Steve Parks on Global and Local Activism
We asked Steve Parks, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Virginia, to join us for an interview. In our work through 4C4Equality, Dr. Parks has been a supportive mentor and scholarly inspiration. His work prompts us to devote considerable attention to how we characterize local approaches to activism and advocacy.
He is the author of several books, including: Class Politics: The Movement for Students Right to Their Own Language; Circulating Communities: The Tactics and Strategies of Community Publishing, with Paula Mathieu and Tiffany Rousculp; and Listening to our Elders: Writing and Working for Change, with Cristina Kirklighter and Samantha Blackmon. Most recently, he has published a textbook, Writing Communities: A Handbook with Readings focused on supporting community partnership/publishing writing classes. Additionally, his extensive scholarship, editing work, efforts within the Syracuse community, and international activist projects challenge us to reconsider how we approach local and global concerns as writing scholars. In the following interview, Parks discusses current projects as well as his thoughts on how activism will shape writing studies in the coming years.
The interview was conducted through Google Hangouts in May 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length. - Liz & Don
Liz & Don: We are excited to hear about your international work, for example, you have an upcoming class you are going to be teaching in Madrid. Could you tell us more about that class and other international work?
Steve Parks: It might be useful if I quickly traced how I became involved in international work, since most of my work up to that point had been with local US urban communities. And I should say, it really was an unexpected turn in my career. About four years ago, I had just completed a community organizing/ publishing project in the Westside of Syracuse. It had gotten some press as well as drawn some controversy. At any rate, folks had heard about it on campus. Because of this, I was asked to take part in a program at Syracuse University that brought Middle Eastern/North African democratic/human rights activists to our campus. My role was to conduct workshops on how to use community publications in organizing campaigns. Some of individuals involved in the program wanted a venue to share their experiences of the Arab Spring, which they thought had been misrepresented in Western media. This led to my helping to publish Revolution By Love: Emerging Arab Youth Voices. Several years later, when I was once again conducting workshops with activists from that region, I met Bassam Al-Ahmad, from Syria, who was interested in producing a book on human rights abuses being committed in that country. That project eventually merged into Syrians for Truth and Justice (stj-sy.com), a human rights organization based in Istanbul, that works with Syrian-based human rights activists to record war atrocities by Assad and Putin's forces, as well as ISIS and the militias. In fact, right before we got on this call, I was editing a story about a bombing in Syria that intentionally targeted civilians and children.
Simultaneously to this work, Jess Pauszek (Texas A&M-Commerce) and I were working with a team of scholars in the United Kingdom to create a print archive of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP), which was an international network of working class writing groups that self- published memoirs/poetry/history of their experiences (fwwcp.gn.apc.org). Similar in many ways to the aims of the Middle Eastern/North African activists, the goal was to think through how to use publishing to present the viewpoints of those being marginalized/oppressed by dominant culture—although, of course, there are clear differences concerning the nature/systems of that oppression, as well as complicity by UK interests in the oppression/exploitation of not only UK working-class populations but Middle Eastern and North African populations as well.
This emerging context led me to reconsider much of my previous work. To return to the work in Syracuse's West Side, for instance. I think when I was doing that project, I had a sense that if I supported community activist/publication work for local rights, it was sufficient. My work with the Middle East/North African and UK activists, though, led me to consider how many of these actions just re-instantiate larger global economic trends and biases. Or at the very least, such work can lead students to think that they have no responsibility for understanding the role of the United States as a global actor. I began to believe that there was an undercurrent in civic engagement that acted as a justification for a romanticized nationalism. And I began to think about how if students read and helped edit the stories being published by Syrians for Truth and Justice and then compared them to the hysteria about Syrian refugees in the US, they would a different sense of the world. Then if such work were coupled with community organizing training, a different conception of citizenship than was originally intended by "community service" might be created. I thought it might change what our disciplinary commitment to "engagement" could mean in our field.
Increasingly then, I'm trying to think about how students can consider activism as not just something that happens in the local moment, but how any local moment is imbricated in a network of international contexts. And I'm trying to think through what type of partnership models demonstrate such activist work, particularly partnerships that show how by articulating alternative alliances/ networks there is an increase in human rights protections not just for the benefit of local residents in the US, but also in the very countries often suffering from the global actions of our county. It's out of this context that my current courses are emerging. So, for instance, I taught a course in London (originally designed by Jess Pauszek and myself) that had students help to create the FWWCP archive, meet with FWWCP writing groups, and produce a joint publication. In some ways, this course was designed to show students the value of traditional academic skills in supporting oppositional cultural projects like the FWWCP. With the Madrid course, I am using the same model-linking academic work to support of oppressed communities in expressing their experiences, which will also result in a publication. Only this time, I am linking the course to World Pride Day, which is happening in Madrid, and I am asking the students to think about the ethical responsibilities inherent in thinking of themselves as global citizens. For this course, though, I'm also dedicating the final hour of each class to learning community organizing strategies–strategies based on the work of Cesar Chavez. Here the students will once again produce a book and meet/interview activists in Madrid, but now they will also solicit writing from individuals involved in the networks of Middle Eastern/North African activists mentioned earlier. Similar to other book projects I've done with students, the goal will be to have the publication be assigned in high school/college classrooms, specifically writing studies classrooms.
I'm also in the process now of building a class that tries to draw this work into classrooms on the Syracuse University campus. Here the course will be to work with educators in Kairoun, Tunisia, who are trying to create counter models to ISIS, who actively try to recruit their students. This class will join my university students with the students in Tunisia to create a digital television station that will features videos documenting how the community values religious tolerance, inclusion, and gender equality. There are also plans to develop print publications that can circulate in different parts of the community. Another part of this project involves having members of Syracuse's immigrant community join in dialogue with the Tunisian and Syracuse University students to generate dialogues about the value of cross-cultural understanding. Once the course is done, our partner in the Tunisian Ministry of Education hopes to network the digital television station and publishing practices to schools across Tunisia–though given the unrest in the country this might seem a bit optimistic.
L&D: That is fascinating. How would other rhetoric and composition scholars develop these sorts of relationships? The work we see in our institutions has such a heavy emphasis on the local. Our institutions have community engagement and global engagement offices with completely separate people doing completely different things. How can we bridge that gap?
SP: Part of it is beginning to write scholarship that confronts the fact we have a very parochial view of the local in our field. The local tends to be geographically bound around a set of streets or some sort of line around the city. Because those types of partnerships are easier, they become the dominant model. If you stop thinking in terms of streets and cities, which is a horizontal view, and instead think of it vertically– how the local rests within a region, within a certain sense of nationalism, within a certain sense of globalism and a certain post-neo- or neoliberal economy, then those connections demand that you understand that local street as part of a much larger system. Then the question becomes, what does a community partnership project look like within such a context? If you look at Anna Tsing's book Frictions: An Ethnography of Global Connections, she talks about how the global is actually a networked set of tiny articulated local moments. In the courses described above, I'm trying to think through how to create partnerships that provide students this understanding and give them tools to actively intervene as part of an alliance in ways that support human rights. I'm not sure I doing that particularly well, but my hope is that others are also doing similar work. My sense is that if we collectively publish more about such work, as a community, we can begin to build scholarly arguments and pragmatic models, which actually achieve such aims.
My sense is that this also means we need to change graduate education in our field. I can only speak for myself, but I don't think graduate programs necessarily teach students the actual historical, political, and economic knowledge they need to engage in global context. While there are significant studies on the rhetoric of global artifacts, such as human-interest campaigns, I'm not sure the graduate seminars that study this work provide the political/economic landscape in which those campaigns occur. That is, I tend to think we need to have graduate courses in our field focused on political histories, studies of colonialism as a global enterprise, the historic development of Islam as a religious culture differentiated by local, national, and regional contexts, among other topics. So, I think of our field as inherently interdisciplinary. In this sense, I'm probably not the biggest supporter of "writing about writing," which seems to consolidate our sense of the discipline at the expense of insights from other disciplines.
That is, I think that the very thing we need to do is to start developing connections with scholars in the Middle East, scholars in political science, scholars in human rights. And we might need to deliberately change who we appoint as our faculty. If you put together such collaboration, you have a knowledge base that is nuanced enough that you could begin to talk to people in an informed way about how you might collaborate with them. Only then, and in a very specific way, can we begin to reach out to faculty and activists in other parts of the world, initially to learn from them, and eventually to see how we might partner in the work they're doing. Only at this stage should we think about what we might actually add of value. So, I guess I'm really saying it takes a long time, a period of research and alliance building.
Finally, I'd argue that much of this focus on global partnerships has to be linked to organizing. You can only do this type of global work if students learn about global activist strategies. What does this mean? It means we need to teach more than how to write an academic essay or develop a writing course curriculum. This work means developing experiences in grassroots organizing and a certain type of alliance building. Once we shift what we mean by service in the local to service in the global, it shifts what we have to teach in our graduate classes. (Though I would argue that we really should have been teaching such activist practices even when focused on the local as traditionally framed in our field.) I've said this in other contexts, but it applies here. Essentially, I'm saying that to describe our field as progressive and publicly committed, but to not teach the organizing skills, which are part of any rhetorical practice, is a bit of a bait and switch. So really taking on such work requires a fundamental re-ordering of how we create "scholars" in our field.
L&D: That's a useful model to get started, especially as more and more people do this work. In the current political climate, there's been a steady march toward activism. What do you feel like the field's attitude toward activism is at this moment?
SP: I would say there's really a set of fields. There are those in the field who are most concerned about making us a real discipline: they want to claim our classrooms as spaces that we develop, control, and research. I understand that argument as it relates to labor conditions: if you can control your own program/department there is stronger argument to claims about also controlling labor conditions. In the academy, it seems the first move is to claim disciplinary status. However, beyond that strategic aim, I don't get the drive to separate ourselves from other important knowledge bases and disciplines. For instance, the version of "Writing about Writing" where you end up reading our scholarship in a freshman writing class, I don't find to be a particularly important political project at this moment beyond the issue of labor. I think the more important question might be what other disciplines do our classrooms—at all levels—need to include if we are to provide students with a nuanced sense of how language/writing might operate in public debates in a global context. In that sense, history, political economy, religious studies seem just as important for students to read as our insights on literacy.
The part of the field that interest me most right now is not so much a particular area—like my own work in community literacy—as much as a generational shift. I'm very excited about the new generation of teacher/scholars coming in the field, about how they are challenging some of the work that we thought was important. ("We" being the 50 year olds who are still in the field.) When I was coming into the field, the activism was focused on anti-apartheid struggles, AIDS, and, of course, Reagan, with his attack on the working-class among many other populations. Those are the things that animated us, and that's what led to service-learning morphing into a more activism-based enterprise. It seems to me that this generation, however, understands how this version of activism was probably too closely aligned with disciplinary consolidation. It was an activism premised on validating our research models and not necessarily focused on systemic change in local or global contexts. This generation is much more willing to take a risk and define activism as grassroots organizing and collaboration with communities to confront racial and economic issues. If that model can take hold, then that's a very powerful transformation of how discipline works. It's certainly much different then "writing about writing" as a ruling paradigm.
In that sense, activism today has multiple meanings. There's the activism to consolidate our discipline within traditional frameworks by excluding other field's important insights. There is aligned activism of service learning, which is more moderate than this political moment needs. Then there's this upcoming generation who are pushing for grassroots organizing for social change as central to our field. I'm sure that the first two versions of activism will continue to have space in our field. I might stand in an odd relationship to both, but the fact of these conversations shows the vitality of our field. My hope is that we realize the value of this generation's efforts and that we actively support it. To distort Corbett's "Open Hand, Closed Fist" article, what we really need right now is an open hand to what this generation is doing, welcoming it in, thinking seriously about the challenges they bring to our work. That said, I'm afraid we will enforce the closed fist, the narrowest sense of our disciplinary work and identity, and define this work as "not what we do." To the extent this is already happening, I think it is cause real tensions in our field.
One last thing about activism, I'm very fortunate to have done some work with the Latinx Caucus and the Asian/Asian American Caucus, so I am little bit more aware of some conversations than I was earlier in my life. It's so clear that we have some really fascinating grad students entering our field who bring have African American, Latino, Dominican, pan-Asian backgrounds, heritages, and cultural knowledges. Yet, we (meaning folks like me) need to recognize that the experience of many graduate students of color is one of encountering racism and discrimination within our graduate programs. Carmen Kynard has it dead on when she argues in Literacy and Composition Studies that we do not pay enough attention to what that experience is like for those students. That we haven't shifted our graduate school cultures to account for the valuable knowledges and embodied experiences they bring into our seminars.
It's been almost 40 years since Students' Right to their Own Language and we still ask our graduate students to swim in a sea of whiteness. That's comforting for some, I suppose, but it's discriminatory and alienating for all these emergent scholars. I believe it is one of the reasons why our field remains predominantly white in terms of who receives PhDs. And it's going to stay white until we recognize and address the damage we're doing to people mentally, intellectually, and physically—until folks like me recognize how we are perpetuating racist structures. So I'm am very interested in those graduate student activists who are really pushing against the white nationalist politics of the Trump era and who are thinking about how those strategies, arguments, and beliefs can be productively engaged with our classrooms and our scholarship. To me, they're people who are central to redefining the field. If we can just not block their efforts because we're afraid of what it will mean to "our discipline" and to our "identity," then maybe we can live up to the progressive rhetoric that fills our journals.
L&D: In "Sinners Welcome: The Limits of Rhetorical Agency," you talk about grassroots activism as something that should be part of our curriculum, and you've touched on some ideas about what that might look like, particularly in describing the classes that you're working on. How can writing scholars move towards "the political" as opposed to "the social" in productive ways that benefit research, teaching, and service? Along those lines, how can we do that in the current climate?
SP: First, in a Trump world—where facts seem to have less currency—scholarship that uses the traditional tools of citation, fact-based evidence, and nuanced argumentation to publicly show alternative facts are bogus is of incredible political importance. For example, my colleagues Rebecca Howard and Crystal Hendricks are doing wonderful work on fake news. Then there are human rights activists, such as those at Syrians for Truth and Justice, who are using similar tools to archive the human rights abuses occurring so that the perpetrators can eventually be prosecuted. It's old school scholarship, but it's deeply important.
I also think it's important to realize the real material dangers graduate students, tenure- track assistant professors, and adjunct labor face when taking on traditional activist activities (organizing, lobbying, protesting, pushing policies, trying to create and legislate a political change). There is a real danger there. For instance, friends of mine in Colorado have just been attacked by the National Association of Scholars for doing service-learning work.
Sometimes we send young activist scholars out there and more or less say, "Do it by yourself." When this happens, they become isolated and easy targets for public campaigns against political work by faculty. My general advice is that before taking on such work, it's best to spend time building alliances with their peers, networking with important public actors on their issue of concern, and to work as part of collectives. I did a campaign in Syracuse where we actually formed a community organization out of folks who were unorganized. Part of that was training a whole cadre of people so that you're never alone on the stage; you're never the only person holding the sign. There is surprising power in numbers. That's an important lesson, I think.
That is, I think it's important for faculty to think about who on city council should be part of this project; who in the public schools has the status that can support this project; who's an important local religious or business leader who might want to join the project. Start by listening and gaining the trust of those people and learning what the actual issue in that local context, where your skills align within this collective effort, learning to work collaboratively. Then if you are attacked, you have a backstop-a set of people to defend you. In other words, if the business community attacks, you have the business person to speak on your behalf, if the political community attacks, you have a political ally. And this isn't just about protecting your interests, more fundamentally, it's about protecting the work being done. Not letting it be sabotaged because there isn't enough support for the work.
For graduate students, in particular, they need to be careful what the program they attend. They have to find one or two senior scholars in their potential department who will be their advocate, who will defend their work as vital to our disciplinary field, who help them turn that activism into the dissertation because we need scholarship that shows the importance of this work. If they don't have strong faculty backing, or they're unable to build that coalition, they may not want to take on such work right away. They may need to decide that isn't the time in their career when they can do such work. I think it's fine to think long-term about their commitments.
Finally, I tell graduate students being a professor is not the only important job in the world. I don't think that what we learn in composition and rhetoric can only be applied in the classroom. It has public significance and value. For that reason, I am quite comfortable if students who are ABD decide they want to go work for SEIU (Service Employees International Union), for example. To me, that speaks to the value of our degree. Part of it is also deciding as an individual if you believe the limited activism that the field allows hits your moral core. If after a couple of years at grad school, you find the classroom and the scholarship impede your activism, then what you're really saying is "I learned some really great theories and gained some really great tools, but I'm going to go work at the Center for Worker Justice. That's what I'm going to place in my life." That seems a totally legitimate decision. We over-romanticize and train graduate students to think we're the most important people in the world. We're really like one floor in a ten-floor building on a huge campus. I like to keep everything in perspective.
L&D: To transition a bit to your editorial work, we're curious how you characterize that as activist work.
SP: Editing is a collaborative enterprise, somewhat like community organizing. What you really do as an editor is develop a community of scholars who are committed to a certain set of values, and then you work within that network to find scholarship that matches those values. I think when you develop these collectives, you want to be mindful that a room full of white male, tenured R1 scholars is not particularly representative of who teaches in our field, takes our classes, or conducts research. You need those different labor and heritage positions in the room. That collective conversation is important. I'm consistently surprised how young scholars–people who just finished their dissertations–can write 200 pages about pedagogy, for instance, and not address race, gender, or ethnicity. When you build an editorial board, that collective of scholars can change what counts as scholarship, the demands we place on it, and expand our responsibilities as scholars. They can help us get to the point where someone can't say the term "our field" and only talk about white people, or can't say "our field" and only use Westernized views of knowledge, and talk about our field as only a US enterprise since we're now teaching composition all over the world now. For me, part of editing is changing what counts as scholarship and, in that sense, it has a community organizing component.
Sometimes it's also about changing the authority structures of publishing as well. For instance, years ago Cristina Kirklighter and I started the Writing and Working for Change series, published by Parlor Press. The idea was to change who has authority to write the history of our field. We wanted to create a venue where populations of scholar/ teachers who have been under-represented in our field and provide them the tools to articulate their value (and values) in their own terms, their own structure. Originally, this project was linked to documenting the work of SIG/caucuses in our field, such as the Latinx or Asian/Asian American Caucus." For these histories, the caucuses have full editorial control of the book; it's their work.
This is self-generated knowledge within communities that should be valued. More recently, within the Writing and Working for Change series, we are exploring how to use multimodal scholarship to do some transformative publishing on what publicly committed scholarly writing looks like. That is to say, the series is asking activist/scholars to help decide what academic writing should look like, to define what the new scholarship will be in our field, and who has the authority to be considered a "scholar." It's an intentionally experimental and social justice oriented series. There will be moments of failure, for sure, but I believe it is a very important to have such an inventive space in our field. And needless to say, I find it incredibly exciting to be able to work on it.
One final comment: I should say that the more I edit, the more I think a lot of young scholars are being asked to leave behind important moral and political commitments—commitments they thought the field represented-in order to produce a dissertation that seems likely to get them a job. I was pretty poor as a graduate student, so I completely understand that need, that anxiety. But, I don't want to ask students to sell out their moral core to get a job. And I'm worried as we professionalize, as the economy worsens in the academy, we are losing a disciplinary space which represents a more activist tradition in our field. For instance, I'm part of the Best of Rhetoric and Composition Journals series, which publishes an anthology of the best work in our field every year. Through this, I learned there is something like 45 journals right now in our field. But there is not one journal that tries to account for how activism enacted on the street should inform our teaching; not one journal focused on our activism in the streets period. It's just not there. There's occasional articles, but there's no place to consolidate that information, that history. Without a space for it to be gathered, learned from, it'll be dispersed, dissipated, and lost. That's what I saw with the working-class writers in England. That's why we did the archive. So I worry a lot about that when people write the history of our field, they won't have access to this important part of our legacy. And as grad students learn the history of our field, they won't learn that legacy, the full range of what it means to be "professional," and have a limited sense of what is possible. I suppose the Writing and Working for Change series does some of this work, but hopefully, a journal dedicated to this work can be created.
So I guess, in general, I think of editing as intervening to allow more space for people who have traditionally not been represented to have power. Sometimes that's forming a very representative editorial board who can push on traditional scholarship, and sometimes it's creating your own venue and using your resources to do it. But I think, at its base, it's about understanding scholarship as one means to learn from the broad range of intellectuals, activists, and teachers that inhabit our field.
L&D: We feel like we're primed for quite a bit of change as a field.
SP: I don't want to be seen as saying every scholar of this generation is an activist- or activism is the only legitimate way to participate in our field. (Or that I have some particularly great understanding of our field.) I am certain, however, that there many graduate students in this new emergent generation of professors who are fundamentally challenging the racist nature of our larger culture and our field's seeming acceptance of its own racist structures. I am certain that we can't have a Black Lives Matter movement or campaigns to support DACA and not have the equivalent struggles within our field. I just don't see how we can ignore this cultural moment. So unless the field pushes all of those concerns out and creates a very conservative disciplinary identity, I don't see how there's not going to be a very important set of confrontations over the next decade. And I just hope I have the insight and courage to be on the right side of history.