Reflection: A Critical Framework for Conference Planning

In a letter to Asao Inoue, the Program Chair for CCCC 2018, the CCCC Disability Standing Group challenged our organization to reflect on how we were responding to the issues of social justice and diversity related to the Jim Crow-like laws of Missouri. We’re we engaged in enacting long-term structural changes or simply retrofitting our actions to mitigate the impact of these unjust laws on our annual convention? Similarly, in her Chair’s Address, Calhoon-Dillahunt reminds us, “moments of crisis” offer kairotic opportunities, moments not to react but to react and reflect, what Freire describe as being praxis-oriented, and it from this point that I would like to reflect on my decision to attend #4C18.

When I co-wrote my conference proposal, I was challenged by Inoue’s call. His ideas forced me to reimagine conferencing, to do more than simply pander to the idea of designing an interactive session. Inoue encouraged prospective presenters to actively construct sessions that would engage the audience through authentic participation, constructing opportunities to labor and language with instead of at. But Inoue’s call—his personal, professional, and scholarly commitment to social justice and equity—and the potential for actualizing this call in our panel session were directly threatened by SB 43. As the Joint Caucus Statement makes clear, SB 43 egregiously impacts “the sense of well-being, respect, and equal protection and representation under the law of, not only Missouri residents, but also both NCTE and CCCC conferences attendees.” Embodying Inoue’s call—to embrace structural changes to disrupt racism, linguistic genocide, and white privilege as a discipline—would only be possible if we “showed up for racial justice” (Joint Caucus Statement, 2017), but for many choosing to show up for racial justice meant choosing to be absent in Kansas City

As many of us did, I, too, contemplated boycotting the conference. I engaged in conversations intentionally with colleagues, followed discussions critically on social media, read Inoue’s blog regularly, signed the Joint Caucus Statement, and engaged in silent moments of reflection. There was one guiding question I carried through all these interaction: How does a white, middle class woman show up for racial justice? My answer: she shows up physically and emotionally.  But making the decision to attend #4C18 in Kansas City was difficult and fraught with doubt. Could I conference in a way that was challenging to systemic racism or would I retrofit my body and mind to simply react in the moment?

One way I tried to show up was to volunteer as a facilitator for the All-Convention event. I read each statement, pulling out keywords or concepts that emerged from critical engagement with the texts, ideas that would support our conversation to define an organizational mission and describe practices for embodying that mission. But the ballroom was half empty, and I found myself profoundly disappointed. I also co-chaired the Feminist Workshop and volunteered to live Tweet the day-long workshop, believing that our Twitter feed and live steam would provide access to those who had chosen to boycott. During my own session, my co-presenters and I attempted to deauthorize our panel as the experts on teaching writing online. We invited collaboration, asked for feedback on an already published article, committed to revise the article based on participant critical feedback, and invited the attendees to co-author. Did I walk away profoundly changed as a white conference goer? Did I show up for racial justice? Trying to answer these questions about individual activism are important, particularly for those of us whose bodies are not directly subjected to the discrimination inherent in laws like SB 43, but we as a discipline need to also challenge how we have historically shown through embodied practices. And although most of my conference practices did little to shift the impact of systemic racism, I continue to carry the ideas and the questions that emerged through the dialogue, criticism, and thoughtful analyses that preceded the conference as well as from the conversations and sessions in which I participated while in Kansas City.

I continue to ask myself how I am showing up for racial justice, a question that has influenced my work as a local site co-chair for the Council of Writing Program Administrators 2018 annual conference being hosted in Sacramento in July by the Nor Cal-Nevada WPA Affiliate. In this role, I was given an opportunity to design an internship course focused on conference planning for graduate and undergraduate students. Overall, the goal of the course was to construct a working critical framework for conference planning. To imagine this framework, I asked the students to read and engage with many artifacts from #4C18 in Kansas City to help guide this collaborative project. And even though California has recently avoided enacting the Jim-Crow like laws of other states, there is no city that is immune to the systemic racism and history of police brutality that pervades police departments across the country. On March 18, in the city of Sacramento, two police officers fatally shot unarmed Stephon Clark. There are many questions about how the officers will be held accountable, but through all the protest and the activities of the local Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter, our regional affiliate has asserted the need for this event to be addressed at the conference. We need to take keep asking “what if we tried this” as a way to show up for racial justice, to embody and enact.

Conference hosting and planning is crucial to the sustainability and growth of our discipline, but in the last few years, particularly in the field of rhetoric and composition, it has also served as an opportunity to reflect on our values and priorities, to imagine the possibilities of conferencing in the future, and in doing so, imagine the possibilities of our discipline. As the CCCCs program chair for the conference in Kansas City, Asao Inoue wrote intimately in his blog about how conference planning, with its organizing power over bodies and space, must always already be considered social justice work. Conference planning has emotional, intellectual, economic, and physical implications.

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