“Cultural Protection” and Working-Class Agency

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344912_Pauszek.jpgJessica Pauszek is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of Writing at Texas A&M University - Commerce. She is a co-editor of Parlor Press' Best of Independent Journals in Rhetoric and Composition series and Working and Writing for Change. She is also the Director of New City Community Press. Her work explores community literacy practices in connection to labor and class identity, using archival and interview methods. 


Vincent Portillo is a University Fellow and a PhD candidate at Syracuse University in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric. His research interests include standardized English, ableism, and labor. He is completing his dissertation, which is an archival project on the history of the Ford English School (1914-1919) at Ford Motors. Vincent is the Consulting Editor and Project Profile Editor for Community Literacy Journal.


Note from Steve Parks: Over these next months, I hope to expand the voices who speak about their community partnership/social justice work. To that end, I have invited Vincent Portillo and Jessica Pauszek to talk about their work with the FED to preserve the publications of Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. In this short essay, they build on themes of writing communities, engaged partnerships, and course/program design to discuss a community literacy-archival project showing what can be gained through community collaboration and preservation.

In doing so, they remind us of the importance of community-led projects, the insights students can gain, and the role of archives in preserving the powerful voices of working-class writers.


Preserving Working-Class Voices in the Archive and in the Classroom

In a moment filled with tensions surrounding race, class, gender, and nationalist politics, we argue for the importance of representing/preserving inclusive histories of working-class writing communities, both for students and for the working-class writers themselves.


The FWWCP Archival Project began with the goal of preserving writing produced by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, an organization founded in London in 1976. Once told their working-class writing had “no solid literary merit,” founding FWWCP member Roger Mills noted, “We wrote despite people sneering at us, and we created a community.” This community became the “FED,” a network of local, working-class, writing/publishing groups. Throughout its 40+ year tenure, the network expanded to over 100 writing groups across four continents. At the core, the FED was committed to producing social change for disenfranchised working-class writers. Through the FED, members fostered a collective vision of working-class expertise, literacy, and agency. They navigated issues of immigration, language differences, changing economies, social unrest, and identity politics; they challenged a white/male working-class base, pushing the FED to redefine working-class as an intersectional community representing immigrant, women, LGBTQ, and ethnic, and non-English writers.   


The FWWCP Collection - Collaboration in the Archive

With the help of students and other sponsors, community members have developed an archive of FED pub.... Today, the FWWCP Collection is housed in the Trades Union Congress Library (TUC) at London Metropolitan University. The Collection has been brought together through the collective energy of FWWCP/FED members, interdisciplinary scholars, filmmakers, artists, librarians, archivists, undergraduate, and graduate students. (Read more on students’ work here and here.) Throughout, community members and project partners have been gathering publications from under beds, basements, garages; finding a site to house the publications; sorting, indexing, and boxing publications; and finally, this summer, developing reading guides for use with the Collection.


The preservation work is incredibly valuable to members of the FWWCP/FED community. Member George Fuller describes the Collection as a form of “cultural protection.” Aligning with the TUC Library enables the FED to be seen as “not just as a hobby, but . . . as a strong source of power.” Roger Mills describes the need to carry out this cultural protection as a collaborative effort: “[The FED] needed some sort of energy, someone from the outside to say come on, get it together, pull this stuff together physically....Although everyone in the federation valued it immensely...it was lying unrecorded.” Through collaboration, FED writing is now preserved for community groups and university courses to explore intersectional understandings of working-class identity, community-led education, vernacular literacies, and more.


Students and the FWWCP Archive - Learning in Community

Collaborative preservation informs our approach and the design of our writing courses. Since 2015, Syracuse University Study Abroad has hosted a Civic Writing course connected to the FWWCP/FED. The course uses FED texts to engage students in a conversation about the goals of “civic” life. We read social and political history of England, theories about literacy, civic engagement, and social change, which helped us consider the impact of FED groups. Further, we attended FED writing workshops with some foundational groups in the greater London area, including Newham, Stevenage, and the East End.


Student Ana Gonzalez described her connection to FED writing and social justice: “[Many FED texts] shared the theme of dealing with and overcoming oppression in day to day life. Most authors that I read were Black and their feelings of isolation and self-doubt in a society that is predominantly White made their words relatable for me.” Other students echoed a felt need for preservation of FED writing. After reading LGBTQ members’ accounts, Michelle Tiburcio wrote, "Preserving works like these can help other people – maybe future students – feel represented and not alone.” The work was also valuable to our archivists and librarian students. For example, Andria Olson describes literacy as a human experience. She noted, “[Literacy] is not bound by the walls of an institution but rather by a lifetime of experience in resourcefulness, determination, and overcoming adversity.” The Collection showcases how marginalized communities can, and certainly have, developed rhetorical spaces to give voice to their struggles, working toward a more inclusive and just vision of writing in community. Further, this community literacy project pushes students to consider how we might value vernacular literacies, knowledges, and “ordinary” lived experience. As we see from student testimony, community literacy belongs in the classroom.


The FWWCP Collection contains numerous English and multilingual publications that explore class, food, gender, mental health, race, sexuality, war, work. You can learn more by visiting the TUC Library. The FWWCP/FED is also on Instagram (fwwcp_collection) and has a Digital Collection.

About the Author
Steve Parks is an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University. He has spent the past twenty years forming community based partnerships, publications, and pedagogies in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Middle East. For more information, visit: stephenjparks.com.