As I continue my reading, my project continues to shift in form. I started, as I think I stated in my previous update, intending to do a bibliographic review essay. After considering various forms and creating and dismissing multiple ideas, I believe I have settled on a brief essay that will inform current and future interns and volunteers on ways in which writing has been used as a form of therapy. In addition, the project will include a tip sheet for both writers and CLC facilitators. Recently, I decided that I might try pulling together some writing prompts for the writers that might engage them in a therapeutic writing process. My readings have pointed out the benefits of reflective writing for therapists and others who use writing therapy in their work. Therefore, I am also considering developing some reflective writing prompts for facilitators that could be used as blog post prompts, or simply a way for facilitators to reflect on the work they are doing and how they are being affected by it.
I decided to look at an adult literacy program for this website review for several reasons, the main one being that I have looked at several websites for youth literacy organizations and just wanted to see something different. I found several websites and settled on the site for Community Literacy Centers, Inc. in Oklahoma City because I’m from Oklahoma and am interested in the community literacy work being done there. Unlike our CLC, this center lists its mission as “teaching people to read”. This is actually the tag line, featured in large blue letters on the homepage of the website. It’s simple and direct. Anyone looking at the website would gain an immediate idea of what the organization does.
On the other hand, I personally felt the homepage of the website to be a bit cluttered. In addition to the title and tagline of the organization, there’s a brief description outlining its history and nonprofit status. There is a “news and events” column, which at the time of my visit to the website featured stories about the organizations upcoming event entitled Literacy Live and upcoming training sessions for tutors. There are also large red buttons prompting visitors to buy tickets or donate money to the event. The right-hand column of the homepage contains an information video, beneath which is a link to sign up for more information and then a place to input email addresses if visitors want to join the email list. The homepage also contains links to and information about the organizations Facebook and YouTube pages and links to resources for students, tutors, and donors.
The website seems to be primarily targeted at potential students, or rather, friends or family members of potential students who might seek out the CLCs services. The level of vocabulary in many of the sections seems to be a bit advanced considering the organization works primarily with adults who read at elementary grade levels or below.
The website is currently promoting the Literacy Live event pretty heavily. There is a post about the event in the “news and events” section, as well as a page detailing the event sponsors and a page containing the invitation to the event. There is also an info page about and link to the website of the guest speaker for this year’s event. What seems to be missing, however, is information about the actual event. From reading all of the information about Literacy Live available on the website, I know that it is the organization’s largest event, currently in its fourth year. I know who is speaking at the event, where and when it is being held, and how it is being sponsored. What I do not know is what the event entails, other than a luncheon and recognition of student, teacher and volunteer of the year. The website does not provide much context for the event its promoting or explain the event’s purpose, even to its sponsors, who are also part of the website’s intended audience, although they and potential tutors have particular pages targeted at them.
I will say that contact information for the organization is easy to find and the site overall is simple to navigate, which I think is important. The site also does a pretty good job of establishing context for the organization through testimonials, FAQs (although this section is very brief and could (should?) be more comprehensive) and a few facts on adult illiteracy.
My research project initially began as a review essay on writing and substance abuse. I planned to find sources on the two topics and provide a review of the literature. However, what I am finding is that there is not much literature on this specific topic. This is not surprising. I attempted a similar project in the fall of 2011 and had to change it slightly then because I could not find the literature to support my project. I am still shifting my project. I have not yet decided exactly what form my project will take. I have a “draft” (parts of a draft) of an essay on the topic of writing as therapy, which I think will fit well with our training ground topic for this year. Thus far, I have not found much community literacy scholarship on writing as a way of healing, but I’m finding sources from other fields, such as counseling psychology and even literature that support writing as a way of healing not just from struggles with substance abuse, but from other experiences such as violence, physical and sexual abuse, death of a loved one, and other experiences. I shared some of my sources at our last CLC meeting. I’m working on the Pennebaker text now, and plan to look at journal therapy next and also some articles from the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
Below are the names of and links to the websites for several community writing programs. Most of the programs serve youth, since that’s been the population in which I am most interested, but the NYWC and Chicago Neighborhood Alliance also include adults, and maybe one or two of the others.
Hope this is helpful.
Carnegie Mellon Community Literacy Center
Syracuse University Literacy Corps
Ohio State “Communicating for Success: Community Literacy and Life-Long Learning”
Herstory Writers Workshops
Salt Lake Community College “Salt Lake City Teens Write”
Youth Communication Writing Program
Lighthouse Young Writers Program
Chicago’s Neighborhood Writing Alliance –The Journal of Ordinary Thought
New York Writers Coalition
Art from Ashes (Denver)
Write Around Portland
Zine Group (Homeless Youth Alliance)
Street Poets (Los Angeles)
Inside Out Writers –
Unspoken Words (Chicago)
I see trauma entering into the writing fairly regularly at my site. Particularly last semester there were a few girls who wrote consistently about their experiences with physical and especially sexual abuse. Some published their work, others just shared it with the group, deciding that they weren’t ready to make it fully public yet. One writer in particular shared her feelings of isolation and loneliness at the site. She also wrote about her experiences being raped. Typing her work for her, I felt an odd sensation as I was forced to write her words. I was reminded of Jenny Horsman’s notion of “playing witness” to the traumatic experiences of the writers we work with, and I could not help but empathize with the writer’s emotions. I had a similar experience typing up and providing feedback on the work of another writer, who wrote about an abusive relationship that ended after a physical altercation, caused a miscarriage. This was not a work that the writer had shared with group, so reading through it was the first time I had witnessed this story. Often times at my site it is easy to forget or simply not think about the past experiences and actions of the writers that have brought them to where they are. It requires me to constantly be aware of the contexts in which we are writing and sharing work and take into consideration the individual stories each writer brings.
Horsman suggests that as literacy workers, we attend to the writers’“ mind, body, spirit and emotions”. She believes that this holistic approach leads to balance for learning and healing. I would agree that it is more beneficial for writers if we do not compartmentalize them and their experiences. It seems this could be even more isolating if the writers feel they can only share parts of themselves. From my experience, the writers find that writing is a way to work through the tension and conflict they feel between these aspects of themselves. Their physical struggles have strong emotional ties and cannot be separated from who they are mentally, spiritually, or otherwise. On the other hand, I still find it difficult sometimes not to focus on one aspect. I do not feel fully prepared or qualified to offer advice or guidance. In responding to emotional pieces, I find myself responding to aspects of the writing, or simply trying to affirm the writer and her experiences by thanking her for sharing. This is a strategy to keep me from what may be overstepping my boundaries, but it is also a strategy for keeping the workshop focused and avoiding tangents that take time away from other writers who want to share. I would like to know more about how to respond to writing as an account of trauma, but right now I do not feel equipped to do so.
I think that the writers at my site do use narrative and other forms of writing to explain their experiences. I see this each week as the girls write about their experiences with addiction, relationships, family, friends, abuse, and loss. I also think that this writing can help them “reconstitute [them]selves as part of the larger humanity” since part of SpeakOut!’s purpose is to interject their voices into larger society (Nye 391). Through writing, the girls get to think about how they want to interject themselves into larger society, meaning they get to choose how they want to be represented through their writing and the publication of their writing in the bi-annual journal.
I’m not sure if the writers view writing as a way to “restore [their] ‘health’” or achieve “personal and collective or communal wholeness” (Nye 391). I think they view writing as fun, and meaningful, and at times even cathartic, but I’m not sure even I believe it helps us reach “wholeness,” especially since even in memoir we cannot capture the entirety of our lives and experiences. We write about a moment, a particular time, place, person, event that is significant to us for one reason or another. Each writing is just a piece of us and our stories, and I’m not sure we can ever write enough to tell the whole story. One the other hand, I’m not sure that we need to tell the whole story for healing to happen.
Nye states several times in her chapter that writing as healing is about expression, expression of fear, anxiety, struggles, of self. The girls who participate in the SpeakOut! Workshops certainly use writing in this way, as well as for expression of community as they write poems for and inspired by their friends and fellow clients. They express frustration and happiness. Nye writes about important it was for members of her writing group to feel acknowledged by others. She says that “An audience’s acknowledgement lessens the individual’s feeling of aloneness” (406). I have seen this at my site not in the writing that girls have shared at workshop but in the writing a couple of girls have given for me to read that they were not comfortable sharing with everyone, writing that told about the isolation they felt even in the house with the other girls. It perhaps would help the situation for the writers to share their feelings with the others, but for them, at least at that time, it was enough for me as an outside audience to know of their struggle
To me, I think the best way to represent the writers I work with to others is simply to hand them a copy of the journal and let the writers represent themselves as much as possible. I may preface this with an explanation of the workshop (what it is, how it works, why we do it), but every time I hand a copy of the journal to someone I mostly just encourage them to read for themselves and see what the writers of all four workshops have to say.
However, I don’t always have a copy of the journal handy when people ask me what I do. This is a question that comes up quite often when I meet people and they find out I’m a graduate student. They want to know what field I’m in, what my thesis is about, what type of work I want to do. And this always leads to my work with the CLC. This happened to me recently on a flight this past Thursday. I was sitting by a couple who asked about my work (they noticed I was working on a paper during the flight), and so I told them about my thesis topic and how I was interested in literacy work within institutions such as shelters, prisons, rehabilitation centers. They immediately assumed that the populations in these institutions were illiterate (claiming I had a “noble goal for teaching them to read and write”), or at the very least had little knowledge of basic English grammar and spelling. They were put-off by my use of terms like “alternative” and “community” literacy and my belief that reading and writing could have value outside of academic settings. I was then put in the position of having to represent the writers at my site. I explained that the writers I work with are very much able to read and write, but stated again that the purpose of this workshop is to read and write about issues important to them, to share their opinions, voices, and stories with others.
The couple responded again that this would be more effective with “proper” grammar and they were just so upset about the destruction of the English language. I tried again to explain that there are multiple forms of literacy. And the writers at my site are not incapable of academic literacies, but that compositionists and individuals were simply trying to acknowledge other forms of literacies that happen outside of school. I even reminded them that much of the writing is in the form of poetry, which breaks grammar rules on principle.
I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with the couple, who went on to criticize me for thinking that language should be tied to meaning and for not teaching my composition students to diagram sentences. I was frustrated by the assumptions they made about me, the writers at my site, and even my CO150 students. I wanted so badly for this couple to see the value not so much in what I was doing by being part of SpeakOut!, but in what the writers were doing. It didn’t happen, and by the end of the flight I was just ready to get away from the couple as they commended me, disingenuously, for my “nobel” and “lofty” goals. However, obviously I have not gotten over the encounter, and it will probably annoy me for quite some time that such close-minded individuals exist in the world and that I had the unfortunate luck of sitting next to two of them for three hours. But they will always exist; writing poems is not going to get rid of them, but hopefully it will help a little.