The Roles We Play

Depending on the context, we play different roles in our lives, which affects how we relate to others. At times, we can assume these roles automatically without any conscious thinking; therefore, it is important to be aware of how our role affects our relations with others, whether we find ourselves in a correctional setting or in a classroom. This is particularly important in literacy work when we are working with writers from different backgrounds and skill levels. We want to make sure that while our role is one of guidance and teaching it should not be authoritarian to the extent that it dis-empowers those we are trying to help. For instance, in Wright and Mahiri’s “Literacy Learning Within Community Action Projects for Social Change,” the literacy program “Positive Youth Development” (PYD) has a unique approach for increasing academic literacy skills. It differs in the sense that it crafts literacy learning within the context of real world problems, which in turn helped increase engagement and empowered the student. The PYD approach is in stark contrast to authoritarian relationships found in traditional schools.

The roles we assume and our preconceived notions accompany them, will directly affect the way we act and treat others. In the SpeakOut program, we do not aim to be authoritarian or hierarchical. While it may not seem like much, the mental assumptions we have surrounding our roles have huge impacts. An extreme example is the Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, where random, everyday people were assigned to either be a prisoner or a guard. Even though neither group had previous experience in either group, their ideas surrounding those roles soon overpowered their relations with each other. Guards were increasingly abusive towards prisoners and the prisoners, in turn, developed in-group solidarity.


Institutionalization and Self-Care

writing-2-1312013Writing in an institutionalized context poses its unique challenges to incarcerated writers and editors. Since I mostly work with youth in rehabilitation centers, it was insightful to read Eleanor M. Novek’s “‘Heaven, Hell, and Here’: Understanding the Impact of Incarceration through a Prison Newspaper.” From the standpoint of social theory, these publications serve as spaces for alternative expression and meanings. Many “high-profile dissidents,” as well as activists have written from jail or prison, yet public reception of this media changes over time and incarcerated writers continue to face restrictions and self-censorship. Nonetheless, these spaces offer writers “solidarity and practical advice for social change”  and as a result, fiercely protect their writing from modification (287, 289).

Novek identified the following “fantasy themes” in making “their common experiences visible” (298):

Theme Definition
Heaven Prison as a Place of Transformation
Hell Prison as a Sense of Loss
Here Rising to Challenge of Prison Life

In my experience, youth writing relates more to the first two themes and they do not seem to focus at all on the rehabilitation center itself. I supposed this is so because they are each in different stages of drug, or emotional recovery and are at a different stage in life as opposed to adults in a prison.

Reading Work from Institutionalized Populations

In my previous post, “Writing for Wellness,” I briefly discussed the therapeutic benefits of writing for the writers themselves. However, self-care is just as relevant for volunteers and those who handle writing coming from prison, jail, and/or rehabilitation centers. Bradley J. Cardinal and Jafra D. Thomas wrote “Self-care Strategies for Maximizing Human Potential,” in order to emphasize the importance self-care because it allows a person to remain “in a state that allows the person to effectively handle situations” (5). I believe this is important when working with youth because it is important to not get frustrated with them, or the situation. Rather, our goal is to focus on their assets and be able to provide them tools for expression, in spite of the confinement they may feel in their current situation. Self-care allows volunteers–and myself–to be more able to “intervene in a positive way by de-escalating negative sensations,” either within ourselves or in the writing environment (6). I believe the more holistic we are in our approach with these populations, the more we will be able to empower them in writing, in spite of their institutionalized position.

“Projecting and modeling positive attitudes and constructive behaviors are fundamental methods for being a positive role model in the lives of others.” (Cardianl and Thomas 7)

On the UNESCO Literacy Report

The UNESCO “2nd Global Report on Adult Learning and Education” provides an overview of the state of literacy around the world, its progress, and issues in provisions and methodology. Literacy is an important global issue because education is a right under reading-709909_960_720the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because illiterate people are “more vulnerable to poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, [and] poor health” among other factors (17). Specifically, UNESCO uses Paulo Freire and Amartya Sen’s work to point out that “literacy has the potential to enhance people’s ability to act in the pursuit of freedom and to empower them to interpret and transform their realities” (17). I agree with this statement because literacy can open doors, especially economically, and it makes it more difficult to be taken advantage of. The power of literacy is limited, of course, by outside factors such as infrastructure.

The UNESCO report uniquely frames literacy as a life-long, continuous continuum, as opposed to the traditional literate/illiterate dichotomy. Their main argument is that the dichotomy framework does not do justice to the complexity of literacy because it operates in various contexts both inside and outside of schools. Therefore, literacy cannot be equated with amount of schooling, when viewing literacy as 1) skills, 2) functional practices, 3) cultural practices, 4) capabilities, and 5) critical reflection (21-2).

I personally agree with this view in light of the global economy entering the information age. Literacy skills that were useful before may no longer be useful, or may need to be modified to a new context. Therefore, it is impossible to classify someone as 100% literate. As the report states, “literacy becomes a kind of moving target” (25). I believe this is useful, but it can also complicate matters because there is no solid goal, or way, to firmly know if you finally reached “literate” without using traditional definitions.

Insofar as the populations we work with in the jail and youth rehabilitation centers, I believe the dichotomous definition is used more. Specifically, programming provided to them tends to be focused on formal schooling and some job training. However, I definitely see the continuum present with the youth due to the variety of skill levels they present in the workshops.unesco

Meaningful Counterpublic Discourse

Erin Anderson wrote “Global Street Papers and Homeless [Counter]publics” as a way to highlight community publishing within the context of this unique group in newspaper-machine-1209718_960_720society, as well as its successes and difficulties. Specifically, she was looking at community publishing as a “platform for self-representation and rhetorical action by marginalized people” (76). These street papers are composed of independent submissions from the homeless and low-income individuals. This enterprise operates within three unique contexts: delivery, technique, and audience.

  1. The concept of delivery captures the struggle between making the paper “survive” versus “organizing for social change.” Anderson captures this struggle well as the paper’s need to attract an audience without creating “compassion fatigue” and maintain paper sales.
  2. Anderson brought up an important issue when she pointed out that the hard-copy print format can provide a barrier to marginalized people who may lack formal literacy. Print can also limit the process for dynamic public debate by creating an exclusive “Habermasian bourgeois public sphere.” Conversely, interconnected blogging might provide a solution for this by creating more collaboration and dialogue. Multi-modality has been found to help those in the margins, especially within the audio-visual form.
  3. As with any publication, the audience needs to seriously be taken into consideration. Writers of this genre might be forced to “perform homelessness,” which can serve to “reinforce the distance that can be observed in social life” (87). This dichotomy becomes more difficult when realizing that it is identity politics that helps the publication run.

I definitely agree with Anderson’s insights because they critically discuss the dichotomies found within this type of publication. Occasionally, I have thoughts of those things, as well: “When protesting X, are we actually reinforcing it, instead?” In this case, the purpose might be to dispel misconceptions of the homeless by giving them voice, but it might reinforce stereotypes when the audience wants to see the aforementioned “performed homelessness.”

bundle-1853667_960_720I think SpeakOut is doing well in these areas. Insofar as delivery, we operate via donations, so sales are not an issue. Of course, we still have the pressure of grant-writing. Secondly, with audience, I’m not exactly sure who is reading them but I believe we have enough variety regarding genre and styles that we don’t have to worry about SpeakOut participants “performing.” An area where we could improve is the technology aspect and finding a way to encourage more feedback, in order to spark conversations regarding youth and the incarcerated. However, I do see us improving in that regard as we are revamping SpeakOut online and inserting feedback cards into the journals.

Ideas Waiting for Flight

notebook-1895165_960_720Time has flown by so quickly. One day, I suddenly realize that I need to continue my internship project. It didn’t help that I completely forgot about the timeline I created for myself. Nonetheless, this jolting experience helped give me insight into how to better handle several long-term projects at once.

Time to get the ball rolling…

I have been focusing too much on the theoretical aspects of my project, thus far, and it has been holding me back. In order to be more productive, I need to move beyond that stage and start creating. If I need more information, I can always go back and look for more. Some good advice I recently heard said that no matter how much you research, you will never be able to find everything. Thus, I have made peace with this concept now. Another area where I was struggling was pinning down a research question because I believed that would sharpen my focus.

I kept overthinking it, but in this case was broadening my scope worked better: Which strategies are most effective for engaging at-risk youth in literacy?writing-828911_960_720

My dual-purpose for the project nicely fits within this question: 1) helping future volunteers navigate writing activities and 2) making sure the youth get as much out of the workshop as possible. Specifically, I want to see how training materials can best help future volunteers with the youth and make sessions run smoother by also incorporating the perspective of the staff who work with these youth.

What makes this project unique compared to others is how I am able to mix my personal, hands-on experience with it. I can learn from successful workshops, as well as those that don’t go as planned. Furthermore, I am not the only one in the process because I also learn from the writers themselves, other volunteers, CLC interns, and the CLC directors. Thus, my next steps include putting this all down on paper and perhaps reaching out to our community partners for input.

Trauma on Lined Paper

I am excited to begin SpeakOut this semester! It will be great to meet new writers and explore new possibilities. However, working with a new group also requires revisiting certain issues, such as violence in writing–a topic I addressed early on with last crumpled-paper-1852978_960_720semester’s group. Writing about trauma can be a slippery slope without some structure and may cause the writer to feel worse or lost. Therefore, Kathleen Adams’ work from the Center of Journal Therapy is key when working with youth. In general, a person who has experienced violence might also be struggling with anything from disrupted sleep to flashbacks and nightmares. Abuse may be stemming from different avenues, even those who are supposed to be their “defenders” (Horsmann).

Since those of us who facilitate these workshops are not therapists, I believe our focus should be more on building community through writing. Yet, before these connections can be made there needs to be a level of trust. How else will writers who have experienced trauma feel comfortable enough to take literary risks?

Strategies to Mitigate the Effects of Writing about Trauma

As Jenny Horsman notes, the fact that we are not therapists makes it more difficult to determine boundaries and know what kind of stories we will be exposed to. Therefore, we should take steps to help mitigate any negative effects that may arise when writers write about certain topics. Kathleen Adams has conducted excellent work on the best way to approach writing about trauma. Many of the insights she points out have resonated with paper-878962_960_720my experience with the youth writers. For instance, writers need to be “purposeful” and “intentional” with an idea of what they hope to gain.

We can’t forget that it’s also important to include more positive emotions, such as happiness and gratitude! Having a balanced structure really helps because it is just enough support to allow writers “to learn to navigate their own processes of being effectively in control” (Horsman). Nonetheless, while this can be a difficult balance, we need to make sure that our position of “authority” does not come across as abusive.

Horsmann presents the issue of a “loss of meaning” with trauma survivors. Structuring writing in a way that allows them to 1) name their experiences, 2) create meaning, and 3) find validation “might support learners to generate complex and relevant goals and meanings in texts and in life” (Horsmann). Amidst the trauma it can help learners to be more aware of themselves. I believe these strategies can be implemented with the youth, who tend to respond positively with structured writing prompts.

News Ways to Reconsider Trauma

The reading from Horsman also revealed several insights into how to reconsider the populations we work with in the first place. For instance, we should not disregard the strengths and knowledge they already posses. Most importantly, the purpose of the writing workshops is not to change/fix the individual. Rather, their “sensitivity” should be valued; it is society’s violence that needs to be fixed. I believe this is especially important for youth who may feel like a “problem” for those around them.

“My mind is already being used, my mind is not damaged, my mind is busy.” (Horsman)



Literacy as Prevention and Writing as Voice

Insights from Research

photo-1452497717530-91b7b6e33c0fI never thought that my educational path would have led me to literacy the way it has. Yet, perhaps this internship has opened my eyes by showing me that my interests all along really do line up with alternative literacy.  When I used to hear people speak about the importance of literacy, I never fully understood why it was emphasized so much. For me, literacy was not the approach to solving our social ills. I now know better, whether it was just ignorance or me taking my own literacy for granted.

As I have been conducting my research, I am extremely surprised at the relationships between illiteracy and delinquency. I never thought of literary proficiency as being a factor on whether or not at-risk youth will be more likely to be incarcerated, or to engage in delinquent behavior. While I recognize that literacy is not a “magic bullet,” its far-reaching benefits cannot be ignored, either. Therefore, this has further supported my resolve to address at-risk youth involvement in our writing workshops. That is not to say, however, that my own personal experiences have not enriched and complemented scholarly articles.

Insights from My Experience

SpeakOut is an alternative literacy initiative. Therefore, it is very flexible compared to the classroom setting. When participants come, they are not required to write on the given prompt (they can choose another), they can draw, or they can sit and listen to others share. Thus far, below are the two of the greatest insights I have gained from conducting these workshops.

Structure: In order to have the flexible, safe atmosphere for the writers, clear guidelines still need to be clearly established. (This usually works better with their input and unanimous agreement.) Furthermore, I have found that planning activities for the youth operate on a similar plane. In other words, this is a perfect example of creativity needing structure, an idea that was introduced to me rather recently.

What confirmed the importance of structure to me, was both the positive and negative feedback my volunteers and I received regarding different workshop sessions:

  • “I liked how everything was detailed.”
  • “I liked how we focused on one topic and not all over the place.”
  • ” …the video did not seem on topic…”
  • “…honestly to the end it wasn’t too great because the prompt wasn’t too detailed”

Feedback: These workshops cannot be a one-way street. Not only should we ask forfeedback-1793116_960_720 feedback, but we should respond to it and make sure they feel that their contribution is important and we are listening. Personally, I like to take their feedback anonymously at the end of the session using specific questions/areas for feedback. We try as much as possible to follow their suggestions and change things they do not like within reason.

Equally as important is giving them feedback on their writing. This is not to “grade” their work but to show them we take their work seriously. Rather, giving feedback to them is more of a conversation. It is saying things like, “I feel like there is more to the story here. Is there anything more you can say?” One of the goals of the CLC is to provide voice through publication. Before that achieving that with youth, however, we need to  engage them with a subject they may feel alienated from. Only after that can we build their confidence in writing, expression, and engagement.

Engaging At-Risk Youth

30097315975_aea7528b8a_cEach Community Literacy Center (CLC) intern must complete an independent project this upcoming semester. As for me, I was considering many topics but decided on exploring the question: How can we further engage SpeakOut youth participants and increase retention? This issue is important to me because I have been working with youth since I joined the SpeakOut program. I really care about the youth groups and wish to create training materials for future interns/volunteers. Working with youth involves a learning curve, yet I hope to help make SpeakOut sessions more efficient and allow the youth to gain as much as possible from this experience.

Working with youth has unique challenges (and benefits!) that distinguish it from working with adults at the jail or community corrections. Compared to the incarcerated men and women, youth tend to be less engaged. One possible reasons for this, is that the adult groups see SpeakOut as a privilege and an outlet from daily jail life. Therefore, I thought youth photo-1443360331413-5badf24a571ashould be approached from a different angle. To begin my research, I found the article: “Promoting Academic Literacy with Urban Youth through Engaging Hip-hop Culture” by Morrel and Duncan-Andrade. I tend to have mixed feelings towards incorporating hip-hop/rap in school; however, I think this article did a good job of discussing the subject and providing sample learning objectives.

The authors paint a picture of education with an increasingly diverse student body. In an urban context, hip-hop culture is described as transcending race/ethnicity. Rappers typically regard themselves as educators and voices of resistance/liberation. Ultimately, the purpose is to engage students influenced by this culture to use critical/analytical skills with academic texts. Yet, reaching this goal involves bridging the gap between “the streets” and academia.

In their sample lesson plan, the authors included the following objectives: 1) scaffolding through cultural engagement, 2) building awareness of skills that are transferable to traditional academic texts, and 3) critiquing messages. In their sample lesson, they included the following topics and activities:

  1. Discussion on “What is poetry?”
  2. Exploring hip-hop’s heritage (e.g. Harlem Renaissance)
  3. Group presentations on the similarities/differences between a hip-hop song and a traditional poem
  4. Individually writing and presenting 5 poems, each on different moods/topic

Some could take this further and use a hip-hop inspired curricular to discuss power and 24520856590_7a74a727be_bpolitics. However, the article did provide a counter-point, cautioning the use of hip-hop culture in the classroom. I believe this added depth to the conversation because if you are hinging upon this culture, it should be done in the most constructive way possible. We need to keep in mind the implications of the hip-hop culture. In particular, scholar Henry A. Giroux, explains that urban youth are “enmenshed in a culture of violence coded by race and class, the working class body has been commercialize and the culture has criminalized black youth.” (89) Thus, he views hip-hop as “social knowledge” to be “discussed, interrogated, and critiqued.”

My goal is not necessarily to make SpeakOut hip-hop centered, but rather find ways to engage with youth from where they are and go from there. Nonetheless, this project is just starting and is a work in progress to learn, grow, adapt, etc. to what is most successful with the youth.

Writing for Wellness

Our Words and Well-Being

photo-1472466287482-c6c7fe50b716I don’t find it hard to believe that “every narrative told constructs a world of its own,” as Emily Nye puts it. What we produce is a complex intersection between our backgrounds, current context, and the purpose of our writing. She goes further to state that bringing these narratives all together “restores us to ‘health’.” This is not the first time I have come across these ideas.

Last semester, I had the privilege to attend a SpeakOut! training workshop, which touched on wellness and self-care. Kathleen Adams, from the Center for Journal Therapy, came to speak about the “Write Way to Wellness” and I received a copy of the workbook, as a result. Overall, I was very surprised at the recent availability of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of writing for health and wellness.

In Nye’s case, she worked with the HIV/AIDS community43e39040 in a writing context. She came to the following conclusions regarding the therapeutic and cognitive benefits of writing:

  • clearing trauma from the mind
  • encouraging problem-solving
  • “releasing inhibition”
  • assimilating experiences
  • summarizing information
  • developing structure and organization of thoughts
  • being heard/acknowledged

However, in these writing workshops, Nye noted that the focus was not solely on the writing itself, but the caring in the relationships between each other.

Group Writing and Wellness


I definitely believe that the narratives we tell and the publications that might emerge from them can accomplish the aforementioned benefits. That is not to say, however, that everyone will achieve these things in the same way at the same time or pace. Writing is a process that largely involves engaging with yourself deeply, and as Nye postulates, it also includes pondering the human condition, expressing/communicating our individual stories, learning from ourselves, and teaching others. This fits perfectly into the SpeakOut context, as we work to empower writers and also spread awareness of incarceration issues through our journal publication.

While considering the possibilities of writing, as workshop facilitators we are also confronted with the challenges that occur in trying to reach these goals. Two issues, in photo-1466386460451-cbc548bf581bparticular, that have affected these goals for my youth SpeakOut group are: 1) group cohesion and 2) a hesitancy to publish. To begin with, the SpeakOut group has both a wide variety of backgrounds and a lot of participant turnover. Secondly, publishing  can be daunting because of its inherent risks. Opening yourself up to a public audience has its healing qualities but it also increases a person’s vulnerability because you lose control over who reads it.

A similar case is the StreetWise writer’s group based in Chicago, which had tensions between the overall group mission and individual aspirations. As a result, the group identity/agenda needed to be constantly revisited. In order to strike a balance, a solution that seemed to work was finding “way to strategize and take on issues in a scope broader than what an individual can consider.” (160) Thus, I believe that once issues of cohesion and hesitancy are addressed, the SpeakOut participants will be able to “break the ice” and use their writing to express their voice, feel empowered, and work towards wellness.

The Way I Talk, The Way You Speak

Language can never be neutral.


This is the case not only with the words we choose but even as far as the language itself. Gloria Anzaldua, a feminist Chicana scholar, detailed an instance, in which other Latinas/os criticized her for speaking English because it was the oppressor’s language. Yet, in my experience, I have seen it go even further. Spanish, like any other, can become the oppressor’s language. Mexico, for example, should return to its indigenous languages. I am not advocating the rejection of English or Spanish here, at the same time I advocate promoting the appreciation for and learning of indigenous languages. Rather, I wish to highlight how important matters of language are because they shape our identity, self-representation, and are heavily embedded within cultural traditions. This same concept also applies to how we express ourselves through written language.

Language affects sense of self.

Language is a foundation for identity. For Anzaldua, it is “a homeland closer than the Southwest” and I completely agree on this point. She considers both internal and external attacks on one’s native language to be “linguistic terrorism,” which negatively affects a person’s sense of self for the rest of their lives. At the same time, not all immigrants nor their children speak their country of origin’s language. More and more dual identities are being formed because people do not completely “belong” to one side or the other. Therefore, we need to be careful when handling other people’s language, whether verbal or written. In SpeakOut, for instance, we always want to strive to give voice to the populations we work with.

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language.” (Anzaldua 81)

The way I talk about you matters, too.


We are building relationships through our writing workshops. A goal of the Community Literacy Center (CLC) is to “advocate for increased public awareness about the needs and contributions of our diverse community,” which includes the incarcerated. While striving for this, we need to remember that people are not passive agents. Everyone is their own autonomous person who is capable of resistance, action, thought, creativity, etc.

The way we represent the people we interact with–the incarcerated, those in rehabilitation programs, etc.–carries plenty of implications. In scholar Pat Rigg’s experience, for example, she came across an illiterate day laborer, named Petra. Petra surprised Pat because she advocated for herself by demanding that “[p]eople like you should come to help me.” (Rigg 130) Therefore, if we truly wish to embody the mission of empowering undeserved populations, it begins in our minds and with our words.

Getting the chance to speak.

Personally, I struggle with ways to talk about what I do with others. I try to be factual: “I help run creative writing workshops with youth currently in a rehabilitation center.” Yet, if the point of the program is to empower this population, is it defeating the purpose maintaining the “at-risk” label? I think a better picture is painted when explaining the SpeakOut journal and I get a chance to detail their writing skills and talents. Nonetheless, perhaps the “at-risk” label can serve as a challenge for these youth to overcome and become better versions of themselves. In particular, at my site, I have received feedback from participants who are thankful for being able to talk about things they otherwise would not be able to. The workshop should serve as a space for exploring language and affirming their identities.