors, to share ideas about pedagogies and best practices.  Dr. Ford is now an administrator at another HBCU in Ohio (Central State), and those of us left in North Carolina are attempting to keep her vision going.  Her Winston-Salem State University colleagues, Dr. Pamela Simmons and Dr. Derek Virgil, have worked to give us a historical perspective of the Consortium and how it came to be.  Our last meeting was in April 2015 and I hope we can again gather in Fall 2016.  I must admit, it’s been difficult to keep the momentum going, for nearly ½ of the directors who were in place in 2012 are no longer in those same writing center positions. Thus, it took quite a bit of time to track down new directors in 2015, and simply sending an email of invitation was not enough.  I can recall spending several afternoons looking on websites and making phone calls to once again have contact information for 10 of the 11 HBCUs in North Carolina. It was well worth the time, for our 2015 reunion was phenomenal and inspiring.  Many of the newer directors were not even aware of SWCA or IWCA (they weren’t on anyone’s “lists”), and they appreciated a low-budget, or I guess the politically correct term is cost effective, way to exchange ideas with colleagues in a drivable distance. But at the same time, these are the gatherings that would never happen if someone was not dedicated to spending hours searching websites and making phone calls to create that collaboration.

Again, my merely sending the party invitation to a random email address would not have been enough.  Only half of our participants would have even known about the event had that been my approach. Yet, once those colleagues were contacted and invited, they showed up ready to participate and take action.

As for Action #3, when I ended my second stint on the SWCA Board in 2015, I began my last year of service by advocating that we create a permanent HBCU Representative board position.  Of the 100 or so HBCUs in our country, approximately 70% of them are located in the SWCA region. (North Carolina has 11 alone.) The idea of intentionally including HBCUs within SWCA leadership had been minimally discussed by board members in the past, but it did not really take hold until Will Banks, Nikki Caswell and crew hosted a fantastic 2014 SWCA Conference at East Carolina University that focused on diversity and inclusion. Vershawn Young was the keynote speaker and he forced participants to consider racial and linguistic diversity in ways that perhaps many had not done before. That conference set the stage for me to speak from my heart at our post-conference Executive Board meeting and for other board members to actually hear me.  HBCUs needed to be represented consistently on the board, and throughout my last year, other officers helped to make that position a reality. Now, I’m proud to say that Robert Randolph of North Carolina A&T State University is a pioneer in that he is the first to serve in that role.  He engages in difficult conversations that need to be had, and he is making a difference. I saw a blog comment a few days ago from Candace Kelly, the writing center coordinator at Claflin University in South Carolina, saying that there was a 2016 SWCA HBCU Meeting. Wow! That is so encouraging.  I even learned from Week 2 of this blog post that another region, the SCWCA, not only has board positions for those at minority serving institutions, but that they even fund those officers to attend conferences because of the limited funding.  (Thanks for that information, Dagmar Scharold.) 

Please know that the above is not an all-inclusive list, for I am no HBCU guru who knows all things HBCU.  I’m sure there are many other smaller (and perhaps larger) initiatives taking place at other HBCUs or in other regions. 

To be honest, I think my first way of really connecting with IWCA members and other “players” in the writing center world is when I started running my mouth on the WCenter listserv back in 2005 after Victor Villanueva’s IWCA Conference speech where he addressed racism head on.  The responses from directors really engaged me and at times, quite honestly humored me, so I had to say something!   From there, I began to attend SWCA conferences and bring my tutors to present with me.  Often, there were very few other HBCUs represented, so I suppose it was a novelty to see a panel of all African-American tutors sharing their experiences. I later connected with Christine Couzzens who encouraged me to write a couple of short pieces for Southern Discourse, and from there I’ve just kept on expressing my views, sometimes unsolicited, when I’ve felt the need.

I’m really excited that my tutors can now go present on my behalf.  Because my professional tutor (and former graduate student tutor) LaKela Atkinson has represented me so well for the past couple of years, our Writing Studio has been asked to host this year’s North Carolina English Teachers Association Conference. (That’s our state wide affiliate of NCTE.)  To be honest, I’ve never even attended the conference. But, LaKela and other staff members have presented together the last couple of years, so I guess others were impressed! (Thanks, LaKela!)

In sum, HBCU colleagues are not interested in receiving invitations to any pity parties J  We’re ready to take action and I hope this blog has proven that while the recognition may not be as great, I have many colleagues in the HBCU community who are going above and beyond to have our voices be heard.  I hope that other HBCU readers out there have gotten some ideas today. Or, if you already have some success stories to share, please post them here. I think we’d all love to know what you’re doing on your campuses.

But, I also started today’s blog by saying that I never let anyone off of the hook.  We ALL must work together to effect change.  So now, it’s on YOU!  What have you, or your institution, or your organization really done to get HBCUs and other minority serving institutions involved?

 Party on, Folks!

 I’ll see you for my last post next week.

 ~Karen