Cover of book by Julius Lester
My connected friend, Sherri, wrote about race and gender and the overwhelming whiteness and female-ness of the Slice of Life community. She was asking for feedback and response.
…. while I appreciate the work of several educators in this community and elsewhere incorporating anti-racism and anti-bias work into their curricula and book selections, I cannot ignore that feeling I get of being one of so very few.
She goes further:
What I want folks to understand is that this state of affairs has very real and concrete consequences for how we understand and interpret events and experiences. Talking about race is uncomfortable for a lot of folks. It hatches all kinds of difficult feelings including guilt, shame, anger, defensiveness, helplessness.
Here is what I crafted as a response to Sherri. I don’t have answers for her. Just observations.
I’ve been part of Slice of Life on and off for more than ten years, and sometimes I note in reflections at the end of March the same observation you write about here — the gender, race dynamic is predominantly white, female.
I’ve sometimes, as a participant writer, tried to connect Slice of Life with other communities, to invite more people in. I was never all that successful. As white male elementary teacher/writer, this demographic make-up has not hindered me personally as a writer. SOL at TWT is still an amazing thing — hundreds of teachers, writing! It was more, this could be a positive opening for so many more teachers with diverse backgrounds to write with others, to share and make connections, to expand the notion of storytelling.
Speaking only from my standpoint as a male teacher, and remembering an interaction I once had from another male teacher who did a bit of Slice one year and then stopped when he noticed he was not getting comments on his writing, I think Slice of Life can be seen by a newcomer as a female-infused writing space. I’m not sure if is is perceived as having a white face to it, too, but maybe it does. When we don’t see ourselves in a space, we are less likely to dip our toes in.
I know Stacey and others at TWT are cognizant this point, too, and they strive to make sure everyone is invited, and appreciated, and I know that they would love a more diverse group.
How to achieve that? It would likely involve more time spent actively inviting diverse folks from other communities. It might involve adding even more diversity to the main administrators of the site. It might even require thinking of the design of the TWT website to showcase the ways in which a diverse writing community looks.
All of this can seem forced, particularly at first, until the momentum catches on, and then it can become a natural way of being. Just think of the potential, building on what is already an amazing experience for many teachers to write publicly, a huge barrier for many made easier by the Slice of Life community.
How do we bring more diversity to online spaces? Not just Slice of Life. But also other Affinity Networks — like CLMOOC, which is near and dear to me but is also overwhelmingly white.
At my local Western Massachusetts Writing Project site, we’ve been grappling with this for years. A long research inquiry called Project Outreach that delved deep into our site demographics and our region demographics led us to make some fundamental shifts, including a new Mission Statement at the time that makes it clear and public our organizational views on diversity and race.
The mission of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, is to create a professional community where teachers and other educators feel welcomed to come together to deepen individual and collective experiences as writers and our understanding of teaching and learning in order to challenge and transform our practice. Our aim is to improve learning in our schools – urban, rural and suburban.
Professional development provided by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project values reflection and inquiry and is built on teacher knowledge, expertise, and leadership.
Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.
But of course, it is not enough to have the words. You need to do the actions. So every program we now run and administer, and every grant we apply for, is viewed through the lens of our Mission Statement. Does the program reach a diverse audience? Does it address equity and social justice? Does the program align with our core values? We actually ask these questions out loud to each other. We also actively recruit teachers of color in urban school districts, and make sure they have paths into leadership. We have a leadership team working on Language, Culture and Diversity.
I’ll admit, too, that we lost the interest of some of our WMWP folks over the years, with such hard push into social justice. Many who left thought we stepped away from writing and the teaching of writing as our core value, but this is not the case. Those are still core values, sitting next to others as signals of importance to the outside audience, in hopes that our writing project site signals a clear welcoming to all.