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Writing Networks for Social Justice

Column —

Activating Activism

I was a first-year PhD student at Ohio University in Athens during spring 2012. It was the last quarter of the academic year, and classes started on March 26–exactly one month after George Zimmerman murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. While Zimmerman remained free, almost arrogant about the murder, the media quickly criminalized Martin. Needless to say, the injustice and frustration loomed over the start of the quarter .

Anyone who knows Athens understands that it is as a blue dot surrounded by a sea of red—the only town in Southeast Ohio with LGBTQ protections. Many students on campus are remarkably politically active, and the community often comes together to support their endeavors, especially when school officials and local police don't. t wasn't long before two student groups came together to organize the "Justice for Trayvon" rally, held Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at 5pm.

I taught first year writing from 4:10-6:30 pm that day, and I felt incredibly torn between my teaching and activism—a familiar feeling. On the second day of class, how could I possibly attend the rally? My heart was heavy, broken for Martin's family and the Black community. I felt rage and despair, and I didn't want to feel my way through these emotions alone. For those of us who are openly political, countercultural, and/or queer, building solidarity on our campus and in local communities is essential for survival and self-care. But, that takes time. Sharing a classroom space with new students can be awkward at first, especially when some of us come to class burdened with the material consequences of discrimination and oppression. How could I begin to process what was(n't) happening with students I had just met, most of whom where cis-het, white, and Christian?

I decided to start our second day of class by talking openly with my students about Trayvon's murder. What did they know? How did they feel? What were people focusing on? What were they ignoring or failing to consider? Some students were well informed while others were clueless. I told them about the rally and explained how compelled I felt to be there. I decided to let them out of class early so I could attend the rally, and I invited them to come along, assuring them participation wasn't mandatory. Many of them had never been to a rally or any kind of demonstration, but every single one of them came with me. As we walked over to College Green—frequently called "the heart of campus"—some of us clustered together; others moved away to hold their own space.

Although it was touching to attend the event with my class, it was too early in the quarter to feel connected to any of them. We hadn't bonded as a group, and I was still unfamiliar to them. Attending a rally and march with students I didn't know yet was moving but disorienting. It is the only rally I've been to without a friend or partner by my side. I remember standing there, listening to the speakers with tears rolling down my cheeks, under the watchful eyes of my students. They moved closer to each other, but not to me; I appreciated and needed that space. After the rally, some of us remained to march around campus and down Court Street: No justice, no peace!

The rally set an anti-racist tone for our class, fostering a unique and sustained way of talking about injustice and activism. These students seemed more invested in the case and anti-Blackness than those in the other section of the same course I was teaching, likely because they had become a more active part of something significant. They wanted to talk about it, so we regularly started class by catching each other up on the latest news and responses to Trayvon's murder and the neglect of the police force to take action against Zimmerman. We witnessed the start of Black Lives Matter, and we discussed the ways Trayvon and other young Black men were depicted in the media and in our daily conversations with friends and family. Trayvon tied us together and increased our political involvement on campus.

Six weeks after the rally, Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Ohio University and held a public talk with Clarence Page as a part of the 2012 Schuneman Symposium: "Impact: Words and Pictures That Matter." Again, the event fell on a Wednesday during class time. Again, I had an opportunity to be active with my students, who had coalesced into a community of writers. Rather than hold regular class, we decided to attend the talk together. This time, I sat one row behind to give them distance. I proudly watched their interest and emotion grow as Jackson and Page connected Trayvon's murder and subsequent media coverage to the Civil Rights Movement.

In what has become one of the most beautiful and poignant moments in my teaching career, we sat together, curiously watching, as someone approached the stage from the right to pass Jackson a small, folded piece of paper. He silently read the note to himself before sharing the news with the audience: Zimmerman would face a second-degree murder charge. The crowd erupted in applause, hugs, and gratitude. It was a short-lived victory for Martin and his family, and I was able to share it with the very students I had rallied alongside months earlier. I hope this memory has stayed with them too.

Every course I teach emphasizes how identity is imbued in writing and also centers cultural rhetorics, social justice, and activism. Inviting students to consider and participate in current political movements paves the way for more meaningful and concrete discussions about issues that are(n't) directly affecting their lives as well as engaging them with their classmates and campus community on a much deeper level. Of course, students' willingness to listen and participate is critical. This particular experience allowed for more organic and relevant ways to discuss and analyze how we talk and think about activism. We incorporated a genealogical analysis of Trayvon's murder into the course , as well as subsequent responses by the police and the media, including the ways they depicted"peaceful" protests and riots. Doing so helped students find their way to their own positions, rather than uncritically inheriting them from others.

Today, when I'm not able to participate alongside my students at events, we talk about my (and their) experiences at marches and rallies, and we process news coverage together: what does it mean to see mostly white women at a march aimed against Tr-mp's policies when 53% of white women voted for him? Why do we emphasize peaceful protests when white women will never face the same scrutiny and brutality people of color do in the same situations? Why is blocking traffic or holding a die-in for four minutes an effective mode of protesting despite another not-guilty verdict? In riots, why does the mainstream continue to value property over people?

Those of us who identify as scholar-activists, or teacher-activists, know the tension of negotiating teaching and being politically active: we know the time and emotional labor involved, and we know our jobs and safety are on the line. Considering the current political moment, we'd be remiss to ignore the interconnectedness of teaching and protesting, rhetoric and rally, and writing instruction and activism. Let's engage students and our colleagues in social movements on a more active, participatory level and move activism beyond the page, screen, and classroom and into the streets.

About the Author

Hillery Glasby is an Assistant Professor in Michigan State University's Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department. She teaches writing courses focused on sexual literacy, environmental sustainability, social justice and handmade/ DIY multimodality. Her research interests include LGBTQ movements; digital, DIY and queer rhetorics; and writing center and writing program administration.

Hillery's work has been published in Harlot and Liminalities, featured in 2014's Best of the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals, and reviewed in the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. She is currently co-editing a collection on queer Appalachia. She adores cats, coffee, street art, '40s music and the Grateful Dead.