Recently, I was having a meeting with a friend at a local coffee shop to hand him copies of Working, a book in which his writing and his writing group had been featured. Our conversation soon turned, however, to what he was writing about now, what new projects he had undertaken.
His life, he said, had become centered around supporting the children of Somalian refugees. He was to think about how a focus on writing might not only help them in their studies, but enable them to tell their story to a wider public at this fraught political moment. He also wanted to help children support their parents documenting their own journey out of political turmoil and into the United States. He wanted everyone to see their humanity, how we are all equal.
Maybe, he wondered, we might work on this together.
I am sure that many of us have such moments. Moments which speak to our belief in the public power of writing and seem to offer opportunities for our classrooms to connect with an exigent moment – here, the public debate over immigration. And often, we have to decide whether this is a project that can support both the community and our students.
I’ve developed a rough set of questions I ask myself at such moments before deciding. And if you are facing such decisions, I hope they will be helpful.
1. Is the work important?
Everyone will define “important” differently. I believe something is important if it offers the chance to change public dialogue in a specific location or if it will lead to a possible change in public policy. Ideally, a project would do both. At the outset, I don’t ask whether it is important to my student’s education. I try to keep my lens on its importance to the community’s goals and values.
2. Do I have a strong relationship with the individual proposing the partnership?
I also need to know how this person works, creates plans, implements strategies, and responds to crises. The person does not have to be perfect – I’m certainly not – but if I have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, I will better understand the specific type of work required of me.
3. Does this partnership work align with the goals of my assigned courses over the upcoming academic year as well as my department goals?
I then consider how it might support classroom or departmental goals. I explore if the type of writing/literacy work necessary for the project (determined in consultation with my partner) aligns with the goals of my assigned courses (determined by my department). I also consider who the students will be in class (freshman, writing majors, graduate students). If I believe I can ethically link my classes to the project, I then consider how the project might support current departmental initiatives (which isn’t necessary, but can help bring additional faculty into the project).
4. Is there adequate funding?
I now consider any budget needs. My strategy here is to develop the least expensive version of the project possible, then if more money is raised you can expand the work. You know, though, that at least some version of the project is possible. I then determine when the funding will be needed and develop a plan with my partner on how we will raise the money and, often, how much funding we will need before we can begin a project linked to my class.
5. Is there a clear ending to the project?
Some partnerships can exist productively for years – such as the writers group with my friend. I always, though, try to articulate clear endings to any partnership – such as completing a book. This allows you to ethically end your work with a community. It also, allows you to use that moment to assess the strengths/weaknesses of the partnership. Before you continue or expand the work, it is important to assess what has occurred. Clear endings allow such assessment.
I suppose the question hanging out there is “Did I agree to join my friend’s project with Somalian refugees?”
My impulse is to say “yes” immediately. But I also need to remember that it is not about my impulses, about what I might find exciting. It is about the community’s goals, about their agenda for change. It’s about whether the partnership can enable my students to understand the political responsibilities of joining such efforts. Ultimately, that is, I believe deciding to start a new partnership is about moving from the excitement inherent in the impulse to “do good” to the sustained work of joining personal and institutional resources to a community’s effort to create systemic change, to bend the arc of justice a little closer towards their neighborhood.
And deciding, I’ve found that takes time.