Writing Networks for Social Justice: A Brief History of 4C4Equality

By Don Unger and Liz Lane

We first began the work of what would become the 4C4Equality initiative in fall 2013. As rhetoric and composition graduate students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, we watched as the debate surrounding the location of the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs) unfolded on the WPA LISTSERV (WPA-L).  4Cs was set to take place in Indianapolis, just 70 miles down 1-65 from us. Indiana politicians and their legislation had been growing increasingly, openly hostile toward LGBTQ people, and 4Cs members were talking about what kind of response the conference organizers would take to House Joint Resolution 3 (HJR-3).

Living and working in Indiana, we watched how the battle around HJR-3 took shape and felt the fear it created in our personal and professional lives. The proposed legislation sought to write discrimination against same-sex marriage into the state constitution. In response, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) worked through their statewide front group Freedom Indiana to oppose the proposed legislation. The HRC sent organizers from around the country to different Indiana cities in order to set up phone-banking and letter-writing campaigns. They also organized a coalition of national and regional corporations, and local businesses to oppose HJR-3. These companies signed a letter of opposition. Others boycotted the state. We were simultaneously appalled that such a law had been proposed and eager to do something to oppose it. Yet, as graduate students, we felt there wasn’t much space for us to do that. The HRC’s well-oiled machine limited what action local people could take as local LGBTQ organizations in Lafayette and West Lafayette simply deferred to the HRC. Still, the debate about 4Cs continued on the WPA-L.

Folks involved in the WPA-L discussion made a lot of suggestions about what to do, but it seemed like no one was going to put them into action. We began to talk about what it would mean to take an activist approach and turn the 4Cs conference into an organizing space against HJR-3. We were eager to explore how our own activist experiences, pedagogical training, and scholarly expertise might inform such organizing. So, we decided to strike out on our own and use a grassroots approach to support action in Indianapolis. In a theoretical sense, it meant establishing or tapping into connections among a number of stakeholders with myriad concerns and political leanings, including conference organizers and attendees; representatives of social benefit and social justice organizations; and local LGBTQ people and allies who weren’t affiliated with any of these institutions. We began to ask how to approach the issue as a network useful for all these stakeholders, and we began the work it would take to start to create such a network. In a practical sense, it meant putting into action those skills we taught students in professional writing courses.

Emergence of 4C4Equality

We dubbed this work 4C4Equality (4C4E) as a nod to the professional organization that we sought to work within and a nod to the fight for equality that we had taken up. We gathered a group of graduate students and created a plan of action, taking a few ideas from the online conversations mentioned previously and developing some of our own. We spent countless hours emailing and calling people, holding meetings, and attending other groups’ meetings, as well as designing a website and materials to give out at the conference. Eventually, we reached out to faculty to support our plan to engage 4Cs attendees and draw them into actions that supported LGBTQ Hoosiers and allies. For example, we offered materials to allow attendees to take part in a Freedom Indiana letter-writing campaign opposing HJR-3 and provided small cards for conference attendees to share with local business owners while they are or shopped in Indianapolis, asking them to oppose HJR-3. When it came time to implement the plan, we reached out folks on the WPA-L again. Writing instructors from all over the country volunteered to sit at our conference table and speak with other attendees about the fight against HJR-3. New and veteran conference goers donated funds to reimburse us for the cost of the materials and to allow us to make more. We were encouraged by the support that folks showed for our grassroots, graduate-student led, and donation-funded initiative.

You can read more about our history and approaches to local activism and organizing at our website, 4C4Equality.wordpress.com. Additionally, we detail our ongoing work with the initiative in “Considering Global Communication and Usability as Networked Engagement: Lessons from 4C4Equality,” set to appear in Thinking Globally, Composing Locally Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet in the January 2018 from Utah State University Press.

From a Grassroots Action to a Writing Network

Since our earliest days, we have worked to develop 4C4E as a network that connects writing, rhetoric, and literacy scholars to local activists in the cities that host 4Cs. Through yearly interventions centered around the annual conference, we have employed different tactics to expand this network and to make it sustainable, from serving as local organizers at 4C14 in Indianapolis, to supporting the work of local teachers and activists at 4C15 Tampa, to designing and circulating an online map that locates activist-scholars around North America at 4C16 in Houston. As the next step in developing this network, we decided to create a zine through which teacher-scholars could address their activist work for themselves. In the context of our ongoing work, providing a platform for others and putting these folks into conversation with one another reflects our approach toward local organizing. In our interventions at 4Cs, we have always asked how our work affords greater participation rather than asking how these interventions refine an infallible political critique. Through the zine, we set out to present a vibrant and multifaceted understanding of activism that supports many approaches. Given the current political climate in the US, our emphasis on participation rather than perfection feels more important than ever.

The 2017 Zine

Following the 2016 US presidential election, American politicians—led by Donald Trump—and their sympathizers have stepped up legal and extralegal attacks on poor and working-class people–particularly immigrants, Muslims, and all people of color, transgender people and queers, women, people with disabilities, and even children. To oppose these attacks, activist groups have organized national, regional, and local resistance. Teacher-scholar-activists have played a role in such resistance, from participating in high profile national actions–such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and A Day Without Immigrants–to carrying out day-to-day organizing in their communities, fields, and classrooms.

To shed light on such work, our zine bridges conventions in academic and underground publishing to build a network. Through our call, we hoped to highlight activist work in a more immediate and accessible manner than is found in most traditional academic publications. This DIY-approach has been integral to 4C4E from its beginning. Broadly speaking, each piece included in the zine addresses one overarching question:

In the current political climate where students and faculty are becoming increasingly involved in direct action and local organizing, where do writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and adjacent areas of inquiry fit in this work?

To focus this question, we asked contributors to describe the activist and organizing work with which they are involved; how they feel writing, research, teaching, and service play into this work; how they discuss activist work among academic and organizing audiences; and how they collaborate with others through activism or local organizing.

The point is not to erase differences among these methods so that we might gather under one banner, but to write a(nother) network for social justice within, across, or through writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. This zine provides a platform for activist-scholars to consider various methods for resisting and organizing resistance, and to consider how others relate to and employ these methods. It is a step toward building a network where we learn from, support, and respectfully/productively challenge one another to organize or further develop our local work.

In the zine, you’ll find a mixture of interviews, scene reports, and columns that reflect the spirit of underground publishing culture while allowing contributors creative license to articulate their activist work in unique ways. The zine is organized loosely around a number of themes: from perspectives on how grassroots organizing and activism fit into writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; to pedagogical approaches to activism; to discussions of cultural rhetorics and how race informs praxis; and personal accounts of bringing activism into the classroom and community.

A majority of the interviews were conducted by the editors, as we invited scholars from writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies who influence our work with 4C4E to share their perspectives about the current state of the field and activism through it. The scene reports and columns offer first-hand perspectives on contributors’ extant, local work. It is our hope that the work described in the zine inspires others to engage, organize, fight back, and to listen to one another.

If you are interested in getting a print copy of the zine, check out the information on our website about ordering one. We will also be redesigning the zine to publish it as a webtext in constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space in time for 4C18. Additionally, we are always open to chatting about ongoing activist work and hearing about the ongoing activist and social justice work underway in the field of writing studies.

Don UngerDon Unger is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University. He also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Community-Engaged Teaching & Learning with St. Edward’s Center for Teaching Excellence. His research explores the impact that network technologies have on how we conceive of public rhetoric and what role service plays in shaping networks. You can contact Don at dunger1@stedwards.edu and follow him on Twitter @donunger.

Liz_LaneLiz Lane is an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on feminist activism in digital spaces, new media, and technical communication, and designing for community engagement. You can contact Liz at etlane@memphis.edu and follow her on Twitter @fancyscholar.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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