Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Writing for Social Change: A 3-Step Starting Guide

Kayla Greenwell
So you’ve decided to write for social change.  You’ve sat down, straightened your workspace, and pulled out your writing materials.  Now what?  The social justice world is huge! It can be daunting for a new writer to dive in, so how do you get started?
Step 1: Pick a Topic You’re Passionate About
There are a lot of social justice issues out there, so you want to make sure that you have chosen one that that you are passionate about.  It could be from your own experiences and familiarity with the subject, or maybe someone you know has experienced this form of social injustice. Or you might choose it because you feel like it is something that you can understand and relate to because you identify with the group of people suffering from that particular type of social injustice. When I write, I focus on gender violence, especially when it comes to sexual abuse. As a survivor, this is easiest for me, because I have experienced it and I believe that sharing my experiences can change the world for other women.  You don’t have to be a victim of social injustice to write about it, but you should become knowledgeable on the subject. Which leads me to…
Step 2: Get Acclimated
Learn everything there is to know on your subject! This is true for any writing, but research is especially important when writing for social justice. The reason for this being that social justice issues are complicated.  They often discuss abstract ideas, they often have multiple sides, and they even sometimes have conflicting belief systems. You don’t have to know everything before you start writing, but you should be familiar with the landscape of the issue and the general arguments from all sides. Be careful of any bias that a source may have.  I like to use Al Jazeera because they are a non-profit news source, so there is less chance of bias, and their writers are credible, informed, and involved.
Another helpful source is the Socialist Worker. They create a helpful platform when it comes to analyzing and following current discussions and debates on a variety of topics. This site is helpful for getting situated into the most current part of the conversation but is probably not best until you have a background on your subject.
Step 3: Write!
Now that you have an understanding of your topic, you can start to write! The amount of writing out there can be overwhelming, but the key to getting started is not losing your own voice in all the information that is out there.  What you have to say matters! Only you can share your personal experience, and that is an invaluable tool.
Forbes Magazine interviewed award winning author Beverly Schwartz in an article titled, "This is Our Time for Storytelling: 3 1/2 Tips for Writing About Social Change ..." Schwartz says, “If you feel a story in you, and you want to let your inner writer out, start a blog … If your inner creative is still not satiated, tell your story through social media, video, photos, murals, or animated comic books. Whatever. It’s your story, your message. You need to find the format that works best for you and your audience.” (Emphasis added.)
So get writing and remember, "A word after a word after a word is power."
* From the poem “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

To Be (Or Not To Be) a Socially-Conscious Writer

Michelle McGill-Vargas
I don’t consider myself to be a socially-conscious writer. I haven’t blogged about the recent grand jury decisions in the Missouri and New York police brutality cases. I haven’t tweeted about Bill Cosby’s guilt or innocence. I haven’t used my experience as a teacher to write short stories about the educational system. The last thing I want to do is chime in about the good, the bad and the ugly of the world. As a fiction writer, I want my stories to entertain; to be the escape readers like me need from the realities of the world. I want publication, not polarization because of my personal views, no matter how many social media “followers” I might gain in the process.
So no, I don’t write about social issues.
Or so I thought.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had members of my critique group or a beta reader point out a theme or issue in my work I had no intention of addressing. I remember writing what I’d thought was just a short story about an agoraphobic woman plotting to kill her new neighbor. Turns out, my critique partners preferred to discuss the emotional scars of rape victims, a theme I was surprised they’d found throughout my piece. One of them asked, “Is this what you meant to say?” I had no answer because I hadn’t meant to say anything. I’d just wanted to tell a story.
Writing may be a solitary activity for me, but I don’t live in a vacuum. I can’t help having an opinion about what I see and hear in the daily news. Sometimes, those opinions find their way into my work whether I want them to or not. As a black woman, I tend to people my fictional world with characters that look like me. And with most of my stories occurring in the past, I can’t disregard the treatment people of color endured in those time periods.
I’ve learned that one can address social issues in stories without banging the reader over the head with it. This past summer, I attended a writers’ conference where author Daniel Jose Older discussed using world building as a way to address social issues. His book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories set in New York City. Through the setting, Older was able to bring up the issue of gentrification while still telling compelling stories. For me, my storylines have been borne from some pet peeve or an unpleasant experience I’ve had.
In retrospect, my stories have included themes of interracial relationships, graphic violence in movies, school segregation, and even preparing for the end of the world. So while I still don’t consider myself a socially-conscious writer, I’d be foolish to think that social issues won’t appear in my writings from time to time. I’d also be foolish not to use those opportunities to not only change my characters by the end of the story, but also to change those who read about them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Winnie-the-Pooh -- a Social Justice Tool

Mari L. Barnes
Vast amounts of research show that by 3 or 4 years old, children living in the United States are aware of physical and cultural differences among people. We also know that they learn the prevailing social attitudes toward these differences, even if they have no direct contact with those who are different.
Our children are the exact opposite of “color blind” and the parental practice of silence on the issue of differences has been instrumental in producing children who are unequipped to move effectively in a world that is becoming increasingly color-filled. We must acknowledge diversity. The differences are real and the children can see them. These differences become dangerous only when either inferior or superior value labels are imposed.
To assist parents in broaching the subject of difference in a way that children can appreciate, we need look no further than Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne.
Christopher Robin (for our purposes, the insulated white kid) is a welcomed visitor to the Hundred Acre Wood. There he interacts with Pooh, Piglet, Kanga and Roo, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl and Tigger. All of the animals differ, physically and temperamentally. Those differences are not ignored; rather, variances are described and frequently help move the story to a satisfactory conclusion.
In one story, Owl's house blows down in a storm, trapping Pooh and Piglet and Owl inside. Pooh encourages Piglet (the only one small enough to do so) to escape and rescue them all. Piglet’s difference saves the day.
Pooh offers many opportunities to discuss the subjectivity of perceptions at a child’s level of understanding. Although Winnie-the-Pooh himself agrees with his friends that he “has no Brain,” his ideas are often clever. He rides Christopher Robin's umbrella to rescue Piglet from a flood and gets Eeyore out of the river by dropping a large rock on one side of him to wash him towards the bank.
Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007) define social justice as both a process and a goal. “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”1
The denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood demonstrate social justice at its most elemental. We can begin educating our children in the process of social justice simply by opening the discussion. There are many children’s books that demonstrate friendship, fairness and cooperation. These tools for building a just society are as close as your child’s bookcase.
1Reference: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. Edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin.
Mari L Barnes writes for children under the pen name of Mari Lumpkin and for adults as ML Barnes. Her books, Parting River Jordan and Crossing River Jordan are proof that church can be funny. Mari’s company, Flying Turtle Publishing, specializes in books that families can share.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More than Ornamentation: The Importance of the Arts

Janine Harrison
Anyone who thinks that the arts, in any form, are purely decorative is consuming the wrong art.  No matter the type, whether performing, visual, or print, art is necessary.  Shortly before the turn of the 20th century, African American writers, who had long endured slavery and spending virtually every waking moment attempting to meet basic needs, began contemplating the role of the artist in relation to African American identity and the future of the United States.  They gave voice to not only these concepts but also to social injustices so as to begin to change the perception of mainstream Americans about race and equality.  In addition, they released anger and pain caused by a long history of racism and perhaps helped to heal themselves and their readers via release in the process.  In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin posits that the role of the writer is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Hodgins & Silverman 766).
African Americans are not the only ones whose art have and continue to serve as an agent for social change.  Across artistic genres, we see, hear and read the soldier’s story, the immigrant story, the LGBT fight, the woman’s story, the environmentalist’s plight, and a multitude of other voices of equal significance.  And the worse the economy and the more violent and chaotic our global community becomes, the more audiences need art to not feel alone, to provide or help maintain perspective, and for catharsis.  An argument could even be made that all art is persuasive.  Even art that is created with the intention of being purely aesthetic in nature could be construed to represent the status quo or complacency.  An argument could also be made that art is vital to our thinking.
We live in a world in which art is undervalued, though.  Evidence of this can be seen all around us, from cuts over the past decade ranging from the National Endowment of the Arts budget to programs in the arts in elementary and high schools as well as university liberal arts and social sciences curriculums.  While it is essential that the United States become more competitive among developed nations in STEM disciplines, it is not enough for us to be able to think critically; we also need to be able to think creatively.  Invention, after all, is born of the ability to “think outside of the box.” 
In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts.  In a letter to Jane Alexander, NEA Chair, and cc’d to President Clinton, she explained her reasons:  “In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair….There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice.  But I do know that art…means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage” (Rich 99).
Art is more than decorative.  We need it.  We need art in our homes, in our schools and universities, and in our communities. 
Works Cited
Hodgins, Francis, and Kenneth Silverman, eds.  Adventures in American Literature.  New York:  HBJ, 1980.  Print.
Rich, Adrienne.  Arts of the Possible.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2001.  Print.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the brochure “Butterbird Christmas,” December 7, 2014, edited by Dr. Meg G. DeMakas, Family Folklore Foundation, Inc., Blue Moon Publications, Gary, Indiana.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Should We Write for Social Justice?

Kayla Greenwell
"We write because we believe it will matter.
We write to access our own power .
We write to help others access their power." –Write on! Writing for Social Justice
Social justice—the idea that everyone in society, regardless of identity, has an equal chance at wealth, opportunity , and privilege. What does it have to do with writing? Well, the key to achieving social justice is by creating awareness to be used in breaking down the current barriers in society. So how can you do that? What tools can you use? Your words, of course. 
The role of a writer, creative or otherwise, is important when it comes to bringing awareness and educating readers about social justice. At first, it seems impossible. How can just one person change the outcome of so many? How can the writing of one person with different experiences help others that do not share the same background?
It is not just the individual effort, but the individual effort of many than can help bring awareness to the social injustices of our world.  Our words have the power to impact whole communities. We can see this effect in the use of social media round the world, even in countries where the people are heavily censored.  People in Syria and other countries have taken to social media to tell the world of the injustices they have experienced and bring awareness to their struggles.  The people for Ferguson, Missouri are doing the same right now.  People are reading these words and making changes in the hope that these injustices are not repeated.
Words are ideas made concrete, and the power of an idea is immeasurable. We can use our craft to share, educate, and change the minds of those who may not know the damage they do in a world with institutionalized social injustice. As writers, we love our words and we want to share them with others. Writing for social justice is a way to share our words with others in a way that can positively impact and change our society.    
Examples and Resources:
·         Women Write Resistance! Poets Resist Gender Violence, edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman
·         Write on! Writing for Social Justice, created by members of a NYCoRE Inquiry Action Group 
·         Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word, by Linda Christensen
·         Power, Resistance and Literacy: Writing for Social Justice, by Julie Gorlewski