Writing to inspire social change

“My primary goal is to help students see how their individual welfare is connected to the welfare of the communities that matter to them, (how) it is in their self interest to work for the benefit of the community and that writing and rhetoric offer powerful means for achieving their individual career goals and for building stronger communities,” Paul Feigenbaum said Thursday.
Feigenbaum, assistant professor of English at Florida International University, and Paula Mathieu, director of the first year writing program at Boston College, will speak at an upcoming conference on community writing at University of Colorado Boulder, and first lectured at an English function titled “Writing for a Social Change” at Wheaton. They encouraged students to consider writing as a platform to create social change.
Feigenbaum spoke on cultivating and sustaining networks through engaged writing. “When it comes to social change, how much does writing matter?” Feigenbaum asked at the beginning of his lecture.
“Today, we are lucky that there are more opportunities than ever before to make writing matter. Nevertheless, rarely does writing matter automatically. People have to dedicate themselves to making writing matter through an ongoing process,” Feigenbaum continued.
He emphasized that if people seek to make a difference through their writing, especially through blogs, tweets and other online media, their participation must extend beyond singular activities. Otherwise, writing’s power to create social change is limited.
As a graduate student, Feigenbaum taught a course on documentative writing. In his course, he gave students as much autonomy over their writing research projects as possible because he felt greater student investment and passion would occur as a result. During the course, students would pick an issue, carefully think about it and then formulate an argument establishing the issue’s importance. Next they would provide explanations for what should be done in response.
In a majority of the cases, Feigenbaum found that students were not actually participating in the efforts they were advocating for.
“They were basically calling on other people to do the work for them. To me this raised issues about credibility,” Feigenbaum said. “Why should anyone work to make social change on an issue when the person advocating change isn’t doing the work themselves?”
Following Feigenbaum’s lecture, Mathieu spoke on qualities for creating mindful writing partnerships. “The really simple truths about writing are often the ones that I need to learn over and over again,” she said.
Mathieu stressed that one should regard writing as a partnership. “The problem is none of us ever write alone even when we want to.
Referencing Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Mathieu reminded audience members that we all walk around with unwanted voices in our heads, whether negative or positive. Regardless of the voices, she encouraged the audience to approach writing as a medium that addresses important matters of active social change in a way that is healthy.
Mathieu also suggested that finding people who are already doing something that you care about is the key to the next step beyond writing. Change is not just the words on the page. Rather, it is actually doing something, which includes engaging the mind in the present.
“The best gift you can give another person is to be fully present. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, non-judgmentally. We want to be in the moment, but there are many things pulling us a million directions all the time,” Mathieu explained.
Following the lectures, students asked Feigenbaum and Mathieu more about the meaning of mindfulness and writing as a position of power.
From Oct. 16-17, Feigenbaum will speak on community literacy and Mathieu will speak on poverty, homelessness and prisons at the conference on community writing at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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