This post is written by 2017-2018 NCTE Lead Ambassador Raven Jones Stanbrough and her colleagues, Tuesda Roberts, Theda Gibbs Grey and Lorena Gutiérrez.
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ―Octavia E. Butler
The above quote by the prolific Black writer Octavia E. Butler reminds us that creating a habit is an art that leads to persistence and progress. For us, as scholar-practitioners, one habit we have in common is writing. Despite the many people in our lives who affirm and support our ideas and thinking, there have been moments and times when we’ve struggled to believe in our own voices and writing abilities. Having first met and befriended one another as women of color who were doctoral students at Michigan State University (MSU), we understood that we needed to support each other’s lived experiences, narratives, and voices. Individually, we’ve experienced overwhelming moments that (un)intentionally allowed us to retreat to places and spaces where our relationship with writing ended, like a bad and emotional breakup—the kind in which we turn to our favorite flavor of ice cream or reckless shopping to cope with our loss. Like most breakups, sometimes it takes the wise counsel of a loved one to speak life over our situation(s), before we remember and remind ourselves, “Wait, I got this!”
We, the Fresh I.N.K. (Inspiring New Knowledge) Collective, offer this collaborative piece as a way for us to honor ourselves, each other, our families, our students, and our communities by becoming better women of habit through our writing and desires to hold one another accountable— even when challenges occur. In an effort to achieve this accountability, our goals are as follows: (1) to offer suggestions on why participating in writing support groups is beneficial, and (2) to outline ways in which other teacher-educators can encourage and support other female writers of color.
There are many different “spaces” in our schools—safe spaces, affirming spaces, drug-free zones, bully-free zones—the list goes on and on. But which protected spaces exist for educators? Where do educators assemble to create, connect, and explore what is possible? Educators need spaces where they can communicate and create without the gaze of supervisors so they can authentically engage their selves and their work. The writing collective to which I belong, Fresh I.N.K., is a space we have jointly created to serve the purposes we have deemed critical to our ability to thrive as cultural, intellectual, and powerful beings in the world of education.
Depending on the context, I am perceived as a woman sans culture, a token cultural representative, a means to an end, or an unexpected guest in contested territories. The value this space holds for me is that it merges and amplifies aspects of who I am. The sisterhood we have forged in Fresh I.N.K. works because our race, ethnicity, culture, language, what we have, and even what we have lost are not risk factors. They are guideposts and lighthouses. They are the worlds we explore and the worlds we share.
Writing groups benefit K–12 educators who are interested in creating transformative learning opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse girls because they can serve as think tanks and labs where knowledge becomes wisdom. The intentional curation of group members who share a commitment to confronting their own biases and gaps of knowledge in relation to the intersectional identities of these girls impacts teachers and students alike. Here are my tips to forming successful writing groups among educators:
- Allow yourselves to be impacted by your writing, reading, dialogue, and introspection before determining how the products of your efforts could impact culturally and linguistically diverse girls. Practice writing about the topics you have avoided. We know students instinctively sense when adults feign care, so take the time to be and to become more authentic in relation to this particular group of students.
- Be purposeful and accountable. Give yourselves permission to be vulnerable and then help each other develop purposeful next steps. Name your individual and collective goals, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Maintain lists of resources and identify who/what can guide you towards meeting your goals. Share your progress and that of your students so the group can avoid descending into random talk and deficit-based narratives.
My relationship with writing began to blossom at an early age from the encouragement and love of my parents and many great teachers. My parents introduced me to Black excellence in writing inclusive of Langston Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, and Nikki Giovanni. Teachers affirmed my voice by giving me the tools to strengthen my writing and providing platforms to share my writing at school events, for which my parents happily helped me practice. This love for writing and my understanding of the historical and contemporary significance of writing and literacy in the Black community became the focus of my praxis and provided fuel throughout my doctoral program. However, at times doubt entered my relationship with writing, and I struggled with feelings of disconnection. Does what I have to say matter? In these moments my family, friends, mentors, and sister circle of writers brought me back. As I now enter my third year as an assistant professor, my village, including Fresh I.N.K, has provided nourishment in the form of affirmation that my voice does indeed matter. My sister writers also offer constructive feedback rooted in love that serves to make my writing stronger.
Writing collectives are not only important for faculty and researchers, but they are also important for girls in K–12 spaces. We wish for young girls of color whose voices are often unheard to be able to build and sustain positive relationships and identities as writers. As educators, it is paramount to their self-esteem and academic success to help girls of color build and sustain strong individual and collective relationships with writing. In order to do so:
- Support girls of color to build relationships and become familiar with women of color who are writers. Provide texts across genres that connect girls of color to the powerful writings of women of color (nonexhaustive author suggestions: Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson*(see note), Zora Neale Hurston).
- Allow girls of color to experience and engage in supportive writing groups. Help them seek and find refuge and friendship with other girls. Foster classroom communities where they can safely “share out” their writing, “shout out” and identify the strengths in other girls’ writing, and support each other by offering constructive feedback on areas for growth.
As I basked in the warmth of southern California and the welcoming arms of family and friends, I faced numerous challenges post-breakup with graduate school, including difficulty in finding a job where I could use my expertise; needing to write and publish; and figuring out who I was beyond the doctoral program. And the list goes on. I was overwhelmed by feelings of failure and disappointment day after day as I filled out another job application and attempted to write. It was not until I began writing with the Fresh I.N.K. crew that I was able to work through these challenges.
During our weekly meetings, we prioritize the first 20 minutes for personal check-ins. We take turns sharing about our lives and families, accomplishments and challenges of that week. Without judgment and fear. We understand the importance of checking in about our personal lives because who we are (mind, body, and soul) and what we experience are deeply woven into our writing. In those meetings after graduate school, my Fresh I.N.K. sisters did not let me dwell on the hopelessness of my situation; rather, they showered me with words of encouragement (and prayer), reminded me that the challenges I faced were exactly where I needed to be, and claimed my success for the future in their loving, charismatic, and no-nonsense way. All of this translated into writing and academic success.
Having a joint space for us to write as women of color has meant bringing my whole self: the Latina mother, hermana, daughter, partner, academic, and writer in me to my writing and scholarship. In our writing group, we keep each other accountable for uplifting each other, owning our greatness, and speaking truth to power in our writing, teaching, and research.
Lastly, in the midst of a world full of selfies, look-alikes, and wannabes, girls of color are often socialized and taught to be the people other people want them to be. Messages about what they should wear, how thin they should be, how straight their hair should be, and what they should do with their bodies abound in social media. Below I offer tips for K–12 teachers to consider when encouraging girls of color to write.
- Those who teach writing to girls of color need to be examples of collaboration, worthiness, advocacy, and support for women of color.
- Those who teach writing to girls of color need to teach them how to own their greatness and walk in their purpose.
If it were not for Theda, Lorena, and Tuesda, I would have gone insane in graduate school. Period! They were all in the same cohort and a year ahead of me in our doctoral program. Their advice, hugs, and conversations kept me from dropping out and poppin’ off at a few colleagues and professors, especially since I was the only Black woman or person in a lot of my courses. During one of our conversations as we were carpooling back to our hometown of Detroit, I told Theda about one of my professors not grading one of my assignments because she said my writing “does not meet the academic standards for the course” and that I should “make an appointment with the writing center.” This same professor also accused me and another person of color in the class of “forming a clique.” She tried it! After I emailed the professor to discuss the writing assignment and derogatory comments, she never met with me. Instead, she had her co-teaching colleague schedule an appointment with me. I was devastated and deflated. For several weeks that followed, I lost my voice. I lost Raven. I broke up with writing. I did not speak in class because I did not trust my professors or colleagues. It took my Fresh I.N.K. sisters, family, and other close friends to remind me that I was and am a wonderful writer and that I deserved to be in graduate school.
For me, connecting with my Fresh I.N.K. sisters is not just about writing, it is about advocacy, community, and love. It is about seeing them interact with my two-year-old daughter, Zuri Hudson, and ask her about what is going on in her busy and curious life. It is also about recognizing that, as women of color, we have the ability to rise above severe adversities and triumph over challenges. Furthermore, it is about discussing how we can show up and show out for other girls and women of color. In closing, I offer my suggestions for K–12 teachers and others to support young girls of color with their voices and writing.
- Provide opportunities for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit. Octavia Butler reminds us that “. . . habit is persistence in practice.” In order for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit, they need time and space to tell their stories and use their voices.
- Teach young girls and women of color to “reclaim. . . [their] time.” Recently, Rep. Maxine Waters (a.k.a. Auntie Maxine) (D-California) made several people proud with yet another verbal victory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mwcCZq1gcE). During a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, Waters questioned Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin regarding a letter she sent him in May that he did not respond to. When Mnuchin failed to directly address her inquiry, Waters repeatedly stated, “Reclaiming my time!” Young girls of color and women of color in K–12 classrooms do not deserve to have their time wasted with teachers who do not care about them, their lived experiences, or writing prowess. Instead, K–12 teachers should create spaces and opportunities for young girls of color to write about an array of topics that are of interest to them—even bad break-ups.
Tuesda Roberts is an assistant professor of Multicultural Education at Missouri State University. Her research engages the sociocultural roles and impacts of teachers with a focus on urban schooling. She is a fan of red velvet cake, hails from the proud lines of Roberts and Chappells, and will always be Carol’s daughter.
Theda Gibbs Grey is a proud Detroit native and currently an assistant professor of reading in the Ohio University Department of Teacher Education. Through her teaching, research, and practice, she is committed to creating more equitable learning spaces that embrace the literacies of Black middle and high school students.
Lorena Gutiérrez is a postdoctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research highlights the ways Latinx migrant and seasonal farmworkers survive and thrive in their educational pursuits in spite of the inequities they face in K–12 schools. Her research is rooted in learning with migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the Midwest, her own experiences in growing up bilingual in Colton, California, and the heritage of farm work that her abuelo cultivated in El Agostadero, Jalisco, Mexico. Twitter handle: @Lore_Gutierrez
Raven Jones Stanbrough is a Detroit native and a K–12 product of Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Jones Stanbrough is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and the co-founder of The Zuri Reads Initiative, an effort to provide and organize literacy-related events and resources for Detroit-area children, students, and families. Twitter handle: @RavenForevamore
Note: Jacqueline Woodson will be the keynote speaker for the Saturday General Session at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention.