Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Writing for Social Justice



You don't write because you want to say something; you write because you've got something
to say.


The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is- it’s to imagine what is possible.


How can one not speak about war, poverty, and inequality when people who suffer from these afflictions don't have a voice to speak?

One of the most powerful types of persuasive writing, in my opinion, is writing for social change. As with personal journaling, it is likely one of the most common types of writing, because as the eminent American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, “you write because you have something to say.”
  
And who doesn’t have something to say?  The average person doesn’t translate their thoughts and opinions on social issues into fiction or lengthy nonfiction narratives. But they do write letters to the editor or respond to editorials and features in periodicals and online journals, or to television newscasts and op-ed shows with telephone calls and social media. This illuminates the importance of literacy in society. Writing to foster and encourage improvement in the world affirms our individual humanity and our place in the circle of life.

And writing for change is a good way to hook young students on persuasive writing. Years ago, I did a long-term sub as an English teacher in a charter school whose students were mostly unsuccessful in larger public schools and were taking a go at computer-based education in smaller classrooms. Whether they held liberal or conservative opinions, they loved the English Comp unit in which they chose a recipient for a letter about any social justice issue large or small that they then had to write, edit, sign, and mail. There wasn’t a single student who fluffed off on the assignment.

There are a variety of issues that affect most people, if not everyone on our small planet:  ongoing problems with the world’s petroleum-based economy, terrorism, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, and environmental degradation. These issues merit perennial attention, comment, and action. And sometimes these diverse issues are inextricably linked in amazing ways!

In the US, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in civil rights as neo-conservative and a few neo-liberal politicians, especially in the Republican-controlled Congress or Republican-controlled states, attempt to roll back the clock on hard-fought and already settled policies affecting women, especially in regard to abortion and birth control. Other hot-button issues of the day are voter registration and voting ID issues, self-defense / firearm laws that sometimes lead to the questionable deaths of young people people of color, poverty and minimum wage reform; police brutality and community policing issues; and Middle Eastern politics, especially relating to the recent declaration of war on the West by the Islamic State.

An issue that surfaces periodically in American affairs but is coming to a head due to its inextricable connections with civil rights, racism, and questionable self-defense laws, is police overuse of force, as well as citizen abuse of U.S. self-defense laws. We’re seeing many cases popping up like bad dreams across the USA, as tensions mount in response to shooting deaths by police or citizens of young people of color. One of the most controversial cases in recent weeks is the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a case that brought thousands of people and the mainstream media to the streets of this small community. The spotlight remains bright there as a grand jury deliberates whether or not to charge Officer Wilson with responsbility in the homicide. As I write and edit this essay, a jury in Jacksonville, FL is hearing the final arguments in the retrial of against Michael Dunn, the infamous white shooter of a black teen. Self-defense or irresponsible action with underlying racism and anger? [Note: Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of teenager Jordan Davis on Wednesday, October 1, 2014.]

Certainly the police use of force issue isn’t restricted to minority communities, for there are high-profile cases across the country that involve women and children and white victims. One case that brought a flurry of writing and activism in my neck of the woods is the police beating of white, homeless, thirty-eight-year-old Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, California in 2011. The killing, completely captured on video, stimulated my writing ire because of the particularly brutal actions by three officers and the negligence of three others. It was difficult to accept that it took a full year to arrest two officers and terminate their employment and even harder to accept the not guilty verdict in January 2014.

There are a host of other issues that capture my attention, but I’m particularly vocal, or should I say prone to set my opinions to writing, in response to social justice and civil rights cases. I’ve written many a letter to the editor of newspapers, as well as letters to police chiefs, presidents and prime ministers of nations, heads of corporations,  and to my city, state, and local representatives.

My writing process is simple: experience concern or outrage in response to an issue or the news of the day, sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and mentally work it out into a coherent letter or essay. I could say more specific things about this genre, but writing for social justice is as natural as thinking or speaking, and it’s easy to find your voice for this purpose. All it takes is a lotta heart, a desire to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, a commitment to create the highest and best circumstances for all, and some attention to writing organization and detail.

Here are some resources and sites of interest for emerging and expert writers, and for writing teachers and students:











Photos February 2014, 5000 Angelenos for Kelly