Review: Anti-Racist and More, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, by Felicia Rose Chavez

The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez Haymarket Books, 216 pages, $14.97 Chicago’s Haymarket Books promotes The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez as an “easy-to-use guide explains how to recruit, nourish, and fortify writers of color through innovative reading, writing, workshop, critique, and assessment strategies.” And, yes, it’s all that. But it makes the book sound like an instruction manual. What The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop is, is Chavez’s impassioned manifesto for educating students of all rainbow varieties by giving them control of their learning. I would argue it wouldn’t be a bad blueprint for radically improving American society as well. Giving students control of their learning involves, on the one hand, the rejection of deeply entrenched patterns that force them to fit into a preconceived set of cultural values, rooted in the white middle-class and upper-class experience.  It also involves the rejection of the deeply entrenched pattern that forces them to fit into the teacher’s values and way of thinking. As she extensively acknowledges, Chavez stands on the shoulders of an array of other creative thinkers. She envisions a classroom in which students are given the techniques and strategies to work together to test and refine their skills while the teacher works as a facilitator. Chavez is writing about a particular sort of learning—the creative writing workshop which has been in common use in academia for nearly 90 years—but the methods she promotes can be applied in classrooms at every level. Chavez relates that, in creative writing workshops, white middle-class teachers and students usually operate as if everyone in the class has—or should have—a common (white, middle-class) background. When students make references to what it is like to live as a person of color or as someone else on the margins of society, they are silenced. They are told, Chavez writes, that they are bringing politics where it doesn’t belong. “Win Workshop” This is exacerbated by the workshop approach which is rooted in finding fault. A writer sends out a piece to the others in the workshop, and then, at a meeting, sits silently while others comment on how the piece can be made better. Any aspect that doesn’t fit into a white, middle-class mindset is a prime target for disapproval. Especially from white males, as Chavez notes: “They want to compete in workshop. Or, more accurately, they want to win workshop. Without acknowledging, of course, that the game is rigged, that they won at the get-go, regardless of their writing ability.  This colosseum mentality of brutality and bloodshed is a farce, one that blinds them to the advantage of collaborative creation.” In a creative writing workshop, the teacher is also a creative writer, and the tendency, Chavez writes, is for the teacher to try to make each student fit the teacher’s writing style.  And/or the writing of those enshrined in the literary canon—who tend to be white men. Think Shakespeare, Hemingway, Roth. Instead of this competitive, fault-finding method, Chavez details in her book a workshop model in which students join forces to grow together instead of competing. In presenting a piece, a writer tells the colleagues what sort of help is being sought rather than sitting silent while taking potshots at one another. The goal of the exercise is to help the writer, not to puff up the egos of the other participants. Felicia Rose Chavez An important element of this, built into the Chavez model workshop, is the recognition that people of color and others on the margins have different experiences from those in the white mainstream.  As a workshop leader, Chavez underlines this by sharing with students the work of a wide range of authors. This, of course, helps people of color and those on the margins feel more comfortable—more heard. But, to my mind, it also provides, for white participants, a new perspective in which to look at writing and at what is written—and at everyday society. It widens their horizons, deepens their understanding and enriches their lives. “Deep Listening” The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop is a detailed roadmap for how to set up the Chavez model and carry it out.  It is chockablock full of methods for fostering cooperation among the participants, for nurturing writers trying to address difficult subjects, for helping those in the workshop develop constructive and productive writing rituals. But the key to her approach is listening—by the students and the teacher: “The anti-racist writing workshop imparts a pedagogy of deep listening—to oneself, to one’s workshop leader, and to every member of the collective—ensuring equal access to voice.” In a section on helping students develop mindfulness, Chavez writes: “In the midst of the workshop, I pause to remind students to tune into their bodies... A trip to the bathroom, a sip of water, and then they’re present again, more fully engaged in the art of listening. Of course it comes down to listening. Humility, at the heart of the connection.” After all, isn’t the key to learning a combination of humility and a readiness to listen? Instead of teaching students to compete—to seek to win—Chavez aims to help them learn to listen. To listen to each other and, even more, to their own hearts. “Listen Instead of Lecture” Under the Chavez model, the workshop leader is often silent. This, she writes, “benefits the workshop leader by allowing for deep listening, fostering a sense of connection to and deeper awareness of each and every student.” Later in her book, she addresses her faculty colleagues: “Workshop leaders, what might you learn if you invert hierarchy and listen instead of lecture? More to the point, what might your listening teach your workshop participants about their own inherent value as scholars, artists, and citizens?” Obviously, there is much the workshop leader must do to set the stage for students to learn how to listen and learn how to improve their writing in terms of craft and subject matter. The same is true for the teacher in any classroom. However, as Chavez is able to do with a creative writing workshop, a teacher at any level can find ways to encourage and train students to talk about who they are and what they want to learn—to help them get to the point of being eager to learn. Listening of some sort, it seems to me, is essential for a teacher, and that is the sort of approach that can turn a classroom from a regimented factory into a garden of discovery. Anti-racist and More Similarly, American society could benefit from this model.  Think of the last team meeting you were in, or the last committee meeting. How much did the leader listen? How much did the leader make each person feel welcome and elicit participation from each person? Yes, agendas need to be followed, and plans need to be made. But there is a top-down way of approaching such tasks, and then there’s the Chavez model of cooperation. And how many meetings have you attended in which there is one person or maybe many who want to “win” the meeting?  Who want to show power and preen and talk for the sake of talking? The approach that Chavez details in her book is anti-racist to the core. It aims to be inclusive and welcoming. Yet, it is more than a counter to racism. It’s a counter to bullying and oppression and derision, much of what ails America at this moment in its history. And it’s not a method that helps only people of color and those others on the margins of US society. It’s a method that enriches all participants, regarding to race or orientation or whatever. It is a more human method, a more humane method. It’s not about imposing control.  It’s about sharing control.  And isn’t that what democracy is? The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom is available at bookstores and through the Haymarket Books website.
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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).