I have been talking with my students about the integral role that writing plays in building community and practicing democracy. Our discussions have followed the mapping exercise I described in my last blog entry. They drew maps to shed light on the lack of access to goods, services, and educational opportunities – where literacy happens – in economically depressed communities. The spatial inequality represented in the maps they drew led to questions about policies that have affected the lack of equity we witnessed: how have policies affected the built environment that surrounds us and what actions can we take to mitigate the effects of poverty on children and families? How can what we write frame conversations that prompt residents, educators, and policymakers to engage with one another to create access to what children and families need?
Addressing these and other questions has opened up spaces to discuss the ways writing is about creating relationships and changing conversations from problems to possibilities. Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging has provided a useful frame through which to understand the importance of using writing – especially stories – to invite disparate groups to the table, so to speak, and engage with one another. For Block, writing serves as an invitation to strengthen the fabric of communities by creating a sense of belonging. Individual transformation is not the point as much as imagining collective responsibility, relatedness, and forward action. Moreover, building community is also about seeing assets in a community, including people. Thus community change is not simply about identifying deficiencies and problems that need to be solved.
Block’s ideas have challenged some of the ways April Lidinsky and I have written about writing as conversation and the strategies for entering a conversation of ideas: understanding what writers have written before, what they may have overlooked or ignored in addressing a problem, and using writing as a way to fill gaps. These are useful ways to think about writing and Block’s formulation simply broadens the metaphor:
If we want a change in culture . . . the work is to change the conversation – or more precisely, to have a conversation that we have not had before, one that has the power to create something new in the world. This insight forces us to question the value of our stories, the positions we take . . . and our way of being in the world. (p. 15)
In this light, conversation can be broadly conceived and includes all of the ways that we use image and text to communicate in meaningful ways to one another in the different public spaces we inhabit.
Block goes on to explain that some stories we tell ourselves can limit our imagination and the possibilities before us. For example, my students and I discussed the extent to which policymakers and educators often place blame on individuals and the deficits that characterize children and families living in poverty. We shift the conversation by asking questions about the causes of poverty and by identifying the assets in a community that can increase social capital and civic engagement. The shift in conversation is from one of problems and fear to one of possibility and restoration. Thus the stories we tell are those that give meaning to our lives and enable us to lift up our voices.
In our writing, my students and I have framed the conversation in ways that Block has inspired: what can we create together to foster inclusion, relatedness, and perhaps reconciliation? Moreover, how can we use all forms of rhetoric as an invitation to ensure all voices are heard in building community and in ways that allow community members to take ownership in creating something that really matters? What new stories can a community create together that can become part of the public debate regardless of the current political context? How can we heal the fragmentation of communities and incivility as active citizens?
The conversation we enter, then, is the step that my students and I agree makes an alternative future possible. And entering conversations is the step toward active citizenship in communities where we are accountable to one another.