Kansas City was the first meeting I attended as a member of the CCCC Executive Committee. Along with the other new members, I had been briefly oriented to the work, responsibilities, and scope of the Committee, and I had arrived in our designated meeting room at the Marriott Downtown for last-minute face-to-face introductions. While I hadn’t officially begun work on the Committee until after the many difficult conversations about the annual conference, Kansas City, the state of Missouri, and the NAACP’s travel advisory, I was well aware that many debates had occurred within the Committee and between Committee members and other CCCC colleagues. I knew at least some members were choosing not to attend. I knew the leaders had invested in expanding options for online/distant participation and that they had planned more events emphasizing ways CCCC could encourage socially just approaches to literacy. Sure enough, all these topics emerged during the EC’s daylong Wednesday meeting as I listened to dedicated and experienced peers work hard to reconcile logistical, technological, and budgetary constraints with a clear desire to make CCCC’s work more transformative, compassionate, aware, and engaged–to paraphrase Program Chair Asao Inoue and Local Arrangements Chair Jane Greer. As an EC member, I had a keener than usual interest in formal conference activities that were part of the program, ranging from the Scholars for the Dream reception to the table at which other volunteers and I were accepting donations for local movements to the All Attendee Event at which we heard local activists briefly but dynamically pass on lessons about social justice-oriented work. I was then lucky enough to be assigned (as one of many event facilitators) to the table at which several Literacy KC staffers and volunteers were sitting. For roughly the next half hour, I learned about their adult basic literacy work; their cooperation with AmeriCorps VISTA about digital, financial, and health literacies; their collaboration in administering Kansas City’s Career Online High School, which grants diplomas as well as highly practical career certificates (literacykc.org).
At least as crucially for me, I learned more about Kansas City and its environs themselves than I had ever learned about any other CCCC conference site. For instance, I learned that two adjoining counties in the immediate metropolitan region–Johnson and Wyandotte (Kansas)–are #1 and #98 (out of 105 counties), respectively, ranked by per-capita income. More specific statistics show that median family income in Wyandotte County is roughly $43,000 lower than in Johnson County. I learned that similar disparities exist on the Missouri side between Jackson and DeKalb Counties, for example. Polar differences in resources and services are miles apart at most. Unsurprisingly, socioeconomic gaps map onto racial divides. Johnson County is nearly 82% white–above the state average. Wyandotte County is 43% white and 25% Black–a figure 19% higher than the state’s overall Black population. To be sure, many CCCC members were rightly concerned about Missouri’s racial policies and practices, but simply sleeping and spending over the state line wouldn’t have been much more than symbolic gestures.
I, myself, was sleeping and spending near the conference site, as I typically would. Later in the evening after the All Attendee Event and the Scholars for the Dream Reception, I met friends at a restaurant within sight of the Marriott. Later still, I returned to my AirBnB apartment in a newly renovated and converted former warehouse about half a dozen blocks south. That was as far from the Marriott as I went, really. The talk I would deliver Friday morning was about research I was doing in Korea–specifically in a city that was literally being built around me as part of a massive investment in globalization. Thinking as I have throughout that project about writing, urban areas, and fast capitalism sensitized me to the locality of composition and literacy (in Korea, that is)–to my own inability to separate teaching and learning from the brand new buildings I inhabited, the regular grand openings of new retail centers, the construction noise and variable air quality, the replacement of animal habitat with glass and steel. In Kansas City, I realize now that I’m writing this, I wasn’t similarly sensitive.
I recall a conversation I had at the 2008 CCCC in New Orleans with a mentor who said he wanted–needed–to get away from the strategically located Hilton Riverside and see areas of the city that the city didn’t necessarily want conference-goers to visit. Then-Program Chair Charles Bazerman’s welcome message in that year’s program book cautions that “the rest of the city is uneven” and that “[t]here are parts of the city that . . . are still very troubled.” Even 2 ½ years after Katrina, there was no doubt reason for caution. And the program that year did feature local journalists, teachers, slam poets, and others who survived the tragedies. But their interactions with our conference were inside New Orleans’ own convention district.
You know what I mean. There are similar districts in Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, San Antonio, St Louis, and virtually any other prior, future, or prospective conference locale. Creative options that encourage shared consumption, such as short-term private homestays and short-trip car/bicycle/scooter rentals, can reduce costs for conference attendees, but they may actually concentrate and exacerbate problems for local residents. AirBnB has figured large in debates about gentrification and transient populations (even in Kansas City: https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article201670004.html), and extremely popular transportation services such as Uber and Lyft can threaten entrenched locally based taxi companies and public transit. There is considerable overlap between these concerns and the same concerns that animate Literacy KC’s educational and community missions. Learning about those connections means building even further on the expanded work this year’s Local Arrangements Committee accomplished. The money our conference brings to cities can do good. We can do better by strategizing that spending more deliberately–collectively and individually. As much as the convention districts look alike (by design), the communities investing in them are diverse. So all of us who know literacy is highly contextual should see our conference sites as rich contexts themselves.