The Power of Writing Groups for Women of Color – WOC Guest Post

~I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Andrea Hernandez Holm, PhD. Dr. Hernandez Holm is the Program Coordinator for the Writing Skills Improvement Program at the University of Arizona. She is a writing specialist and provides tutoring, teaching, and editing to writers both inside and outside of the university. Andrea facilitates the People of Color Writing Groups, a project that has been supported by the UA Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the UA Commission on the Status of Women. The most rewarding part of her job is the time she spends working directly with students and clients, supporting their development as writers and helping them to claim their voices. Andrea has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, tutor, editor, and writing consultant. She is also a published researcher, essayist, and poet. Her research focuses on the ways that identities intersect with writing, particularly among women in the Borderlands.~

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Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the anger, the strengths of a woman under triple or quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. A woman with power is feared.

What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.—Alice Walker. I have never seen so much power in the ability to move and transform others as from that of the writing of women on color. (Gloria Anzaldúa)

One morning, a student in a writing group I facilitate asked if she could close the meeting by reading a selection from Gloria Anzaldúa’s essay “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.” Anzaldua is a foundational theorist in Chicanx and Mexican American Studies, widely recognized for her contributions surrounding identity, including her discussions about the power of language and writing for women. I am familiar with her work, but guessed it would be new to the other members of the group, who study in areas within Education, Natural Resources, and Latin American Studies. But as the student read the excerpt above, I noticed gentle smiles forming and heads bobbing in agreement. It was clear that Anzaldúa’s words resonated with them.

Among the women of color graduate students I have worked with in my role as a writing specialist at my university, many have been searching for a space to process issues that are subsequently affecting their writing. Through course papers, theses, and dissertation projects, they are developing their voices as scholars while making space in the academy for the important issues they research. Yet, most do not experience writing as empowering. They struggle with concerns that their writing isn’t “good enough” and that their voices don’t matter.

These concerns are grounded in experiences that include being told their writing is not university material, their use of language is non-academic, their topics are not rigorous, and on. While many students struggle under similar circumstances, it is important that we recognize that these issues are often compounded for people of color by micro- and macro-aggressions related to race. Under this type of pressure, persistence toward degree completion is often a daily struggle.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, people of color are the fastest growing student populations in higher education, but have a low percentage completion. In the 2013-14 academic year, among the doctoral degrees earned, 6% were by Hispanic students; 7% were by African American students; and 11% by Asian American students, compared to 62% by White students. And in Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education (2013), scholars point out that statistical information about Native American students in higher education is often absent from research altogether.

As a first-generation college graduate and one of an estimated 3% of Hispanic-identified women to earn a doctorate, I share many of these experiences and understand how they can weigh a person down, slow their progress, and sometimes even stop it all together. Folks in academia have asked when I learned English. I have been asked if I have connections in the South (i.e. Mexico) to get quality marijuana. I have been called a hot and/or hot-tempered Latina innumerable time. In addition to being generally humiliating, these types of encounters have pushed me to consider leaving academia. It has been through the support of community, most often women of color, that I have persisted.

In “Writing as Mentoring and Empowerment,” Flint, Manas, and Serra argue that writing groups can serve as a strategy to respond to institutional challenges by creating a space where women of color can develop writing fluency, process experiences, and grow cross-discipline and cross-cultural relationships with other women in the academy. I wondered if our writing support program could facilitate such a group. In our existing individual and small group tutoring sessions, our goal was to improve facility in academic English (i.e. grammar, style, organization, and content development). I proposed to add the level of community building specifically for women of color.

When I advertised the organization of one group for master’s students in 2016, I was shocked at the outpouring of interest. Over twenty master’s and doctoral students responded within the first week for a group with four seats. Since then, we have developed 12 multidisciplinary, multi-cultural groups, and the requests to join a group for people of color is consistent. Our groups offer facilitated non-evaluative peer tutoring, but we also intentionally make space for students to build relationships, share their experiences, and lend their support to one another.

I ask students to complete evaluations at the end of each academic semester and from their feedback, garner that the groups have been effective in helping to increase writing skills and confidence. Several students have successfully completed their academic programs, and no students have left the academy. However, for me, the greatest successes show themselves during our group meetings, where I witness students offering one another feedback, concrete advice, and resources for both their writing and their general experiences on campus. It’s beyond commiserating about obstacles– they are forming a network of support and resources that help them to process what is happening and to move forward.

Not long ago, I found one of those “You should be writing” memes on the internet. In it, Gloria Anzaldúa stands confidently, seeming to look out of the frame and directly at me. I hear her say, “A woman who writes has power.” I printed it and taped it to my office door, under my nameplate and next to my placard declaring that I am a First Generation university graduate. I see it every time I enter my office and I smile. It is a reminder for me and my students that our words are important and our voices matter.


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