By Mia Alafaireet and Nancy Linh Karls, featuring Jesus Galvan, Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, Tiffany Lee, and Amy Salinas Westmoreland –
What kinds of power do words really have? What does it mean to be a writer-activist? How can each of us use our writing to push for social change? These are the questions that fuel the UW-Madison Writing Center’s newest workshop series: “Writing for Social Justice.”
In the time since UW-Madison released the results of a 2016 Campus Climate survey, we at the Writing Center have confronted questions of diversity and inclusion with renewed vigor. As we contemplated the survey’s results and how our programs might play into students’ overall experience of campus life, we began to wonder: What actions can we take to signal our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social change? What can we do to foster a sense of belonging for students who may otherwise feel unwelcome on campus?
While we knew there were no easy answers, we decided to start with a series of social justice-oriented workshops designed to spark conversations about the power of writing to elicit equity, inclusion, and change. We hoped that inviting speakers from across the campus community would draw a wide audience and range of perspectives.
We coordinated our first event, “Writing as Activism,” in collaboration with our partners at the campus Multicultural Student Center (MSC). Amy Salinas Westmoreland and Tiffany Lee, who coordinate the MSC’s social justice programming, collaborated with us to brainstorm approaches, reach out to speakers, and host the event in April of 2018. The event featured four writer-activists, each of whom shared an excerpt from their work and prompted us all to reconsider the intersections between our individual lives as writers and our engagement in broader communities.
“It was a beautiful sight,” says Amy Salinas Westmoreland, Assistant Director of Social Justice programs for the MSC. “All the chairs were filled with students that were engaged, and wanted to know what they could do to make a difference.”
During the course of the session, the panelists presented and shared writing that spanned a wide range of genres.
Jesus Galvan, a senior undergraduate Writing Fellow, shared an outline proposal that he and the former Chair of Associated Students of Madison had collaboratively drafted. As Jesus explained to those gathered in the MSC that day, the objective for this outline was to provide more opportunities for discussion and reflection among incoming first-year students participating in the Our Wisconsin program.
“My piece was a bit different,” Jesus writes, “because it was more of a pedagogical piece, which may be more cut and dry but also very valuable from a systemic standpoint. Personally, I tend to have a knack for thinking about how things are done systematically, and it was awesome to have the opportunity to talk about this collaborative effort.” Although Jesus noted that he and his colleague fell short of their goal to facilitate four pilot discussions, he believes that “this process of trying to instill systemic changes to Our Wisconsin was insightful.”
In terms of presenting his work at the panel, Jesus recalls, “I remember feeling humbled and excited to share this piece – to both the audience as well as the people I presented with. From my experiences in college, I understand that sometimes it can be difficult to get a good turnout with events like this. I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of individuals in attendance that day. It really shows the intrinsic value that students hold in regards to social justice topics and discussions.”
Since graduating from UW-Madison, Jesus continues to work toward social justice by beginning an AmeriCorps fellowship and working at a residential high school in Estes Park, Colorado. Jesus writes, “Although my opportunities to produce creative, social-justice-oriented pieces of writing are limited, I have ample opportunities to help students here in their college admissions essays – something I consider to be social justice work in and of itself.”
Another panelist, Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, a Ph.D. candidate in English, shared one of her short stories, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Erica writes, “A few months later, what sticks with me about this conversation is how inspired I felt by the level of political engagement among undergraduate writers of color at the UW. When I was an undergraduate student, I went to a predominantly-white institution and did not have a community of writers of color. In workshops, many of my peers and professors regarded writing that was too overtly ‘emotional’ or ‘political’ as substandard, and I internalized many of these beliefs by cloaking my struggles with identity and mental illness under a veil of obfuscation.”
Erica continues, “In retrospect, I understand the pressure to adhere to a tone of ironic detachment as more than just an aesthetic demand, but a mode of silencing voices that challenge dominant narratives. Our conversation touched upon trauma and pain, and at the very same time, gave me hope that writing can be an act of healing, reclamation, and resistance.” (For more of Erica’s work, please see her website at ericakanesaka.com.)
Two other panelists also shared samples of their writing. Erika Gallagher, a senior undergraduate Writing Fellow and Posse Scholar, shared an abstract of her research project, “I Can’t Speak: Changing Perceptions of Linguistic Variations in Leadership.” Francisco Velazquez provided audience members with a copy of “Cardi B Conquers on the Highly Anticipated Invasion of Privacy,” a review he’d written and had published in The Daily Cardinal just one week prior to this panel. (Both Erika and Francisco have since graduated from UW-Madison.)
As she looks back on the panel, Tiffany writes, “What I appreciated most about this event is listening to different writers talk about how their writing is interwoven with their activism. Even though the writers had very different styles and backgrounds, they shared a common belief that writing has power.”
One of the audience members in attendance that day recalls, “I attended the panel with, what is for me, a perpetual skepticism when it comes to thinking about writing acting for good in world. And despite how well attended the event was, despite knowing almost all of the panelists by name from different work they’ve done around campus, and despite the energy of the MSC, I still waited for the panel to begin by wondering how successful writing can be as activism.”
He continues, “But after listening to each speaker, it became so clear to me how powerful writing can be even when its broader effects aren’t apparent yet. What I saw were several students at a variety of different moments in their academic careers, both empowered by the writing they do and already undertaking the difficult work of communicating injustice in a way that is compassionate and compelling. I think it can be easy to not immediately think of writing as activism because it tends to work slowly like a glacier, but the panelists help showcase that, like a glacier, writing can eventually reshape the world.”
These kinds of reflections underscore the power and the potential of writing for social justice.
As Amy Salinas Westmoreland notes, “Whenever we do a social justice workshop, panel, or bring a social justice speaker, our hope is to have an audience engage with the material and leave with some new information. We want folks to leave knowing that they have the power to create change, and this workshop did just that. I specifically remember all the questions that were asked by the audience. I’m proud of our collaboration with the Writing Center, and I hope that we can continue our partnership in the future.”
We were thrilled to see that “Writing as Activism” drew an even larger crowd than anticipated, and the depth of audience engagement encouraged us to expand the series through the 2018-2019 academic year. Keep an eye out for our Fall kickoff event, “Writing Is Power,” and other exciting social justice programming coming in the future!
 See the survey results here: https://diversity.wisc.edu/climate/survey/