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Writing Networks for Social Justice

Scene Report —

Creating the Conversation Workshops in Oklahoma City

During the summer of 2016, following the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers, Lauren and Leah Palmer sought healing and community. Friends reached out to them, needing to mourn, and the Palmer sisters and their family responded by offering their home as a gathering place for the heavy-hearted. They made a plan "to create a safe space for people of all contexts and experiences to grieve, to acknowledge systematic injustices, to practice healthy conversations with members of other groups" (The Conversation OKC Statement). This meeting turned into a productive series called "The Conversation OKC," which sparked intellectual and emotional conversation and reflection. About a month after the series ended and mere hours after the 2016 election, Kate Strum, a friend of the Palmer sisters, reached out to Leah, Lauren, and a couple of like-minded friends (including Hillary Coenen) with the broad goal of addressing the denial of systemic racism through listening and responding. We were all in. Despite family challenges, emotional overload, and hectic schedules, we met that week to get to work.

CW Project Team Left to right: Kate, Leah, Hillary, and Lauren
CW Project Team
Left to right: Kate, Leah, Hillary, and Lauren.

After a couple of hours of discussion in an Oklahoma City coffee shop, we decided that we wanted to do more than initiate conversations; we wanted to provide communities with tools for really listening to each other and responding thoughtfully. Thinking of concerns she heard from several (mostly white) folks during The Conversation OKC, Leah reminded us of some attendees who were worried about the responses of their loved ones to their advocacy. While most of the folks at The Conversation believed in or had participated in Black Lives Matter protests or activities, they faced concern, resistance, and sometimes anger from loved ones and colleagues who either didn't understand or empathize with the need for the protests or believed Black Lives Matter to be violent or overzealous. Many of the attendees seemed very motivated to address this fear and misplaced anger, but most felt unequipped to have productive conversations about racial justice with people they cared about. While many people receive training in rhetoric and argument in high school and college, it seemed clear to us that the majority would benefit from practice with listening. All of us have been educators at some point in time, so we put on our teaching hats and began developing an instructional workshop relying on rhetorical principles.

Leah leads discussion at a CW event.
Leah leads discussion at a CW event.

We decided on a workshop model that emphasized community, hoping to enact a grassroots approach to education and advocacy. We called this model The Conversation Workshops, or CW, because of its roots in The Conversation OKC and our emphasis on strategies for intentional dialogue. Advertising and recruiting participants operates through a facilitator who provides information about the event to members of their community and extends invitations to those they feel are interested and ready. While we've observed educational workshops that advertise to communities by extending broad invitations, we knew we wanted to engage with existing, self-sustaining groups that could offer support and accountability to their members and transform communities from within. We also felt that CW would only work well with participants who are ready to begin doing the tough interpersonal work of addressing racism, so a broad invitation seemed like a significant risk. CW seeks facilitators involved in many different kinds of communities, and so far we have reached out to educators, church groups, social organizations, and parent groups, all of which are integral to the way that Oklahoma culture and attitudes have been and continue to be socially constructed.

A participant considers new information presented in CW materials.
A participant considers new information presented in CW materials.

Both the recruiting model and the curriculum were intended to respond to local needs and attitudes, which is why we've described this as a grassroots project. Only the Palmer sisters (half of the CW project team) were born and raised in the Oklahoma City area, but Kate and Hillary live in the area now and have spent a great deal of time getting to know the community. The Conversation OKC events hosted by the Palmer sisters provided a wealth of information about the needs and goals of social-justice minded locals, and this information has informed our choice to include national, regional, and local histories of systemic racism and a feminist invitational rhetorical model in the curriculum (Foss and Griffin). We also incorporate information, excerpts, and concepts from McIntosh's popular "Invisible Knapsack" essay, DuVernay's documentary 13th, and Alexander's The New Jim Crow, in addition to a collection of think pieces and videos available online. The primary tool offered by CW, is the invitational model, which, according to our CW materials:

views conversation as an invitation to the audience (Partner B) to enter your (Partner A's) world and see it as you do in order to generate understanding among those with different perspectives. If Partner B accepts, this approach fosters a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination. In order to achieve this goal, both Partners must be on board with the process, understand each other's goals for the conversation, and be willing to listen.

This description of invitational discussion relies on Foss and Griffin's "Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric." In their article, Foss and Griffin characterize invitational rhetoric as offering "an invitation to understanding" and relying on "the offering of perspectives and the creation of the external conditions of safety, value, and freedom" (2).

The invitational approach has been critiqued by Lozano-Reich and Cloud as ineffective for addressing problems of political, economic, or social inequity, and they advocate an "uncivil tongue" for addressing issues of racism and inequality. We agree that "an uncivil tongue" and anger are often essential for making change, but the CW project team wants to offer an additional strategy. Concerns about problems of assumed equality and critiques that this approach might be too passive to significantly change attitudes about race are warranted, but we believe in this model as a response to very particular situations. This invitational model will only be effective in situations where both parties recognize each other's immanent value and self-determination (thus their right to accept or reject any invitation, assumption, or conclusion). This practice can be transformative for communities that are in desperate need of trust, mutual respect, and transparency. One reason this system of mutual recognition works is that our curriculum emphasizes that all of us are informed by systems of racism and implicit bias. If CW participants, who act as the inviter or Partner A in our conversation scenarios, recognize their own implicit biases and inability to escape emotional or psychological responses informed by systemic racism, they will be able to engage intentionally and empathetically with their invited partner or Partner B. This intentional approach may not be able to cleanse each person of implicit bias or to deprogram racism, but it can be transformative by fostering self-awareness and offering strategies for responding to our programming actively with a mind toward justice and equity.

The CW participants and team discuss the invitational discussion model
The CW participants and team discuss the invitational discussion model.

Besides Hillary, the project leaders are not rhetoric scholars, but our instructional strategies draw heavily from three of our collaborative experiences as leaders in a university writing center and the reading and training in rhetoric we received there. Because the CW curriculum provides resources for those who want to hone their skills in practicing listening, patience, accountability, and confident leadership, many of the tools we hope participants develop are very similar to a writing center director's hopes for their writing consultants. Thus the workshop draws upon the pedagogical moves often incorporated into writing center training. We use tools for reflexivity and conversation modeling, and we use an instructional flowchart about invitational discussion to assist with the process of intentional conversation.

A participant writes, considering the effects of implicit bias.
A participant writes, considering the effects of implicit bias.

The process of engaging in invitational conversations is very much like the peer-to-peer pedagogy that occurs within a writing center consultation. This was not necessarily a deliberate goal on the part of the CW project team, but as we discussed the curriculum, we began to discover and build upon the parallels.

While the project team was excited about applying the scholarly lessons of invitational rhetoric in our curriculum for public use, we did have some concerns. Kate explains that one of the challenges of incorporating approaches from rhetoric and composition into the CW curriculum, is that the project leaders feel, as we should, a responsibility to practice what we teach. Invitational rhetoric can be challenging for anyone, and especially in the arena of race relations. We all feel the importance of being able to talk the talk, since in many ways that is just as important as walking the walk. This is not only important for ethical reasons, but also because it will make us better teachers and leaders. One of our goals is to create a symbiotic relationship between our academic, rhetorical approach and the flexibility needed on the ground based on what we see, hear, and experience both in order to generate the most useful tools as well as to be sure that approach remains accessible to our community. Another problem we regularly face is our desire to emphasize that the invitational model is not appropriate for everyone in every situation. We feel that it's especially important to acknowledge the value and need for anger in response to oppression. The model that we advocate is for particular situations, and we believe in it, but we do not have it on a pedestal or see it a more valuable than other forms of protest or advocacy.

Hillary and participants listen as Leah discusses some alternatives to the invitational model.
Hillary and participants listen as Leah discusses some alternatives to the invitational model.

Considering the relationship between CW curriculum and rhetoric and writing center pedagogy, a partnership between CW and a university seemed natural. Hillary, a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University, hoped to write about CW for her dissertation, and Writing Center Director Dr. Anna Sicari agreed that the project was consistent with the mission of the Writing Center, which facilitates "open participation" and works to "celebrate diversity and growth by providing an environment in which differences are respected and students are encouraged to explore diverse voices" (OSU Writing Center). In the academic year of 2017-2018, the OSU Writing Center will facilitate CW geared toward tutors, student groups, staff, and faculty in order to help people who feel moved to address the denial and perpetuation of systemic racism to reach out to people with whom they have preexisting relationships built on trust and respect, using strategies rooted in intentionality and invitational rhetoric.

Find more information about the workshops at conversationworkshopsok.com, or follow us on Instagram @conversationworkshopsok.

Works Cited

13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Kandoo Films, 7 Oct. 2016. Netflix.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.

Foss, Sonja J., and Cindy L. Griffin. "Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric." Communication Monographs, vol. 62, 1995, pp. 1-18.

Lozano-Reich, Nina M., and Dana L. Cloud. "The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality." Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, 2009, pp. 220-226.

McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies." Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Working Paper no. 189, 1988.

OSU Writing Center. Oklahoma State U, 21 Aug. 2017, osuwritingcenter.okstate.edu/

About the Authors

Hillary Coenen is a doctoral candidate in English-Rhetoric & Composition at Oklahoma State University. She has taught undergraduate English courses and worked in four writing centers in Texas and Oklahoma, and she is currently leading The Conversation Workshops Pilot at Oklahoma State, which is supported by the OSU Writing Center under the direction of Dr. Anna Sicari. Hillary is incredibly grateful to have the support of Dr. Sicari & OSU to work on a project that allows her to engage her passion and commitment to social justice, feminist rhetoric, writing center pedagogy, and collaborative, intersectional activism. Follow Hillary on Twitter: @HMCoenen.

Kate Strum divides her time between writing fiction and essays, working as an outpost editor for The New Territory Magazine, coordinating scholarly publishing for the University of Oklahoma Department of Anesthesiology, and collaborating on The Conversation Workshops. Kate served as Assistant Director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Center for three years, where she also earned an MFA in creative writing. Find Kate on Twitter: @katestrum.