“How do we define ‘professional?'” It was the warm-up question for a social justice workshop I am currently a part of. The answers ranged from clothing to conversation to language used in a workplace or to be eligible to enter a workplace. Most of us, people of color, talked about code-switching. Someone initiated a conversation about tattoos on Black men. I talked about needing to tame my hair when I was a child. Of course institutions came up—most of us grew up not knowing what happens behind institutional doors. We were told authority was and is to be respected, not questioned. We were raised to be a model minority, understand and adjust according to the system you want to walk into. Work harder than most other people; speak only when spoken to.

In her book The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Haymarket Books), educator and poet Felicia Rose Chavez zooms in on the culture inside writing degree classrooms and her personal experiences “surviving” the institution. She draws critique from her time at schools, particularly the Iowa Writing MFA. In the introduction she says, “The implicit imperative for people of color in MFA programs is to write but not to exercise voice.” When the culture is to sit silently while others critique your writing, she dares to ask, “Who does this pedagogy actually serve?” and “Why do people of color need to be protected from it?” Not represented, not included—protected.

2020 was nothing if not a year of reckoning. In the last year, when most educational institutions spent time reckoning with harm being done inside their systems, most of them looked to representation as an answer, representation as a way to draw more people of color in. Only, it was representation without systems of support. What are these systems of support? How does one build them?

Part memoir, part syllabus, mostly intervention, Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop advocates for dismantling by creating parallely. Chavez is an award-winning educator with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Last year, she also coedited The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT with Willie Perdomo and José Olivarez. Chavez’s teaching career began in Chicago, where she served as program director at Young Chicago Authors and founded GirlSpeak, a feminist webzine for high school students. Originally from Albuquerque, she currently serves as the creativity and innovation scholar-in-residence at Colorado College.

In the preface, Chavez invokes June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, a collective at UC Berkeley, designed to understand poetry and power simultaneously, a blueprint with step-by-step instructions on how to build community through classrooms. Jordan believed in confronting politics through the personal—in her classroom, students were encouraged to take from their own lived experiences to create emotionally impactful work and take up space in a society that denies them that. Poems were not only villanelles and sonnets, they were also a response to the murder of a fellow Chinese immigrant whose murderers walked free; also a response to a mother who was suddenly illiterate in this country where she spoke three languages but no English.

Following in Jordan’s footsteps, Chavez’s experimental memoir is a step-by-step guide of how to decenter whiteness in pedagogy. She is advocating for a pedagogy of deep listening and unlearning white-centric definitions of craft. The book outlines concrete and accessible steps to do that. “People of color need a collaborative artistic community to which they belong and feel safe; they need it but don’t always know how to ask for it and are often unaware that alternatives exist.”

Spanning from initial course planning to final critique criteria, Chavez makes it clear that what works for white students to feel safe to pick up a pen and write is not what works for students of color. With triggered questions and check-ins, she is examining how we build a space to create, intentionally for writers for color. In a stunning prep chapter, she asks professors to stop using the word “master” in syllabi to not conflate master with “expert,” especially to people whose histories include slavery, colonialism, and complete erasure of language and eradication of self and culture at the hands of whiteness.

For a system set in stone for centuries now, it is hard to fathom how one changes it. But Chavez speaks out clear and loud: It is not that hard, if you want to do it. Build a syllabi together with multicultural and multilingual texts. Build a vocabulary for aesthetic preference for students, flattening the hierarchy in the classroom. Collectively define craft concepts. Are classes respecting context? What gets called craft and what doesn’t? What invites a student to choose a class? What do they eventually end up writing about and what does it do to their body, if voices of color are valued for their trauma but not for their voices? How do you teach a person to feel their body? How do you teach a person to hold space, and give them agency to also take up space?

At the end of the day, the idea is to build a system where people matter more than the standards. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop invites a conversation instead of posturing diversity. Chavez talks about mentorships that are about love and care. The book asks the literary canon to reevaluate who we value, what we aspire to be, what we prize in our faculties. It implicates all of us, triggers all our conditioning. I find myself asking, What validation am I looking for and why? Didn’t I also spend most of my life trying to be the smartest person in the room? What would have emerged, if I was able to stop contorting myself to fit the institution? Who would I be? What kind of writing would I be doing, if my classes worked on dismantling my ego and I didn’t have a zero sum game idea of what progress can be?

In 2020, the Poetry Foundation had to reckon with its history with systemic racism. The staff made textbook statements about “recognizing that there is much work to be done” and that they are committed to “engaging in this work,” while acknowledging that “real change takes time and dedication.” The Poetry Foundation hasn’t initiated a conversation about reallocating its $257 million endowment fund. Even as the Poetry Foundation and MFA programs have implemented community engagement initiatives and brought in more poets of color, the work has more or less been optics-oriented rather than meaningful. It’s a familiar story in academic and literary institutions across the city. While it takes time to change from the ground up, institutions are choosing to put faces up in the name of representation while the leadership and institutional values remain the same.

Chavez ends the book with a letter. She says there is a police van outside her house. She outlines how her husband took photos of the van and posted on their social media. How her son wanted to know if the police could do anything if they did nothing wrong. Throughout the book, while Chavez outlines steps and community building, there is a parallel reality going on. She bares her life while she asks her students to as well, dismantling hierarchy. There is devastating racism in this country. People of color do these things everyday to protect themselves. There is always fear. Always risk. “What do our bodies do with all that we don’t say? Men dead, endless assault by white supremacy? Do we bow our heads, swallow our scream? What we know and don’t allow ourselves to feel.” Shouldn’t writing workshops be spaces to hold that? At their most authentic, life outside the classroom should guide what emerges in them.

In an ideal world, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop would be read out loud, distributed in classrooms, passed between teachers. I visualise students emerging with full voices and clear demands for what they want their institutions to be. And writing authentically would not be labeled “brave” or “courageous” or come with risks of being labeled “radical” or “aggressively activist,” but would be encouraged as the norm.   v