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Program Development Workshop,
Friday, March 11, 2011 (2:00-5:00)

Facilitator: Deborah Mutnick, Long Island University

Dear Colleagues,

We look forward to seeing you March 9-11, 2011, in Commerce, Texas, at Writing Democracy: A Rhetoric of (T)here, and appreciate your interest and participation in the conference. In addition, we invite you to join us at the close of the conference from 2-5 p.m., Friday, March 11, for a program development workshop on next steps.  A reception will follow.

The primary workshop goal is to consider the possibilities for creating a national network or institute with both electronic and face-to-face meetings that could link existing local projects and give rise to new ones. Just as the FWP debated its purpose, methods, and goals during the Great Depression, we anticipate that any new formation will require a great deal of deliberation and debate to define its mission. We will propose the creation of a national consortium to affiliate local projects as a concrete step toward “the cultural rediscovery of America.” But it will be up to you first to determine the feasibility of a consortium and then, if there is interest, to help us flesh out the idea and begin to move forward.

As we were thinking through the conference theme and possible funding sources for a Federal Writers’ Project for the 21st century, we realized that a national infrastructure for such an endeavor already exists, at least, in part, in writing programs, service learning programs, and community literacy projects nationwide. These initiatives have already achieved a great deal, ranging from the establishment of community literacy centers to the rhetorical recovery of local histories and the publication of books authored by teenagers and other community members.

It was in light of this existing infrastructure that we began to imagine Writing Democracy not only as a three-day conference but also as a venue to bring together representatives from university and community groups across the country to discuss ways of working collaboratively as the federal writers did in the 1930s.  Interviewing ex-slaves, Native Americans whose languages were dying out, immigrants, and workers, the federal writers told everyday stories of unemployed farmers and laborers. They captured the ethos of a nation in the throes of crisis and change, creating the American Guide series and, more ambitiously, setting out “to introduce America to Americans” and redefine our national identity. What stories would define America today? How might we introduce America to Americans in the second decade of this tumultuous century? Could we employ a new cadre of ethnographers, oral historians, fiction writers, and journalists to document the realities we face locally and globally in 2011?

Central to the workshop discussion will be the following theoretical questions: How might a federation of local university-community projects contribute to (re)building a public sphere rooted in participatory democracy, a free press, intercultural inquiry, and enlightened discourse and debate? How might such a federation help us rediscover and redefine American identity in the 21st century? What fundamental aspects of our collective identity have changed in the 75 years since the Federal Writers’ Project undertook to write the American Guide series? What new voices have emerged? Which ones been silenced? How have shifts in the global balance of power, deindustrialization, accelerated global urbanization, ongoing worldwide economic crisis, climate change, and digital communications—to name just a few of the world’s transformations since the 1930s—affected our collective national identity? How might the local projects and the national consortium foster mutual respect and understanding among the diverse groups that together weave the fabric of American life? To what extent can local stories, made visible and organized by a national institute, begin to answer these questions? How would such writing enhance the goals of college composition instruction as well as enrich and inform local cultures? What contribution could we make as teachers and scholars to reinvigorating public discourse?  To rediscovering who we are as a people? And what material resources could be obtained to supplement tuition and provide additional income for students and unemployed writers?

We hope that you will join us at the workshop and that you will send us your thoughts beforehand—whether or not you can attend the workshop in person—about the prospects for moving forward with a national consortium. Does this idea seem worth pursuing to you?  What questions would you like to add to those we have raised?

Please let us know if you are able to attend the workshop so we have a sense of how many people to expect. We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours truly,

Deborah Mutnick, Professor of English, Long Island University

Shannon Carter, Associate Professor of English, Texas A&M University-Commerce

Susan Stewart, Associate Professor of English, Texas A&M University-Commerce