Coalitional Refusals: Transformative Justice Beyond Repair


In Jordan Peele’s sci-fi/UFO film Nope (2022), film industry horse handler and Black man, OJ Haywood, notices one night that the lights and sprinklers in his ranch’s indoor arena have been mysteriously turned on. He turns them off and begins to walk away when, to his surprise, the sprinklers turn on again. When he realizes someone–something–is hiding in the arena, he considers going back to investigate, but changes his mind. “Nope, nope, nope,” he says, shaking his head and walking away.

Such “nope” moments, which occur throughout the film, appear to be secondary to the plot. But, they nonetheless forward one of the film’s most important rhetorical questions: Why should Black people risk their lives to save the world? Unlike in a typical sci-fi film in which protagonists might feel compelled to fight aliens to save humankind, in Nope, neither OJ nor his sister Em have any interest in saving anyone. This is why, rather than notifying any state or government officials of a possible alien invasion, OJ and Em instead work to secure video proof of UFOs they can sell to save their family’s ranch from bankruptcy. “Nope” is a political refusal, a resistance act that rejects white futurity and refuses the abstract “happy talk” (Ahmed 10) of inclusionary paradigms that suggest “we are all in this together” (even when “we” are not).

Inspired by Nope, Pritha and her colleagues Alexis McGee and Louis M. Maraj proposed a panel for the 2023 Conference on College Composition (CCCC) originally entitled “Doing Nope: Surviving Anti/Racism in the University” (an implied critique of the conference’s theme of “Doing Hope”). The panel sought to highlight the “harmful, divisive, and dangerous strategies” institutions embrace to “appear equitable and just.” How, they asked, can we do our jobs as unwarranted attention “force[s] BIPOC into the rigged spotlights of our institutions and disciplines? How do we cultivate ‘hope’ while making space for ‘nope’” (Maraj et al.)? Each presentation on the panel featured moments of “doing nope” via personal narrative, from refusing technologies of anti-Black surveillance in the academy in the Zoom era, to unsettling white institutional apologies, to highlighting gossip as a Black feminist rhetoric of resistance and survival. But when the three presenters arrived at CCCC in February 2023, they were surprised to find that the program had listed their panel as “Doing Hope” instead of “Doing Nope.” The program had also classified them, without their prior knowledge or consent, as a “featured” panel that would be live-streamed and recorded. Ironically, CCCC organizers had not only forced Pritha, Lexi, and Lou into the very same “rigged spotlight” their panel critiques, but they had also–in their efforts to highlight hopeful visions of social justice–failed to consider the material risks of livestreaming/recording three BIPOC junior scholars sharing personal narratives of institutional racism at the field’s largest professional conference. 

Such “performance culture” (Ahmed 85) supports institutional norms of diversity and inclusion and forecloses possibilities for refusal–for “nope.” In valorizing romanticized notions of “performative solidarity” (Cohen), this paradigm disavows the messier questions that surround coalition-building: How does the disciplinary embrace of “social justice” (Walton et al.; Carter et al.) and the “rigged spotlight” it entails for multiply-marginalized folx complicate or foreclose possibilities for coalition-building? When do we make space for enthusiastic moves articulating solidarity across power differences to be refused? What if coalition isn’t just about what we welcome in, but also what we intentionally keep out–for protection, for survival, for transformative justice beyond/outside the academy?

As we consider these questions, we might also think of the CCCC’s 2024 conference theme of “Writing Abundance.” Citing Candace Fujikane’s work on “Indigenous economies of abundance” as a refusal of capitalist logics of scarcity, the CFP calls for “tak[ing] stock of the growth we have seen in this organization” as a “result of the abundant and ongoing work of BIPOC scholars” (CCCC). While the CFP seeks to legitimately, meaningfully center and celebrate the intellectual and resistance labor of multiply marginalized communities, how might uncritical narratives of abundance still support colonial and carceral narratives of extraction that regard “the labor/knowledges of disabled, queer, (and) people of color as an endless resource” and delimit possibilities for “respectful and reciprocal” relationships (Cedillo et al.)? Can refusal to engage in “inclusion,” to support abundance rhetorics, or to mobilize our knowledges as multiply-marginalized folx to support institutional “social justice,” lead to coalition-building?

In this essay, we offer “coalitional refusal” to describe coalition-building based in abolitionist, transformative justice (brown, We Will Not; Hassan; Page and Woodland). Though Leslie D. Gonzales and Heather Shotton describe coalitional refusal as the building of coalition “by refusing the impositions of a neoliberal university” (549), we expand how we think about the uses of refusal in/for/towards coalition. In working outside of the dialectics of abundance vs. scarcity, inclusion vs. exclusion, and presence vs. absence that typically dominate academic theorizing, coalitional refusal presents an alternative to the liberal-multicultural models of “recognition” that are too often narrowly focused on belonging within the dominant. 

Refusal, we argue, offers us an alternative. As Audra Simpson argues, refusal goes beyond belonging-based frameworks by raising “the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing: What is their authority to do so? Where does it come from?” (11). Refusal “involves an ethnographic calculus of what you need to know and what I refuse to write” (Simpson 105). It is necessary in the face of dispossession, whiteness’s “skewed authoritative axis,” and the ongoing role of “writing and analysis” in forwarding logics of imperialism via “discursive containment” (Simpson 105). Extending Simpson, we offer coalitional refusal in this essay as a kind of political act that, in not purporting to present “everything” (Simpson 105), critically questions the limits of “togetherness” in coalition’s “togetherness-in-difference” (Mao 100). Is there space for an understanding of coalition that not only maintains, but also values, when necessary, the power of purposeful disengagementthe “turning point” (Chávez 9) of a coalitional moment as turning away rather than turning towards? How do we recognize when “a coming together, or a juncture, for some sort of change” (Chávez 9) is not possible? Even as rhetorical and cultural studies scholars imagine what sustainable models for coalition might look like (Hubrig; Jackson and Cedillo; Hatrick; Licona and Gonzales; Reyes; Yam), what happens when the answer is, simply, nope? In what follows, we identify and discuss key trends in rhetoric and composition’s dominant approaches to “scholarship-activism” that highlight the necessity for coalitional refusal as a legitimate, and often vital, form of political engagement.

Re/Defining Coalition and Coalitional Refusals

Calls for refusal as a coalitional gesture have long been part of scholarly work on activist/academic collaboration, although remarkably, much of the foundational critical work explicitly interrogating the ethics and political implications of “scholarship-activism” has occurred outside of rhetoric and composition studies proper. In her foundational 1993 essay, “Public Enemies and Private Intellectuals,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore identifies four tendencies in “oppositional studies”: 1) individualistic careerism; 2) romantic particularism; 3) luxury production; and 4) organic praxis (72-73). For Gilmore, only organic praxis can reject the careerist, particularist, and luxe modes of “displac[ing] needed energy from where it is most needed” (73), and meaningfully interrogate relations between/among institutions, laborers, activists, and material and embodied violences across geographic and cultural spaces.

Scholars’ mere presence and participation within institutions that depend upon continued external support from state and corporate actors, however, fundamentally call into question whether transformative or radical “oppositional studies” are even possible within the university. Because institutions of higher education often exercise and support carceral and militarized power through rhetorics of “diversity” and “equity” themselves, the mandate of academic theorizing to keep scholarship “‘objective” (mystifying), ‘nonpolitical’ (nonsubversive), and ‘academic’ (elitist)” will never enable the academic mainstream to produce a revolutionary or radical practice (James and Gordon). As Julia C. Oparah notes, the “academic-military-industrial complex” fosters “an interdependent and mutually constitutive alliance whereby corporate priorities and cultures, including the intellectual needs of the military-industrial complex, increasingly shape the face of academia” (101). In this system, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) rhetorics “provide much needed moral capital because of their association with progressive values,”–an illustration of the “dangerous complicities implicit in our attempts to carve out sites of resistance from within the neoliberal university” (Oparah 101). Joy James and Edmund T. Gordon therefore prefer “radical subject” to the notion of “scholar-activist,” arguing that radical subjects do not primarily concern themselves with coherence in the academic arena, but instead “suggest a coherence shaped by political literacy emanating from communities confronting crisis and conflict” (James and Gordon 371). Oppositional, radical subjectivity requires a complex attunement to the material, the local, and the immediate, rather than an emphasis on the global thinking and abstraction that characterizes scholarly knowledge-production in the university. 

We argue that it is this “radical subjectivity” that is too often missing from dominant methodological trends in rhetoric and composition studies. Some rhetorical studies scholars, for example, too-optimistically identify inductive methods like grounded theory as “decolonial” for how they ostensibly assist analysts in avoiding biases and emphasize “respect for participants, humility, flexibility, and reflexivity in data gathering and analysis” (Dorpenyo 72). While we appreciate these general aims, such methods still typically valorize and work in service of the same forms of abstraction, researcher individualism, and “luxury production” that Gilmore critiques. Even in aspiring to construct knowledge “from below” (Dorpenyo 72), they prioritize upward theorizing (James and Gordon 371) and the researcher’s own epistemic orientation and self-reflexivity. 

In a 2020 article on the potentials of grounded theory for “social justice research and critical inquiry in the public sphere,” for instance, Kathy Charmaz discusses reflections from qualitative researchers on their experiences using grounded theory. One researcher, Kapriskie Seide, discusses her work on issues of the social construction of health and health equity in Haiti: “I was in Haiti with no school, no advisor, no computer, no office, and no choice but to face my participants, whose words savagely slapped me into seeing my inadequate attachment to ‘data’ and shook me to overcome my own parochialism” (Seide qtd. in Charmaz 166). Even though Seide herself emigrated from Haiti, she notes how she nonetheless “saw the world from the perspective of an American and could not be trusted to decipher the subtleties of their lives without help.” Seide then goes on to praise the “flexibility and social astuteness” (Seide qtd. in Charmaz 166) of grounded theory as a method, as well as its requirement that researchers “travel between research and practice” (Seide qtd. in Charmaz 167). Charmaz thus concludes that grounded theory can “move researchers to develop theoretical categories that situate their participants’ lives within larger social and political structures” and show “where, why, and how change can occur in their respective public spheres” (174). 

Note how Seide’s insightful reflections on the potentials of grounded theory to provide nuanced understandings of social justice issues still replicate logics of colonialism and extraction. Seide, though a kind of insider-outsider as a Haitian researcher working for a U.S. university, reads her research participants and the “data” collected as unruly, uncomfortable, even “savage.” While she does reflect upon her distrust of her positionality, she suggests that this distrust might still be successfully overcome with the “help” of her research participants, or through the act of iteratively “traveling” between “research and practice”–the former located in the realm of the academy, with the latter confined to the presumed wildness and unruliness of the “data.” Charmaz’s conclusion that grounded theory can “move researchers to develop theoretical categories” to imagine “change” in “their respective public spheres,” then, again recenters “coherence in the academic arena” (James and Gordon 371) as the ultimate goal of grounded theory. Even though Charmaz and Seide’s methodological reflections emphasize a nuanced commitment to rejecting objectivism, to what extent might such in/abductive methods reinforce capitalist, colonial visions of research participants and the “data” they yield as endless assets for intellectual and academic knowledge-making? Even as the field calls for “reciprocity” in research across power differentials (Powell and Takayoshi; Middleton et al.; Brady; Santiago-Ortiz), when does reciprocity and its focus on mutual benefit become yet another way the academy reasserts itself into the center of “social justice” work? Opposition in the form of refusal, we argue, can offer a key pathway towards a critical, embodied approach to coalition.

Indeed, our field still lacks sufficient tools to pursue accountability, address harm, and do the “constant work” of coalition without falling back on the same carceral logics and histories that have necessitated these struggles to begin with: “social justice” scholarship that works to support the university’s narratives of “imperial benevolence” (Durazo 190); “diversity” initiatives masking the university’s historical complicity with technologies of state and military surveillance[1] ; and ongoing efforts to fold the rhetorics and platforms of radical resistance movements into the institutional lexicon via the perpetual creation of DEI committees, task forces, and institutional policy statements (Ahmed; Ferguson, We Demand; Prasad). Often, this work takes the place of actually challenging (and working with students to challenge) the systems of control and surveillance that structure our classrooms (Kynard, “This Bridge”), and police and censor students and faculty (Chatterjee and Maira 5). This means, of course, that we keep needing those committees, task forces, and policy statements, since the field has not actually addressed the conditions that create the need for them.

To articulate a mode for coalitional practice that centers radical subjectivity and the “fragmented self” James and Gordon discuss, we argue that a return to embodied, material understandings of coalition is necessary. In particular, we, like Christina Cedillo, call for understandings of critical embodiment that use and rely on embodied knowledge and a critical view of how embodied experience is structured and created to help us “contest the conditions that create exclusion.” Activist-engaged rhetorical scholars should work towards coalitions that model transformative justice–not reforms to a discipline, university, or scholarship that are still working in the same exclusionary ways they were designed, and which keep their power through systems of punishment that are built on the same carceral logics that many Black and women of color feminist, trans, and disabled activists and scholars have long critiqued. 

Marquis Bey, in fact, argues that this kind of practiced undoing and constant renegotiation is core to what coalition must be; that the “undoing” of coalitions can itself operate as an articulation of coalition (208). This type of refusal–a “refusing to succumb to circumscripts” tethered merely to “positional identities” (Bey 207)–can enable us to imagine alternative futures for justice work. This coalitional refusal, for Bey, is a “refusing to leave while refusing to let here” (207). In this way, we might understand coalitional refusal as a temporally specific and materially situated practice. If, for example, the resources available for “coalitional” work now and here do not enable an “organic praxis” (Gilmore) or “radical subjectivity” (James and Gordon), the act of undoing or turning away may itself be, as Maria Lugones writes of coalition, the “horizon that rearranges both our possibilities and the conditions of those responsibilities” (ix).

Furthermore, an inability to meaningfully address harm outside of punitive models makes us rigid–unable to address coalitional tensions, changing needs, and harm when it happens. This is a problem of practice, but it is also an indicator that we don’t actually understand coalition as founded in linked struggle. Fred Moten, for example, argues that coalition is not “a maneuver that always gets traced back to your own interests.” It emerges “out of a recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us . . . I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly” (qtd. in Harney and Moten 140-141). This kind of understanding of struggles as linked doesn’t just require a systemic analysis; it actually requires a deep attention to embodied experience—to our own subjectivities. That is, we must–as we might also learn from many recent and historic student-led movements–foreground joint struggle in our moves towards coalition (Hitchcock 94). Moten, here, relies on a model of coalition that emphasizes material realities and embodied experience; coalitional work, then, would ask us to research and write (or, sometimes, not research and write) from a central understanding of one’s own positionality and how that positionality is tied up in systems. 

Thinking about coalition like Lugones, Harney and Moten, Bey, and others asks us to reframe how we might think about terms like “reciprocity” that typically structure activist-engaged research, scholarship-activism, and community partnerships. At present, rhetoric and composition’s understandings of these concepts remain underdeveloped. For example, Katrina M. Powell and Pamela Takayoshi note the limits of “reciprocity” as methodologically determined, preferring instead to highlight reciprocity as an ethical framework. Too often, they argue, researchers create and assign predetermined roles for research participants rather than building genuine, “quality” relationships in which research participants “should be allowed to construct roles for themselves and us in the same way we construct roles for them” (398). Ellen Cushman, however, in her 2004 response, rightly critiques Powell and Takayoshi’s romantic suggestion that reciprocity and collaboration might actually level asymmetrical power relations, particularly through the type of self-reflection they model in their essay. Researcher self-reflection, Cushman writes, can not only overpower participants’ lived realities and literacy practices, but it can also become a “performance of exotic moments of trial, distress, or anxiety” and a sensationalization of “tense moments or researchers’ personal lives” (152).

Consider, for example, the common practice across academia, popular culture, and politics of simply listing one’s demographic characteristics to mark positionality. Phrases like “I recognize my privilege as a white, cisgender, heterosexual white man in discussions of race and racism,” which are often deployed as gestures to mitigate racial anxiety or tension, can be weaponized to relieve oneself from the responsibility of delimiting specifically what one can and, more importantly, cannot know by virtue of their identities and lived experiences. They also work to re-center the speaker’s own epistemic orientation and uncertainty at the expense of those for whom (or over whom) they are speaking. Such performances, as an iteration of what queer of color critique theorist Kevin Duong identifies as “descriptive intersectionality,” foreclose possibilities to think beyond the binary of inclusion/exclusion. This narrative affixes whiteness, heteromasculinity, and able-bodiedness at the epistemic center; it is usually only an abstract response to “the political problem of exclusion” (Duong 375) rather than an intentional interrogation of material and epistemological relationships between and across differences.

Relatedly, cultural anthropologist and queer of color critique theorist Suparna Bhaskaran critiques social sciences’ disciplinary valorization of researcher experience and experiential knowledge over the perspectives of those who are “the researched,” a notion she theorizes as “arrogant experience” (16). Arrogant experience embraces a liberal humanist ethnographic approach whereby ethnographers represent a “core” Western, imperialist, atomistic-individual, white-male subject, who “chooses to travel to new worlds to gather data from Others, and who objectively reports back to the metropole” (17)–an ethnographic humanism “reproduced in brown/black face” (17) that romanticizes relationality and collaboration to “boomerang” back to the white academy (we might again recall, here, Seide’s reflection on her research participants during her fieldwork in Haiti). Similarly, Cedillo argues, “The “invisibility” of privileged bodies lends credence to the discourses advanced through those bodies, equating their speech with objectivity as though said discourses were not products of specific standpoints.”  

These imperialist, Western modes of discourse structure rhetorical studies’ relationship to and understanding of bodies writ large. As Cedillo notes, “those whose bodies are seen (in terms of surveillance and an ableist predilection for sight) as Other are framed as too corporeal and incapable of legitimate speech, as rhetorically expedient but never rhetorical in their own right. They are mere bodies, objects upon which meaning can be imposed.” As Indigenous scholar Sandy Grande has argued, however, one cannot simply mitigate the materiality of power differences through discursive self-reflection, citation politics, or methodological nuance. Doing so contributes to what Grande calls “whitestream” theory, which depends heavily on postmodernism and poststructuralist epistemologies that privilege academic theorizing and knowledge-making over political, material action (330) and enable “high status feminists” to build “lucrative careers by theorizing the lives of ‘other’ women” (331). This, we would argue, is where refusal becomes a coalitional tool; we might pursue the undoing of discipline, punishment, and carcerality within our discipline through strategic refusals of whitestream norms and epistemological mandates.

We already see such refusals reflected, for example, in the 2020 “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice,” which, drawing on the work of Carmen Kynard (Vernacular Insurrections), both explicitly refuses the field’s longstanding practice of “position statements” and argues for the ways in which “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” was “always imagined, and yet never fully achieved.” This erasure, Kynard writes, “falls squarely in line with our inadequate responses to the anti-systemic nature of the ’60s social justice movements” (74). That is, an effort to include varieties of English other than white mainstream English without changing the systems that led to the centering of white mainstream English to begin with does not lead us to justice. We might also consider calls for us to refuse individualized approaches to accommodations for disabled, mad, and neurodivergent students and instead meaningfully address how which universities are built of “steep steps” (Dolmage, Academic Ableism, 41; see also Price). These exclusions are perpetuated, of course, in the writing classroom, which has long placed emphasis on preparing the next managerial class (Ruiz 59-60) by prioritizing the written word (Dolmage, “Writing Against Normal”) and particular criteria for rhetoricity that excludes other forms of rhetorical expression and ways of knowing (Yergeau 7-8). These priorities reflect the whitestream epistemologies that have historically shaped the field by valorizing logocentric, Judeo-Christian models of written or verbal expression. We might allow difference within these norms, but while they stand, difference is allowable only so far as it can be, as disabled folx are often told,reasonably accommodated.

The field increasingly acknowledges subjectivity the way we acknowledge injustice–as systemic, attached to groups, and larger than any one interaction can address. While understanding both the construction of identity and systems of oppression as bound up in one another is important (Greene 49), Ruha Benjamin warns that we sometimes use arguments about systems to the exclusion of addressing ways that we “can uphold unjust systems” in everyday actions (21). Within our own field, Cody Jackson and Christina Cedillo point out a growing acceptance for discussion of the systemic nature of injustice that is incapable–or unwilling–to move down into the ways individuals, small groups, or specific organizations are perpetuating those injustices in the immediate, material, embodied moment (109). This is not to say we should over-individualize, or not pay attention to the systemic nature of oppression, but rather that, if we’re seeking to build coalitions, we also need to build in practices that identify and address the ways we perpetuate those systems, both individually and as a field, a department, or a university. This certainly includes building alternative practices, such as different models for tenure and promotion that value work beyond the terms set by the academy, or editorial policies that decenter white standardized English and language norms. It can also look like working coalitionally to define small actions that systematically, collectively refuse whitestream norms and epistemologies in order to make room for those alternative practices.

Towards Coalitional Refusals

Coalitional refusal can help us work towards transformative justice. More specifically, it can help us work with and beyond our academic, disciplinary, and research commitments in ways that don’t not simply create “access to the same crappy system that everybody else has” but rather “think about how we move towards what a just world would look like for us all, and what liberation really looks like” (qtd. in Macdougall, “Beyond Access”). Coalitions cannot survive when priorities are on optics, research agendas, and project deliverables; we must refuse these kinds of “idealized coalitions,” as Pritha has called them. An idealized coalition, in fact, is a replication of carceral logics, because in this model, one pays far more attention, in research and professional spaces, to optics rather than actual, messy, embodied experience. One might be so concerned about optics–about looking wrong and being somehow punished for doing so–that they are unable (or unwilling) to meaningfully address harm when it happens. This prevents an understanding of struggles as linked in the deep, embodied ways we need to build the power to overturn systems of oppression and address how the academy and university perpetuate them in everyday actions.

In fact, coalitions grounded in transformative justice must at times refuse restorative justice precisely because restoration to a carceral past is itself a violence. As Chávez puts it, “coalition connotes tension and precariousness in this sense, but it is not necessarily temporary. It describes a space in which we can engage, but because coalescing cannot be taken for granted, it requires constant work if it is to endure” (8, emphasis ours). In taking up this definition, Gavin Johnson pushes scholars to consider their coalitions in light of these questions: “What work comes after the disruption of institutions? How do we–as rhetoricians, activists, and/or teachers–move beyond the tendency to simply critique and toward an ethic of coalitional accountability and restorative justice?” While Johnson echoes Chávez’s call to move beyond critique, the appeal to restorative justice emphasizes a return to a sense of peace, wholeness, or hope within unjust systems. Restorative justice–appeals to which are echoed in other work on non-punitive models of justice in the field (Juergensmeyer; Kells; Carter)–assumes it is possible to restore an institution or system to some earlier point where that institution or system was, presumably, centering justice in how it operated (brown, We Will Not Cancel Us, 4). However, many of the institutions and systems we might work to (coalitionally) refuse–the university included–have not strayed from some less violent past; they are working as intended.

This extends, too, to our scholarly discourse. Critical histories of our field note how rhetorical studies is built on rhetorical and systemic violences (Kynard, Vernacular Insurrections 133; Ruiz 41-43). The risk of ignoring these histories is that call-outs from, in particular, women of color scholars in the field are perceived as ruptures in our imagined coalitions–ones that must quickly be repaired in order to restore an idealized multicultural, coalitional rhetorical studies. However, repair can itself be a violence; addressing harm often requires a complete undoing–a move to something new. As adrienne maree brown writes, while “restorative justice [has] often meant restoring conditions that were fundamentally harmful and unequal, unjust,” transformative justice addresses “harm at the root, outside the mechanisms of the state, so that we can grow into right relationship with each other” (We Will Not Cancel Us 4).

One way coalitional refusal might help us move towards transformative justice is by refusing the carceral logics tied up in apology[2] . This includes punishing ways of being with each other in which apology is used to avoid punishment rather than meaningfully address harm or prevent it from recurring. These kinds of carceral logics limit our imagination; they prevent conceptions of callouts or critique as generative, as a form of care, and–of particular interest to us here–as a form of refusal. Transformative justice is predicated on addressing harm not through punishment but through identifying and addressing the root cause of harm in ways that center the person who has experienced harm (Kaba and Hayes; Kim), and this includes accountability (which does not carry the Judeo-Christian expectation of apology as a means of restoring a relationship). It similarly includes moves to change underlying structures–including disciplinary ones–that make repeating that harm imaginable.

Coalitional refusal might also mean a refusal to do research. Recent scholarship from rhetorical studies on in situ or participatory research has sought to forge methodological models for ethical, participatory/activist-oriented research across identity and power differences. Michael Middleton et al., for example, theorize “participatory critical rhetoric,” a set of research practices that bridge ethnography with rhetorical criticism to reconsider the relationships between critic, rhetor, text/context, and audience (xiv). Under this framework, “the critic enters a naturalistic field in which rhetoric occurs in order to observe, participate with, document, and analyze that rhetoric in its embodied and emplaced instantiation” (Middleton et al. xv). A participatory critical rhetoric scholar thus becomes “an activist both in their scholarly efforts and in their embodied engagements with the rhetorical communities they examine” (xviii). Middleton et al., too, note the value of privileging researchers’ embodied, affective responses “to being in the moment… to hold signs and march along with their participants” as well as the risks “rhetorical communities” take when they allow critics “representational authority over their identities and their rhetorical practices” (164). This process allows the critic to “reforge” observer-observed hierarchies “into more of a partnership” to do ethnography “with,” rather than “of” (164). 

While Middleton et al.’s intervention is promising in theory, these moves towards participatory partnership and collaboration can sometimes lead to “idealized coalitions” in which progressive publics “imagine collectivity in places where it may not actually exist” and falsely assume shared politics across axes of power, even in contexts in which reciprocity or consent might not even be sustainable or possible (Prasad). A white rhetorical critic studying Indigenous movements, for instance, may make any number of nuanced self-reflexive, theoretical, and methodological moves to navigate and attend to histories of distrust and violence between settler-colonizers and Indigenous peoples in the Americas (Tuhiwai-Smith; Tuck and Yang). But a shared, collective vision may still be impossible or unavailable given both the critic’s identity and orientation to power and their commitment to the same knowledge-making institutions that have underpinned colonial and imperialist logics and violences. 

Researchers too often ask the question of how to do particular types of research “ethically” or “responsibly,” yet may be afraid to ask questions that meaningfully unsettle the epistemic authority of the academy: Should I do this research? Can I even do this work ethically? Does “hold[ing] signs and march[ing] along with participants” (Middleton et al. 164) necessarily place researchers in solidarity or coalition with research “participants”? In one Kansas City  occupation in which Brynn participated, the coalitional move was distinctly not to “hold signs and march along with participants”; in fact, while Brynn did work with activists during and following the occupation, coalitional work didn’t really begin until Brynn stepped away from the occupation, which had become so preoccupied with holding signs, marching, and keeping a tent city going that the coalitions it was built on had fallen apart. The obsession of, predominantly, other white people in their 20s (like Brynn) with participating at a certain point prevented the cultivation of longer-term, strategic relationships and behind-the-scenes work that defined coalitional work, rather than just work for a single activist moment (Reyes).

Here, we note another refusal: sometimes, coalitional work means a refusal to do something right now in favor of longer-term relationships and coalitions. Coalitional refusal might look like refusing a grant or research project in the present, even if the work is needed in the future. The “constant work” (Chávez 8) of coalition-building is also slow. The mere choice to just slow down, however, is not alone a coalitional refusal (nor is it always possible). Rather, as Eli Meyerhoff and Elsa Noterman write, “slow scholarship needs to be a collective political project rather than merely an individual one–and one that addresses power and inequality in the university” (219). This politicized, coalitional slowness is a refusal also aligned with notions of crip time (Samuels; Price; Piepzna-Samarasinha and Lakshmi); it is refusing the demand for output–of research, of grant project deliverables, of CV lines, of conference presentations–that can distract from or actively prevent coalition-building. 

For example, Brynn’s most recent research project included collaboration with Kansas City-based abolitionist citizen journalists from Independent Media Association (IMA). In 2021, IMA participated in a grant-funded project in collaboration with the university and a School of Nursing faculty member. While the grant aimed at fostering research and public-facing events, IMA hoped it would serve to help them build community–and, ultimately, coalition–with other citizen journalists. The project timeline (even with generous extensions from the grantmaking organization), however, didn’t allow for the slow pace of community-building the group needed both to avoid burnout themselves and to effectively connect with others doing community media work. Instead, IMA members commented that in working with the university, they found themselves standing in for “the community” in ways they weren’t comfortable with when community was something they were still building. The timeline of a grant project that was meant to end in research created more burnout than funding alleviated.

Even if we don’t refuse research altogether, the best coalitional practice sometimes might be to refuse to let the urgency created by a grant or conference deadline, a graduate program’s timeline, tenure clocks, or a publication cycle structure our relationships with activists and community members. This might look like siphoning institutional resources in the undercommons (Harney and Moten; Hatrick), advocating for funding for relationship-building or operational costs for community partnerships rather than project-based funding (brown, “Thoughts for Foundations”), or postponing, slowing down, or reimagining research and public-facing collaborative work.

While coalitional refusal represents a set of generative strategies for working collectively against oppressive and carceral logics, systems, and norms, we recognize that refusal can also be a typical white, masculinist response. This kind of refusal might also refuse apology, for example, or refuse to engage in research based not on accountability, but rather the types of individualism and opportunism that can sometimes characterize many (often very charismatic) leaders in activist movements and academic fields alike. Many activist spaces both in and outside the university have faced the impact of refusals that gesture at being coalitional while actually supporting the kinds of virtue-signaling and individual platform-building that have historically harmed activist efforts and movements. While being conscious of this potential for slippage between coalitional and hegemonic forms of refusal is crucial, we feel it would be overly simplistic or even naive to offer a clean framework that allows us to determine when refusal is or isn’t coalitional. Indeed, these distinctions, in practice, are often worked out in individual contexts and relationships–and over time. We might instead consider how a refusal of the compulsive desire for certainty, for a framework, might itself be a coalitional move towards transformative justice that emphasizes accountability within the ebbs and flows of relationships and their material and temporal specificities, rather than through absolutist logics of judgment and punishment.


If, at this point, you are wondering what we should do rather than what we should refuse, we would ask you to sit for a moment in that feeling and perhaps reconsider this binary. Refusal isn’t the opposite of action or hope or abundance. Rather, it’s a coalitional move–a collective, politicized, and generative choice to not research, or be productive, or engage in rhetorics of apology, or negotiate with dehumanizing systems and epistemologies. We see these uses of refusal at play when activists march in the streets or occupy public property in an effort to refuse state surveillance and violence while simultaneously allowing space to do something else. Sometimes that “something else” looks like grassroots efforts to house people, feed people, care for people’s mental health, or educate people, but sometimes it looks like creating and holding space to be. In fact, some activists, like Kyharra Williams, a Kansas City abolitionist activist, argue that’s what protest is for. As they told Brynn in a 2022 interview: “Protests aren’t for the oppressors; they’re for the people…it’s a place where we can gather and hold space for people that we’ve lost, for each other, and just like, remind ourselves that we have community with people” (Williams). Space doesn’t have to be filled with action, or some hopeful message, or some new framework or scholarship, to be useful and necessary.

In closing, we return again to Nope. In the film, Angel Torres, an acquaintance of the Haywoods who helps them set up cameras on their ranch, at one point rationalizes their continued work together with the justification that it will be worth it if they can, beyond the money, also “save some lives” or even humanity. Em says “yeah,” but by the end of the film, after retaining photographic proof of the alien, she screams in celebration of the Haywoods’ “Oprah shot,” yelling “nobody fucks with Haywood, bitch!” Em gives meaning to the Haywoods’ actions not because they may have saved the world, but because they’ve succeeded here, now in doing what they needed to survive. The feeling of hope with which the film leaves viewers is the Haywoods vision of hope, not one inspired by some grand, moral imperative or even the capitalist film industry upon which their ranch has depended. The film shows us that refusal and hope aren’t mutually exclusive, even as–like in the example of Pritha’s 2023 CCCC panel–the impulse to reject “doing nope” in favor of “doing hope” might suggest not only that refusal and hope must be opposites, but also that of the two ends of that binary, we must always orient towards hope.

Is it any wonder that so many of us as multiply-marginalized scholars are burnt out if all we can ever imagine for our coalitions is what we do or what we are asked to do? We do hope, we do antiracism, we do access work, we do SafeZone trainings, we do public-facing scholarship, we do talks on that public-facing scholarship for the university, and so on. What might be possible if we were instead to work together, within our coalitions (whatever those look like), to cultivate coalitional refusals–to refuse to participate in our current scholarly, institutional, economic, or political systems, and be hopeful about it?

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End Notes

[1] As Roderick A. Ferguson (2017) discusses at length, the category of “diversity” was often deployed post-Civil Rights in opposition to student protesters of color. Then-President Richard Nixon, in response to the 1970s murders of Black student protesters, established a President’s Commission on Campus Unrest that ultimately recommended universities establish diversity initiatives emphasizing “values held in common” to both snuff out insurrection and frame student protesters of color as threats to democracy and public safety (Ferguson, We Demand 18).

[2]See Prasad and Maraj, “‘I Am Not Your Teaching Moment’: The Benevolent Gaslight and Epistemic Violence” (2022) for an extended discussion and critique of the racial politics of white apologies.

Distributed Definition Building and the Coalition for Community Writing

What does it mean to work in and help build coalition within our own communities and with communities of which we are not a member? How do we define those communities? In this reflective article, I offer a method for justice-focused coalitional work that I call distributed definition building. I use the term “community writing” to model how distributed definition building rejects narrow, top-down, definitive definitions of critical or contested terms that could stifle community member voices, making clear that there is no one definition for “community writing”; in fact, the capaciousness of the term is its strength. Rather than trying to control the definition of community writing, there is strength in re-distributing the ability to define the term out to the people doing the community writing work themselves.

The Coalition for Community Writing (CCW), which I founded as a 501c3 in 2019 with a national group of scholars, teachers, organizers, and activists, is one of Rhetoric and Writing Studies’ disciplinary organizations that is also interdisciplinary and inter-community in its aspirations toward coalitional and transformational work. As the Coalition’s Executive Director and Conference on Community Writing’s Founding Director, I share a brief history of why and how the Conference and then the Coalition began, in part, I would argue, because of definitional confusion over “community writing.” I then offer two examples of distributed definition building around what “community writing” means, bringing in fifteen of CCW’s board members’ and one of the CCW Emerging Scholars’ reflections on why coalitional, relational work is so vital in ethical community-based, justice-focused work. Finally, I conclude by demonstrating how the distributed definitions may help members to identify an action plan concerning the strengths and gaps within the Coalition.

The method of distributed definition building helps build equity, accessibility, and accountability into the iterative process of building a coalition toward substantive change. Part of my role as a coalitional leader is to make spaces for a multiplicity of definitions for “community writing” to emerge from faculty, students, and community members and partners. Distributed definition building can be useful to coalition builders and leaders working with complex or contested terms. The distributed approach to definition building is a method that can move a coalition toward justice in the intentional rejection of narrow and hierarchical rules for who can participate and what “counts” as important. It can help to guide mission and vision, and it can help hold members of a coalition accountable to the sometimes shared, sometimes different values of those involved. 

A Brief History of the Conference on Community Writing and Coalition for Community Writing: The Need for Change

At the time that I first pitched the idea for a conference to colleagues in the writing program at University of Colorado Boulder, where I was a faculty member until 2021, I’d founded and had been directing the Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement for six years, helping to coordinate the writing program’s transformation into one of the first writing programs in the country to integrate community-engaged pedagogies throughout its lower- and upper-division courses. In work I’d done running faculty workshops at the university and as an Advisory Board member of Campus Compact of the Mountain West facilitating Engaged Faculty Institutes, participants consistently named several impediments to successfully doing community-engaged work. 

Graduate students and junior faculty would often say that they’d been told not to do community-based work until they had secured a job or, even more troubling, until post tenure. Sometimes that advice came from a well-meaning place–a mentor or chair who wanted to protect the person’s time. Sometimes it reflected an institutional misconception that community-engaged work is service rather than intellectual and rigorous scholarship. My own writing program director at the time called community-engaged scholarship “academic light.” All too often, institutional mission statements that affirm commitment to community do not align with realities of support or with institutional policies around review, tenure, promotion, and hiring priorities for community-engaged graduate students and faculty[1] . Relationship-focused partnerships that center trust building, collaboration, and knowledge sharing are the foundation of community-engaged work (e.g. Arellano et. al.; Blackburn and Cushman; Goldblatt; Powell; Rousculp; Shah). It does not make sense, then, that collaboratively-written work, often with students or community partners, is sometimes counted in promotion and tenure cases as less significant than single-authored work, or that public-facing scholarship cannot be counted as scholarship, which reinforces academic ideologies of individualism and isolationism.

The frequent dismissal of community-engaged work’s significance or place in the academy outside of “service” has led to feelings of frustration and exhaustion. As colleagues around the country shared their stories at the Engaged Faculty Institutes, it became increasingly clear that these issues of misunderstanding and lack of support are in fact related to a problem of definition. People in positions of power were often defining “community-engaged writing” or “community writing” as service or as less-than-rigorous scholarship and therefore would impact and limit what was possible for faculty and students at those institutions and in the field of writing and rhetoric. I believed–when first conceiving of the Conference on Community Writing–that a critical mass of community writing scholars and teachers could create a disciplinary shift on a national level toward support for community writing work that would make it more viable and sustainable for individuals. 

Drawing on the Campus Compact model for Engaged Faculty and Engaged Departments, I asked conference participants during the Chair’s Address at the inaugural CCW, “What if we think of ourselves as the first ‘Engaged Discipline?’” What are the possibilities:

  • for how writing programs are structured?
  • for institutional support for justice-focused, community-based research and pedagogical projects?
  • in terms of how we consider where knowledge is housed and produced?
  • for how graduate students are trained?
  • for faculty searches and priorities for hiring?
  • for review, tenure, and promotion cases?
  • for our academic journals and book series?

How do we (here meaning community writing scholars and practitioners in rhetoric and writing studies) re-shape the field of rhetoric and writing to include community writing as an integral part of an established and shared definition of the discipline? A disciplinary shift would require re-defining community writing so that it is legible, understandable, and, therefore, supported. 

At the first Conference on Community Writing, more than 350 speakers shared their community writing work–work that varied significantly from project to project and place to place. A few speakers even asked whether their work was “community writing,” as those of us gathered together in Boulder tried to understand what it was that was coalescing. From this beginning event, and as CCW has since rooted itself as an important disciplinary conference, it is clear that it is not a matter of creating a single, uniform definition of community writing, but rather creating space to generate, share, and support multiple, meaningful definitions.

After the second CCW in 2017, again hosted in Boulder, CO, several colleagues from universities, colleges, and community organizations and I collaboratively wrote bylaws and a mission and vision statement for a Coalition for Community Writing that would be an international network of faculty, students, community partners, artists, writers, activists, and organizers who share knowledges and projects across communities–using writing, broadly defined, as a force for social change. In 2019, the Coalition for Community Writing became an official 501c3. Distributed definition building is a collaborative way by which the organization continuously adapts in an iterative, generative, and capacious process to align with members’ values and needs and hold itself accountable. 

Distributed Definition Building and Community Writing

While the term “community writing” was used in scholarship and practice before my colleagues and I launched the Conference on Community Writing[2] in 2015, the term is now more commonly used in scholarship, course titles, and job ads. But it may not always be clear what is meant by the term. In the last twenty-five years, the scholarship and practice of community writing have developed significantly with key concepts such as: “writing beyond the curriculum” (Parks and Goldblatt); writing about, with, and for communities (Deans); literacy, archival research, and historical work (e.g. Epps-Robertson; Royster; Pauszek); community publishing and writing by and as the community (e.g. Hubrig; Mathieu, et al.; Monberg; Moss, A Community Text); ethnographic research (e.g. Cushman; Jackson and Whitehorse DeLaune; Roossien and Riley Mukavetz); community engagement in writing program administration (e.g. House; Rose and Weiser); community literacies (e.g. Feigenbaum, Collaborative; Flower; Grabill; Pritchard; Richardson); public rhetorics (e.g. Hsu; Long; Ryder); the public turn (Farmer; Mathieu); Writing Democracy (Carter et al.); decolonial and antiracist pedagogy and research involving literacies inside and outside of academic spaces (e.g. Alvarez; Baker-Bell; Cushman; Jackson and Whitehorse DeLaune; King et al.; Kynard, “All I Need”; Kynard, “Teaching While Black”; Maraj; Martinez, Counterstory; Ore et al.). The term can also refer to community-based writing such as slam poetry, public performance, museum exhibits, graffiti and mural art, zines, protest signs, and much more. I understand community writing as an umbrella term that embraces and continually evolves with these diverse areas.

It is not that “community writing” is so broad a concept that it means everything and nothing at once. Rather, often the naming of sub-fields and fields of study can be designed either to develop an us/them binary that is exclusionary or to claim intellectual territory. While the claiming of ideas is not inherently exclusionary, intention is important. Academics are notoriously trained toward individualism–publishing single-authored works, striving for acclaim and tenure, claiming ideas, and often ignoring or discounting ideas, knowledge, and expertise housed in non-academic spaces. These actions can make for a toxic culture of competition and scarcity. A benefit of distributing the definition of “community writing” out away from a single founder or person in a position of power is to counter exclusionary and individualistic tendencies. Community writing work, at its best, is a means toward dismantling, transforming, and repairing, coupling the work with clear actions and accountability.

How does accountability show up through distributed definition building? As Rachel C. Jackson explains, “settling” of meaning is a colonial academic practice that does not leave room for alternate ways of knowing and non-Western methodologies (Jackson and Whitehorse DeLaune 40). To deliberately not settle the meaning of “community writing” and with the aspiration of justice-focused coalition building, CCW can use distributed definition building to bring together a diversity of individuals, projects, and organizations. Part of the Conference’s and Coalition’s work is to provide people a platform to share their projects and connect, regardless of age, physical or mental ability, race or ethnicity, cultural or economic background, as we work toward structural programmatic, institutional, disciplinary, (inter)disciplinary, and community-based change. Scholars, students, teachers, activists, organizers, artists, playwrights, policy writers, poets, and so many more, in sharing their unique and various projects at CCW events, participate in distributed definition building and in a process for justice-focused coalition building as they also generate that coalition in real time. 

What are community-engaged writing and rhetoric scholars and teachers positioned to do, as we straddle our academic and non-academic communities? Part of building definitions that can shift academic and non-academic systems is to stress that we in academia are always also community members. It is why Terese Guinsatao Monberg wrote about “writing as community.” Elaine Richardson’s work on Black girls’ and Black women’s literacies, Beverly Moss’s ethnographic research on churches and church sermons (A Community Text; “A Literacy Event”) and Ada Hubrig’s work on disability justice offer three examples of scholars embedded in their communities doing research with and as members of those communities themselves. At the Conference on Community Writing, we strive to welcome in non-academically affiliated community leaders and members to share knowledge and expertise. CCW members help to build a justice-focused coalition as they call out gaps in CCW’s representation, programming, and accessibility. In so doing, they are helping to continually expand and shape the definition anew. 

Representation in Definition Building

Representation is an essential part of distributed definition building as it is also part of the work of building a justice-focused coalition. This means not only, for example, collaborating with those present at events or those publishing in CCW’s affiliated journals, Community Literacy Journal and Reflections, but also continually looking at the gaps. Who is attending events, and who is not; which concepts and voices are foregrounded, and which are not; who is being published and cited in the journals, and who is not; who has access to our programming, and who does not? Those of us in leadership roles in the organization learn from taking a hard look at this information and pledge continually to do better through dedicated actions. Through the recursive work on representation, we are working to expand and incorporate definitions for what community writing is and is not, the values that matter, and the people and projects involved. Distributed definition building allows community members, whether scholars, students, activists, artists, organizers, writers, or the many, many people involved in the Coalition, to write their own definitions of community writing based on their unique projects, aspirations, ethics, and positionalities that are then represented at the conference and in our affiliated journals, in our classrooms and on our syllabi, in our community-engaged activism, advocacy, and research. The building of coalition happens in the process of distributed definition building.

To celebrate and develop recognition for the exemplary work of our members, the Coalition for Community Writing has several nationally vetted awards including Outstanding Book in Community Writing. The book award offers an example of how distributed definition building has helped the organization internally to understand gaps in representation of certain kinds of projects, and, therefore, expand its focus and scope. In 2019, the book award committee determined that there were three books of the thirteen nominated that were exceptionally worthy of the award. Each book dealt with a different kind of community writing. Rather than choose one, which would seem to privilege one kind of work over another and therefore one definition over another, the committee determined to award all three to show the organization’s desire to reject a narrow definition for community writing excellence and to instead celebrate a broader range of projects. 

During the next awards cycle in 2021, a book was nominated for the Outstanding Book Award, but the award committee saw that it did not fit into the criteria for how the organization had been defining community writing scholarship as work that happens outside of college and university campuses. Rather than exclude this exceptional book from the running, CCW created a new award to indicate the organization’s desire to expand its existing ideas of where community writing occurs to fit the critical antiracist, activist work happening in academic communities on campuses. In both instances, the awards committees felt that to definitionally limit what community writing is would feed into the individualistic, scarcity mindset prevalent in higher education. They chose to reject that way of thinking about outstanding work and, in the process, to expand CCW’s understanding of what community writing can be and how we can support work and people under that expanded definition. 

Collaboration in Distributed Definition Building

The Coalition for Community Writing continually addresses the question of to whom we hold ourselves accountable as we look for the gaps between what is and what we aspire to. It may be easy in top-down and non-coalitional organizational models to ignore legitimate concerns or suggestions from members rather than to continually strive for organizational evolution. Alternately, our commitment to accountability through representation and collaboration involves transparency, adaptability, and radical openness to justice-focused work. 

There are several ways in which CCW strives to be collaborative. One example is coalitional collaboration across justice-focused organizations, which is a part of distributed definition building. For example, in 2020, CCW in collaboration with the American Indian Caucus, the Asian/Asian American Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Latinx Caucus, and DBLAC, created the Conference on Community Writing Emerging Scholars Award for BIPOC graduate students and junior faculty. Because community-engaged scholars’ work is often delegitimized, those who research and teach community writing can experience isolation, lack of support and mentorship, and threats to security. This reality is heightened for BIPOC students and scholars (Kannan et. al.; Kynard, “Teaching”; Kynard, “All I Need”; Martinez, Counterstory). As a guiding principle of CCW, we denounce the long and ongoing legacies of white supremacy culture, settler colonialism, and violence against the intellectual ideas, bodies, and mental wellbeing of BIPOC students, colleagues, community partners, and loved ones.

The Emerging Scholars Award was a small action step we could take in coalition with the caucuses and DBLAC as we considered not only representation and collaboration, but accountability in striving toward a justice-focused coalition. In “Intersectional Feminism & Coalition Building,” Carmen Perez explains that to create healing, coalitions should “hold space for the discomfort that is necessary to make amends for harms done… [W]e cannot build strong coalitions unless we’re committed to healing our wounds–and our wounds look  different.” Damián Baca, Romeo García, Lisa King, Andrea Riley Mukavetz, Terese Guinsatao Monberg, Ersula Ore, Khirsten Scott, Amy Wan, Kimberly Weiser, and I collaboratively wrote the call for applicants and particularly welcomed applications from graduate students, adjuncts, non-tenure track faculty, and faculty without other funding sources, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people at community colleges, HBCUs, HSIs, and tribal colleges. We wanted to acknowledge both the different wounds and needs of each individual and the collective wounds, needs, and goals of the cohort.

The Black, Latinx, Asian/Asian American, and American Indian CCCC caucuses and DBLAC each selected a group of four Emerging Scholars. Awardees received Coalition for Community Writing membership for 2021 and 2022 and Conference on Community Writing registration for the October 2021 conference. Awardees were recognized at the conference Awards Ceremony, and Dr. Aja Martinez met with all interested Emerging Scholars to discuss navigating academia and publishing. Additionally, Coalition for Community Writing offered professional development opportunities through online workshops like our annual Job Market Materials Workshop; Review, Tenure, and Promotion Workshop; CCCC Mentoring Workshop; and invitations to present at the conference and publish in Community Literacy Journal

In considering representation and recognition, this cross-coalitional work was a critical part of building the definition of community writing. It indicates that the extraordinary work people are doing in the caucuses is essential to community writing, and people who may not have considered their work “community writing” can find additional support and resources through CCW, while the organization grows and becomes more meaningful through their participation. This reciprocal, relational way of building coalition helps expand our definition towards justice.

Distributed Definition Building at Work

To demonstrate benefits of a kaleidoscopic view of “community writing,” I invited all CCW board members and one of CCW’s Emerging Scholars to contribute to this article by responding to the following email invitation: “share your thoughts on what community writing and coalitional work mean to you in terms of what CCW strives for.” Here, they share their thoughts, arranged alphabetically by their last names.

Sweta Baniya

Community writing and coalition work are important to tackle global challenges that continue to cripple the world. In the current transnational world, we need to teach students to navigate transnational and multicultural spaces via communication, technology, and engagement. Rhetoricians who are engaged in studying the coalition-building work cannot only do this work alone and in silos. If you are “studying” the community, you need to constantly ask yourself how you are contributing to this community. How have you utilized your resources and the privileges that you have in ways that you can support the community, contribute towards community growth, and develop a long-term partnership? 

Community Writing scholars across the country can incubate some ideas of working together as well as have a safe space to discuss community needs together and collaboratively tackle the issues of our communities. The ripple effects of the global pandemic in various vulnerable communities are seen in various sectors of society and it will continue to impact the most vulnerable and the marginalized. Hence, we need to envision working with various local and global communities to build a sustainable future as we cannot do this alone. Hence, we need a coalition of both academics and the community together to mitigate the challenges of the global community. 

Paul Feigenbaum

To me, coalitional work is, ideally, an ongoing process of trust-building guided by humility, compassion, and the pursuit of mutual listening and understanding across cultural, institutional, and sometimes ideological lines of difference. It requires adopting a beginner’s mindset in relation to the various forms of expertise and knowledge that everyone is bringing to the collaborative process. It also requires making peace with uncertainty and ambiguity.

When coalition partners try to enact these principles and practices together, they can more effectively access and circulate their collective wisdom, and they can more effectively cultivate flexible and creative responses to their dynamic circumstances. None of this is easy, of course, nor is it efficient. This is why I think people need to rededicate themselves regularly to pursuing these principles and practices together, and they must try to be generous with each other when members of the coalition inevitably fall short of these ideals.

Megan Hartline 

To me, what makes CCW coalitional rather than just collaborative is the way the organization aims to create space for community writing practitioners whose needs are often unmet. To put it another way, CCW works hard to live out its values. Leaders in the organization know that scholars of color, particularly of marginalized genders, are most likely to take on community work without recognition and have prioritized a diverse set of voices in leadership as well as created space for recognizing and mentoring emerging scholars of color. They know that community partners are not often financially compensated for their heavy work to make projects successful, so the CCW conference brings in local community activists as keynote speakers and pays them for their time and labor. CCW understands that community writing is an ever-changing, often-messy network of relationships and practices that require a coalitional approach to work together toward a more just world.  

Lisa King 

When I think about coalition, community writing, and CCW’s goals, I think about finding ways to break down academic disciplinary/caucus silos that keep us from collaborating, and meeting communities where they are. The work I’m doing with Native Nations partners on a new exhibition that centers Indigenous voices to tell the story of the Indigenous mound on campus requires both of these actions simultaneously. I have to be able to work with collaborators across the campus museum, repatriation office, history, anthropology, landscape design, and campus gardens; but more importantly, the university team I’m working with must foreground the partnerships we are developing with the multiple Native Nations on whose lands we live and work. Whether it’s label copy, grant applications, website materials, composing image and design features for the exhibition, or caring for the mound itself, working with our Native co-curators from the ground up is what already makes this project transformative.

Seán McCarthy 

I see CCW as a vital and experimental space within the field as we negotiate and build out hybrid spaces not just between universities and communities but also across sectors. This involves not just relationship building but also thinking about our methods of engagement and re-imagining writing and its effect on high-impact learning and change. That work can only happen in community, and I think CCW has a vital role to play in that kind of futuring work. 

Maria Novotny 

Community writing is not just a practice, but it is also a series of ethical commitments whereby community voices and perspectives are centered over scholarly analysis and theory. In other words, I see the role of CCW as reimagining the role and form of scholarship in order to best represent and serve the purposes of communities who engage in writing. Adopting a more critical-creative form to what it means to produce scholarship — a form that may bend or even resist traditional scholarship — I think helps scholars in community writing engage in more reciprocal and accountable community writing practices. 

One example of how scholars may incorporate a critical-creative orientation to community writing is curation, whereby community perspectives and knowledges (whether in writing or some other visual/multi-modal form) is rhetorically assembled into a carefully crafted narrative for publics to engage with, learn from, and encounter. Curation then forces the CCW scholar to be accountable not just to themselves but to the community’s the curation represents and to the publics it engages with — pushing the aims and scope of our scholarly potential well beyond university walls.

Jessica Restaino 

My goals in community writing work have increasingly been about honoring real human relationships, nurturing them as they are, working from a place that’s honest about needs and interests. Sometimes, when these relationships begin outside the university, they eventually show us how universities can help. It’s very important to me that, when I do engage the university in some way, it’s done as a trustworthy, recognizable, and informed response to what my community partners have taught me. The instances where I’ve rushed to connect university resources have been the moments where I’ve failed most readily–so, patience, steadiness are key takeaways for me. 

Sherita V. Roundtree

Feminist theories offer an important framework for understanding coalition in community writing. Contemporarily, coalitional work has often become entangled in an effort to collaborate with organizations doing complementary work. Although complementary, these labors are not one in the same. As Karma R. Chávez reminds us in discussing the experiences of Queer migrants, coalition is an unimagined horizon across divided “sites of tension.” Chávez      continues by explaining that “Coalition cannot be easily categorized, fit into an identity, or fixed on a map. Coalition is not comfortable. It is not home” (147). Coalitional work must take into account the process along with the potential for progress. Often those processes require us to not only sit in the discomfort but also take action in it. As statements like the 1977 “The Combahee River Collective Statement” and many other Black feminist political movements imply, we must assess where we are in the now and continue to reassess.  

Daniel Singer

In coalitional writing, “We” keeps its most empowering meaning– A-Many-Led-Us- Speaking-In-Concert. It’s our shared act of coming together in pursuit of a common end in common terms—speaking in chorus rather than in singular voice and without calling for the dissolution or devaluing of our separateness, our difference, our ability to be un-totalized by a single collective effort that is likely one of many for any individual coalition member. It says: “We come together for a purpose, but we are more in our own right than that purpose.” It says, “We need many nonidentical hands to make the work actually work.” It says: “We need to say more, do more, be more than any one of us could on our own; than all of us subsumed by only our common goals could say, do, become.” 

Lara Smith-Sitton 

“Only if we constantly ask ourselves why we take certain actions or teach in certain ways can we hope to make decisions that can sustain later scrutiny and can serve as foundational choices for later work” (Goldblatt 6). This idea aligns with a critical component of the CCW Vision Statement: “a transformation of higher education.” Yet despite burgeoning scholarship about the theory, practice, and pedagogy of community-writing, it can be challenging to know not only what questions to ask ourselves and others but also how our projects can effectuate impactful and needed change. CCW is an organization rooted in building connections between established and emerging community-engaged scholars and then presenting opportunities to listen to and learn from community partners and members. The work to build coalitions enables richer, stronger projects that more thoughtfully consider the needs of all stakeholders and participants. 

Karen Tellez-Trujillo 

When I think of the Coalition on Community Writing, I focus on the word “community,” as that is my experience with the coalition. Within this coalition, I have found a community committed to social justice, that is dedicated to providing numerous opportunities for bringing about change, whether it’s at a conference, in publication, or through mentorship and support for faculty, students, and community members. Having worked with students on my Southern California campus to create literacy events (Moss, “A Literacy Event”; Branch) and writing opportunities outside the classroom, I believe my foundation of support has come from CCW and from exposure to approaches to community writing that I have learned at conferences and from the Community Literacy Journal. Coalition work means coming together to make our communities a better place, and CCW gives us the support and resources we need to do just that.  

Don Unger 

Coalition building means creating strategic alliances with other organizations over a particular issue. The organizations might not agree on root causes or long-term solutions, but they agree that the issue needs to be dealt with. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, many feminist organizations built coalitions to defend Planned Parenthood from attack by Operation Rescue (OR) and other groups that were attempting to shut clinics down, attack employees, and harass clients. Groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), and the National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition (NWROC) called out their members to participate in joint actions around the country to ensure that OR did not impede a person’s right to have an abortion. Beyond coming together for these direct actions, NOW, NARAL, NWROC, and others had little in common theoretically or organizationally, and they did not hide their differences. These coalitions exemplify the old leftist motto: march separately, strike together. 

Bernardita M. Yunis Varas 

The CCW’s Emerging Scholars program, with its mission to support young scholars in community writing, can further its coalition-building mission by engaging the Emerging Scholars in bimonthly gatherings. These meetings will bring scholars together to reflect on growing scholarship and emerging theories, bridging academic spaces between elders in community writing and young scholars, setting up intentional spaces of mentorship and sustainability in leadership and writing.

Kate Vieira

My community writing work recently has involved collaborating with writers, educators, and activists in Colombia to think about, practice, and teach writing for peace. For us, “peace” is impossible without equitable social relationships. So really what we’re after is writing for healing and change, which involves as much listening as writing. 

My collaborators have worked for years in areas impacted by Colombia’s armed conflict. And me, I work here in the U.S. with teachers, who are definitely not working in contexts characterized by peace. Our legacies of violence are different, and it’s important to remember the U.S. has had a more than minor role to play in worsening the conflict in Colombia. But here we are, writing and teaching together because we believe that across languages, cultures, and borders we can develop shared practices, shared solutions, shared ways forward. I am beyond grateful to belong to the Coalition for Community Writing, where others are developing similar partnerships, where the slow and difficult and joyous nature of this work—the deep meaningfulness of it—is shared and understood and supported. This shared understanding allows us to progress.

At the 2019 CCW, poet and activist Dr. Jhoana Patiño Lopez and I presented on a Writing for Peace community-authored book and board game we co-edited. In 2021, the co-founders of the writing-for-peace organization, EncantaPalabras, Juana María Echeverri and Rodrigo Ospina Rojas, presented on principles of writing for peace that we are developing. Each time, there was an opening, an understanding, a shared recognition. The Coalition for Community Writing reminds us that our work is never done in isolation.  

Ada Vilageliu-Díaz 

I understand community writing as an opportunity to produce transformative community engagement through writing. At the same time, and more importantly, I see how this community approach must also include coalitional spaces to work. As a Canary Islander of African Indigenous descent, I enjoy finding, joining, and creating communities that allow me to collaborate and contribute, especially when we share similar histories or experiences as BIPOC. CCW is a very important space for me since I discovered it in 2019 and found a community of women that reminded me of the need to find or create nurturing safe spaces for BIPOC academics, students, and community workers who are constantly facing microaggressions and erasure in academia. 

That is why I joined the organization as a board member and proposed we formalize safe spaces at academic organizations and conferences so that we can explore ways of addressing the need for safe spaces while simultaneously providing one. This year, we have prepared a DeepThink Tank safe/healing space at CCW that would be run from a BIPOC perspective that we hope gets the movement started. I have also applied what I learned at CCW to CCCC by helping create a Black/Latinx/Native scholars coalition through which we just submitted a full day workshop at the next CCCC convention. 

Stephanie Wade 

What I love about coalitional work is that it allows us to live the equation that 1 + 1 > 2, because together we can do things that are impossible individually. For me, this means showing up for projects that others have organized, from hauling garbage at a city clean-up to attending a departmental open house, and looking for and listening for opportunities to make connections, to channel resources to underserved communities, and to contribute to the creation of inclusive spaces–both material, such as gardens, and ideological, such as publication opportunities–for creative work. My experience teaching community writing and serving on the CCW board continues to teach me about the essential connections between material work and culture work, the value of the relationships that grow from these projects, and the rich knowledge that comes from slowing down and engaging in this work.

Christopher Wilkey 

For me, community writing originates through rhetorical situations that invite readers and writers to seek out encounters with the most vulnerable and oppressed for the sake of learning how to live. Coalition-building is inherent in this process, as all interlocutors are dependent on each other in establishing rhetorical agency through the work of social change. CCW strives to amplify such instances of rhetorical agency through a re-imagination of community-university partnerships as aligned with the work of social justice.

Using Distributed Definition Building to Understand Strengths and Gaps

What can we learn from these responses? They offer very different ideas for what coalition and community writing mean. Sometimes one person’s definition is at odds with another person’s. What is essential for one, another may not mention. Even amongst board members, no single definition could encapsulate the variety of ideas, identities, projects, and ethical considerations. And that has the potential to be CCW’s strength. 

Figure 1: Word cloud of the board member responses, generated through


The table below lists the top 25 words used across the responses and the frequency with which they occurred: 

Frequency Word
58 Community(ies)
34 writing
39 Work(ing)
28 Coalition(al)
15 Need(s)
14 together
12 scholars
9 Engage(ment)
9 spaces
8 Just(ice)
7 peace
7 shared
6 across
6 space
6 organization
5 important
5 support
5 safe
5 needs
5 partners
5 practices
5 emerging
5 projects
5 change
5 relationships

Figure 2:  Table lists the top 25 words used across the responses and the frequency with which they occurred.


When we think about what community writing can do across a large number and scope of projects, there are many, many possible definitions, as we can see reflected even across this small group. As the word cloud and table display, there are also some key similarities across the definitions. In coalition building, we can look for similarities and for reminders to ensure our programming and resources align with needs. The reflections prioritize ethical relationships. Several mention breaking barriers of silos, hierarchies, and knowledge-holding. Some mention using resources to circulate and amplify community member stories and knowledges. Some prioritize amplifying and supporting scholars of color. These similarities in the definition building point to CCW’s core values, what we aspire toward in community writing, the trunk that grows into many branches with many leaves. 

Other definitions may indicate more specific key elements of what helps CCW align values with actions, i.e. Megan’s comment about ethically bringing in and compensating non-academically affiliated community members is a core part of what community writing might entail. Her definition tells me, as a coalition leader, that maybe the organization needs to prioritize reciprocity as central to the definition of who we are. Sherita brings up the importance of acknowledging strength in differences and in acting through and in discomfort. Her citation of Black feminist and Latina works reminds me that maybe “community writing’s” definition mandates an antiracist commitment. Sweta and Kate remind me that the Coalition includes people outside the United States and that maybe we need more programming to better include international audiences. These examples show how those helping to build or lead a coalition can carefully listen to what people define as essential to the work or the mission. Then, this distributed definition building can help maintain accountability and can advance new ideas for programming and needs that any one individual may not have considered. Distributed definition building can help coalition leaders look for gaps in representation; it can help shed light on what members value; it can offer new ways to acknowledge and celebrate people; it can lead to new ideas for programming and resources.

In coalitional work, core principles and shared goals offer stability and support. But, stability does not mean rigidity. Community writing for Sweta might mean her global work with Nepal. For Paul, it may mean working with incarcerated writers. For Jessica and Don, it may mean the work they each do with gender equity and justice. For Ada Vilageliu-Díaz, it may mean her work to build Safe Spaces inside and outside of academia. Each person’s definition is different. However, as Kate Vieira reminds us, while the projects may be different, “our work is never done in isolation.” Distributed definition building offers a flexibility, a capaciousness, a generosity of ideas needed to build justice-focused coalitions in which each member can grow in ways they need, bolstered and perhaps even transformed by the support, resources, and ideas of others, and they can help others to do the same. 

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End Notes

The Coalition for Community Writing produced a Resource Guide that includes “How to Make the Case for Your Community-Engaged Work” and “How to Modify Campus Governance Documents to Address Community-Engaged Work.”

 I want to thank Seth Myers, Alexander Fobes, Catherine Kunce, Christine Macdonald, and Gary Hink for their tremendous work in helping to imagine and host the Conference on Community Writing in 2015 and 2017.

Feminist Editing: Learning to Engage through Coalitional Accountability


Sometimes you only realize how risky something was in hindsight. This article describes what we call a coalitional approach at the core of the open-access scholarly journal, Literacy in Composition Studies (LiCS), that we started over ten years ago. This coalitional orientation guided the founding and ongoing management of what was, in retrospect, a somewhat risky venture: building an independent journal from the ground up as a group of pre-tenure scholars committed to creating a nonhierarchical and collective editorial structure. The risks here were multifold because not only were we building something new, but we were also committing to a certain level of vulnerability. This vulnerability existed on several levels, from the individual risks we took with our careers in investing time that could have been allocated to researching and publishing our own work, to creating a platform to publish the work of other scholars, to committing to a praxis that asked us to practice listening and self-reflexivity. In the process of developing the journal, we have strived to discover and implement processes, procedures, and practices that highlight coalitional accountability.  

As an open-access academic journal investigating the interstices and overlaps of both literacy studies and composition studies, the work we publish speaks, and is spoken to, by a diverse range of scholars committed to forging new coalitional politics and scholarship across disciplinary lines. Yet, when we first set out to create the journal, our notions of multilateral transparency both vertically and horizontally were both nascent and emergent. In ways that echo Cheryl Glenn and Andrea Lunsford’s reflection on coalition as it figures in the CWSHRC (Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition), we began LiCS with “a desire to move beyond the perceived patriarchal (hierarchical and competitive) structures of our disciplines and professional organizations and the masculinist practices that had long guided them” (11). The journal’s editorial collective committed to a feminist ethos at its founding; this article explores how our understanding of that ethos has evolved as the journal has attempted to engage with shifting challenges through coalitional accountability. 

Our feminist editing practices borrow heavily from feminist and critical pedagogy and import praxis from this theory. For instance, we adopt a stance toward editing in which we actively listen to writers, readers, reviewers, editorial board members, and the wider disciplinary community but also while intentionally “raise critical questions” about editorial processes. This practice is informed by bell hooks’ description of  the “feminist classroom” as a space “where students could raise critical questions about pedagogical process” (6). Using a process that takes seriously “critical questions” into consideration also means that we commit to inviting and collaboratively negotiating discomfort. bell hooks explains, “rather than fearing conflict we have to find ways to use it as a catalyst for new thinking, for growth” (113). This article explores the new thinking and growth that have been catalyzed in our editorial practices through a feminist engagement with conflict and difficulty. As we continually (re)learn, to undertake feminist editing is to be always in a state of becoming; as Sara Ahmed reminds us “to become a feminist is to stay a student” (11). 

In a series of four vignettes, this article will explore how the editors of LiCS, working in concert with authors, mentors, editors, and our readership, pursue our project of coalitional accountability as a feminist practice within the context of open-access academic publishing. As we work to expand our feminist ethic to actively pursue antiracist publishing practices and systems, we attempt to navigate the “local” specifics that work for our journal within a broader “global” critique of academic publishing systems, guided by Chandra Mohanty’s reminder that performing this navigation without “falling into colonizing or cultural relativist platitudes about difference is crucial in this intellectual and political landscape” (229). Across these reflections, we’ll detail what intersectional, coalitional approaches (Walton, Moore, and Jones 71) looked like for our editorial team when applied to journal production, circulation, exchange, and mentorship. Before sharing the vignettes, we will  provide a bit of context for the journal’s initial mission, founding and guiding philosophical and ethical commitments. Then, the vignettes will proceed thusly:

Vignette One: Coalitional Modes of Production

In this first vignette, we explore how our horizontal editorial structure was conceived and implemented before highlighting how our collaborative decision-making process ensures coalitional accountability in the context of publication decisions. We also explore the editorial practices and processes we abide by in order to maintain multilateral transparency and consensus and how our processes for navigating disagreement and dissensus have evolved.

Vignette Two: Coalitional Building Through Circulation

In this second vignette, we consider LiCS in the context of circulation and rhetorical velocity (Ridolfo and DeVoss). Specifically, we explore how the processes of indexing and preservation ensure that the work published in the journal continues to be accountable for scholarly and non-scholarly audiences both now and in perpetuity.

Vignette Three: Sponsoring Coalition Building via Infrastructures of Exchange

In this third vignette, we consider how relational methods of exchange keep journal editors and authors engaged and accountable to each other and the collective “we” of our disciplines. Because articles published in LiCS straddle disciplinary, methodological, and temporal boundaries, it is essential that we sponsor infrastructure that facilitates continued exchange as an accountability mechanism, allowing for new coalitional emergences at the nexus of diverse epistemological grounds. This vignette explores these places of convergence in the pages of LiCS.  

Vignette Four: Mentorship & Opportunities for Coalitional Labor

In the final vignette, we explore our ongoing attempts to provide multiple mentorship opportunities to prospective authors and editors. Because we are committed to the broader democratization of academic publication, our work in developing an engaged mentorship infrastructure attempts to flatten the traditional hierarchies inherent in a mentorship arrangement in the hopes that coalition building and transparency can flow both ways across a mentor-mentee relationship. Further, to safeguard against presentism and provide contextualization of ongoing concerns across the fields in which we publish, we also implement a vertical mentorship infrastructure by relying on the expertise and knowledge of senior scholars in the field. We believe this close relationship among the editors and the editorial board facilitates collective accountability for the work that we publish. 


LiCS published its first issue in March 2013; this publication date represented two years’ work among the Editorial Team in conceptualizing the journal and assembling the Editorial Board and a panel of Editorial Associates. The inaugural issue consisted of a roundtable discussion among Editorial Board members engaging various concepts, controversies, and conversations in the fields of literacy studies and composition. Since that first issue, LiCS has published over 100 articles, symposium contributions, interviews, and book reviews spread across 10 volumes. During that time, three of the five founding editors—Brenda Glascott, Chris Warnick, and Tara Lockhart—are still actively running the journal. Holly Middleton and Richard Parent were also founding editors. Justin Lewis joined as Layout and Design Editor in 2012 and Juli Parrish joined as Senior Copyeditor in 2013. More recently, Kara Poe Alexander joined as Submissions Editor in 2020, Helen Sandoval joined as Book Review Editor in 2020, and Al Harahap joined as Editor in 2023. Our new members have been integral to all Editorial Team decision-making, and we’re lucky to have them aboard to share their ideas and the labor of publishing the journal. 

Since its founding, LiCS was designed to provide a different approach from that offered by conventional journals in Writing Studies. From a disciplinary perspective, the editors of LiCS noticed a marked lack of scholarship that bridged the fields of literacy studies and composition studies. Literacy Studies is both international and multidisciplinary, with scholars from humanities and social sciences worldwide contributing to a global conversation. Composition Studies, on the other hand, is more rooted in a U.S. context although scholars borrow methods from both the humanities and social sciences. Since the fields have significantly overlapping areas, we were interested in seeing greater exchange between the scholars in these fields and greater cross-pollination of methods, theories, and pedagogies. As such, LiCS was created to sponsor scholarly activity at the nexus of both fields to invite critical uptakes of writing as contextually-bound and ideologically-motivated sociocultural activity. This stance privileges multiple readings and complex, multitudinous meaning-making in any given literacy act, including our own editorial reading process. From an access perspective, LiCS wanted to follow other journals like Kairos and Composition Forum by providing scholarship that is born digital, online, free of cost, and free of copyright and licensing restrictions (“Open Access Overview”). To support this mission, and to encourage uptake and circulation of journal content, the editors decided, early on in the planning process, to publish articles under the CC-NC-ND license and to pursue as many indexing and cross-referencing opportunities as possible. From an editorial perspective, LiCS editors have eschewed a traditional vertical editorial structure in the interest of a feminist-informed, horizontal framework that encourages consensus but isn’t necessarily bound by universal agreement. This feminist-informed editing praxis is joined to a commitment to open access publishing that determines our approach to the creation, production, and circulation of scholarship.

Vignette One: Coalitional Modes of Production

Composition studies has recognized the value of collaboration, particularly as a goal for our students. We are also a discipline that often characterizes itself as valuing professional collaborations and collaborative scholarship, although—depending on the politics and tenure and promotion requirements at varying institutions—collaborative writing can still be a tenuous undertaking. When we first talked about starting this journal, we embraced a goal that is radically collaborative and aspired toward operating as a collective: the founding five editors decided to work as what we called an Editorial Collective. This original language was purposeful: marking the absence of a hierarchy and the distribution of decision making among the collective in its entirety. Our goal in decision making was consensus, for the collective to reach full agreement on any course of action. In operating the journal, we soon discovered that framing our collaboration as the work of a collective created challenges. In our experience, to function as a collective necessitates not just shared ideology, purpose, and values, but also a willingness to subsume individual perspectives and elevate the most widely shared ones. This kind of collaboration undercuts the possible significance of contributions from those in the group’s minority. We realized our conceptual frame was undermining the work we could do together and moved to a coalitional approach. A coalition is a much more tactical concept (DeCerteau 36) wherein individual values and ideological commitments may be at odds but are put aside for moments of collaboration around a shared-at-the-time purpose–in our case, the administration of the journal. Adopting a coalitional approach to the day-to-day functioning of the journal was an important aspect of our praxis; how we related to each other as editors was embedded in our goals to foster a transparent and mentor-based relationship with authors.

As with all best laid plans, we hit obstacles along the way. Although we published our first issue in March 2013, it wasn’t until spring 2014 when the Editorial Collective, which quickly was renamed the Editorial Team in correspondence with the Editorial Board and authors, implemented the structure and process that we currently use. The Editorial Team met weekly via Google Hangouts (and continues to do so), and throughout 2013, we had a series of what we called “meta-meetings” about how best to manage the tasks we had and how to handle failures to reach consensus. In November 2013, we posed these questions: 

  1. How do we know when a decision has been made? Is it unanimous agreement? What happens when one person doesn’t agree?
  2. Can we anticipate the kinds of decisions that we will need to make in a publication cycle and essentially schedule them? 
  3. Who gets to decide what needs a pressing answer and what can be tabled? What if the person raising the question disagrees? Are there identifiable characteristics of things needing immediate attention? 

We read two articles, “Decide How to Decide” by Ellen Gottesdiener from Software Development Magazine and “Negotiation and Collaborative Problem Solving” by L. Steven Smutko from NC State University’s Natural Resources Leadership Institute. Smutko’s piece was central to reconsidering our goal of reaching consensus. We discovered that while consensus can mean full agreement, it can also incorporate degrees of “endorsement” of a  action or decision. In other words, the Editorial Team realized that “a shared viewpoint of the world is not a prerequisite for temporarily joining together to take action on an issue of mutual importance” (Walton, Moore, and Jones 55). Rather, by listening and honoring the sometimes divergent perspectives and contexts of each Editorial Team member, the coalition as a whole reached agreement based on our shared principles and commitments to our scholarly values and open-access ethics.

By the end of February 2014, we decided to focus on this coalitional decision-making process, rather than striving for consensus. We wrote in our minutes that “consensus is the goal; collaboration is the method (?)” and that when we disagree, we would “collaborate to unearth… underlying issues” (“Minutes of Weekly LiCS Meeting”). In the same period, we also worked to clarify our roles and responsibilities. We did this inductively, by first writing lists of the work we were doing in our capacities. While we made all decisions collectively, we had divvied up certain areas of work and assigned titles to them, such as Submission Editor and Managing Editor, in order to make our individual work visible to tenure and promotion committees. We have a Google Doc where we named the responsibilities that fall under particular roles, and we have revisited it subsequently to update it and to discuss workload and production process.

This model of collaborative decision-making carries over in the process we use to evaluate submissions. When a new manuscript is submitted, it is read and discussed by at least two members of the Editorial Team, who share their responses to the following questions on a rubric the Editorial Team collaboratively designed over the course of several meetings:

  • Is the manuscript relevant to the mission and scope of LiCS?
  • Does the manuscript develop a clear research project or argument?
  • Does the piece seem particularly (or potentially) innovative, important, or fills a gap in the research?
  • Does the manuscript state clearly how the project contributes to a relevant scholarly conversation(s) in composition and literacy studies?
  • Does the manuscript engage with recent research in both literacy and composition studies?
  • Does the manuscript demonstrate the project is methodologically sound?
  • Is the manuscript organized in a way that makes sense and serves the project?
  • Should the manuscript be sent out for review and, if so, what suggestions do you have for selecting reviewers?

If the two members of the Editorial Team who first read the manuscript agree, we send it out for external review to two readers selected from our Editorial Associates: they answer similar questions and offer a publication recommendation. When we’ve received feedback from both readers, all six members of the Editorial Team discuss the manuscript and the reviews, reaching a consensus about whether to continue working toward publishing the manuscript. At any point in this discussion among the Editorial Team, an editor may veto publication, initiating another round of discussion; further, if a team member isn’t ready to veto a manuscript, they can voice their reticence to publish using a fingers-based Likert scale. Relying on Smutko’s description of the “Five Finger Scale” (23), the Editorial Team uses this rating mechanism because it offers a quick barometer for testing where the team is at while also providing confirmation of one’s comfort in publishing a manuscript. If a team member isn’t ready to veto but isn’t ready to publish, another round of discussion takes place until another vote is called. This collaborative process among the Editorial Team continues until we reach a final decision about the manuscript. 

Even though one member of the Editorial Team manages the submissions process and signs off on communications with the author, we collaboratively write feedback to authors. Each Editorial Team member comments on each manuscript in a Google doc shared among the group before our meeting to discuss the manuscript. A member of the team volunteers to compile these responses in an email to the author that is eventually sent out by the individual in the role of Submissions Editor. 

The coalitional modes of production at LiCS is a conscious attempt to open up the editorial process by valuing the knowledge, expertise, and opinion of each member of the Editorial Team. By working towards consensus via collaborative deliberation, our editorial process tries to democratize the vertical and often black-boxed decision making process used by traditional journals in the humanities and social sciences while acknowledging that a shared worldview isn’t required for collaborative editorial decision making.

Vignette Two: Coalition Building via Circulation

It is a truism that anyone with an Internet connection can produce content and that conventional wisdom states “the Internet is forever.” Yet, the very openness of the Internet and our lived online experiences obscure the challenges to online scholarly publishing. At LICS, we want to reach audiences in the fields of composition and literacy studies. The ethics of open-access scholarly publishing mandate that we also preserve that work for future audiences. But, open access also allows us to reach audiences outside of our fields. How a scholarly journal reaches both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences, meets its ethical obligations to preservation, and builds scholarly authority is the subject of this vignette: coalition building via circulation.

LiCS is indexed in restricted (MLA Bibliography, JStor) and open-access (CompPile) scholarly databases specific to our fields, which of course allow scholars to find our authors’ work through database searches. Yet, it is also accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. This means that when Annette Vee was interviewed for the Mother Jones article “We Can Code It!: Why Computer Literacy Is Key to Winning in the 21st Century,” journalist Tasneem Raja linked to Vee’s LiCS article “Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy” within the Mother Jones text, bringing her scholarly work to a Mother Jones audience. A reader of any web publication expects to be able to link to further web content, and making scholarly knowledge available in this way is the great promise of open-access publishing. It allows our scholarship to travel, building tactical connections among scholars across disparate fields who hold commitments to exploring the complex intersections of composition and literacy. 

However, any reader of web content is also familiar with the error message of broken links, “404 not found,” which we have the ethical obligation to ensure never appears when a reader clicks on Vee’s or any other article in LiCS. Any URL is temporary, so while the Internet may be forever, paths to finding online content are not. As open-access publishers of born-digital content, we have to ensure our links remain stable and able to continue building connections among our readers. To that end, we have recently registered all of our current and past content with CrossRef, so that each article has its own  digital object identifier (DOI). DOIs work as forwarding addresses that will always direct users to an article’s current location; they function as a stable reference for both private and public indexing services. DOIs are the standard for articles in the social sciences, humanities, and STEM fields. At LiCS, we’re excited to be adopters of DOIs and are committed to using them to increase article circulation and connection both inside and outside our disciplines. 

The expectation of a Mother Jones reader—access—is yet again different from that of a tenure and promotion committee, which demands scholarly authority. While the collaborative editorial process of peer review at LiCS determines whether a piece of writing is “scholarly,” many scholars see print as authoritative and are still skeptical about born-digital content. In other words, we cannot expect that every member of a tenure and promotion committee will accept a URL, DOI, or printout of a web page as scholarship. Therefore, from our inception, we have published articles as PDF with a traditional document design modeled on established journals in our field. In this way, the same article that is linked in Mother Jones or shared on Twitter (now known as X) can be submitted to a conservative tenure and promotion committee as a print article indistinguishable from those published in more traditional print journals. While PDF is an important design format that establishes our credibility with more traditional readers, it is also crucial for us as an archival format that preserves LiCS content for future audiences. 

Offering PDF versions of digital content that mimics print publication was also a coalitional action toward prospective writers. Part of our feminist editing ethos is to intentionally query how infrastructure decisions impact different users of the journal through lengthy conversations among the editorial team and through annual reports about our efforts and decision-making to the Editorial Board. Perhaps because the editors were all either pre-tenure or in non-tenure track positions as we developed our publishing infrastructure, we were acutely aware of how the materiality of publications might affect scholars’ job prospects or stability. The additional labor involved in publishing print-like PDFversions of the HTMLcontent was a decision we explicitly discussed as a way to build trust with prospective authors. We imagined what it would take to be in coalition with potential authors who, like some of us, felt hesitant or vulnerable about publishing in a fully digital journal, because of the ways bias against digital scholarship could impact employment. 

Our commitment to coalition with authors also drove our focus on establishing a preservation infrastructure for the content we published. For digital publishers, the costs and process of preserving content are reversed. Print publishers are able to serve their future audiences once the book or journal is indexed and placed on the library shelf or captured on microfilm. The costs of print publication are also incurred upfront through the publishing process itself. Now that the publication process has been democratized, the costs are reversed. Instead of the initial cost of printing and distribution, digital publishers are instead allocating resources toward guaranteed access of content for perpetuity. By addressing the question, “How do you make that article available—even findable—to future readers and to published authors?” with a variety of preservation technologies, LiCS is consciously contributing to the stable web of knowledge that undergirds the open-access scholarship movement in the academy. By ensuring the preservation of LiCS content in perpetuity, we are fulfilling a commitment to the authors who publish with us that their writing will not vanish and will remain accessible. We believe that these commitments to circulation and access ensure that strategic alliances among scholars and readers across a variety of fields can spark important conversations and initiate justice-informed actions related to reading, writing, and meaning making outside the confines of the journal’s pages. 

Scholarly born-digital content can be preserved through an institutional repository, and journals sponsored by universities are often preserved in this way. As an independent journal, LiCS does not have an institutional home, so we researched our options. At the time, Portico, LOCKS, and CLOCKSS were the online archives available to independent journals, but we chose CLOCKSS for several reasons. One is its method, which audits and repairs digital content at twelve university repositories, thereby offering a level of built-in redundancy that we considered the safest option of the three. Importantly, if a journal ceases publication, CLOCKSS is the only option that automatically makes  triggered journal content open-access. CLOCKSS also has stringent requirements to ensure that member journals have established DOIs, inclusion in indexing services, and open-access publication policies. We began indexing our content with CLOCKSS in 2017, ensuring that our content can continue inspiring connections, collaborations and coalitions in perpetuity. 

By indexing with various metadata services, assigning DOIs to article content, and employing the CLOCKSS preservation technology, LiCS content is circulated and made accessible to all audiences with an internet connection and a desire to read. Utilizing these technologies allows LiCS authors to contribute to infrastructures of open knowledge; by harnessing the medial capacities of the web, circulation technologies, like DOIs and CLOCKSS, help the Editorial Team maintain their commitment to an open ethics publication. While access and preservation technologies aren’t typically considered central to coalition building, they are significant–if invisible–ways to be in coalition with authors towards the wider democratization of knowledge. Thinking about our preservation commitment as an act of coalition raises interesting questions about the activity of being in coalition. The concept of coalition implies that the parties involved are conscious of–and reciprocating–coalitional action. Can an activity be coalitional if it is illegible to one or more of the parties? Authors and potential authors do not necessarily know to ask digital journals about preservation, or even know that it is something to be concerned about. And yet, the early attention to preservation was motivated by the editorial team’s desire to serve authors in the best way available. It was a coalitional action that might be unnoticed by some of the members participating in the coalition. Or, perhaps it is better to characterize it as an imminent coalitional action that will be coalitional if and when authors begin to demand this curatorial responsibility from digital journals.

Vignette Three: Sponsoring Coalition Building via Infrastructures of Exchange

In Digital Rhetoric, Douglas Eyman begins his section on “Digital Ecologies” thusly:

I begin by setting up a framework that situates digital circulation within specific 

ecologies and economies of production: while circulation ecologies represent the places, 

spaces, movements, and complex interactions of digital texts as they are produced, 

reproduced, exchanged, or used, the exchanges and uses that take place within those 

specific ecological circumstances are governed by the economics of circulation (which in 

turn are subject to the constraints and affordances offered by situated ecologies in which 

the texts circulate). (84)

Eyman’s definitions of  circulation, exchange, and ecology are helpful for considering how we designed the infrastructure of LiCS with exchange in mind.  This is not only the case in terms of technologies like the DOIs described in Vignette Two but also in the ways that the journal structure and individual journal sections invite moments of exchange and possible coalition-building among communities and individuals who may not have the opportunity to engage frequently. In this vignette, we’ll describe how existing and planned journal sections create a space for engagement and a place of familiarity for scholars working at the intersection of related, but often differentiated fields. By positioning LiCS as a site of exchange that relies on the technologies of circulation described in Vignette Two, Vignette Three highlights the journal itself as a site of engagement and a place where these circulation practices inform an ethics of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality that are enacted toward coalition building around issues in literacy and composition.

While all articles published by LiCS straddle the disciplinary boundaries between composition studies and literacy studies, the Symposium section offers a unique opportunity for direct exchange across the pages of the journal. Symposium contributions extend the conversation begun in the inaugural issue concerning a variety of topics, including the ideological nature of literacy; literacy sponsorship; historical legacies of literacy studies in composition; the social turn in literacy studies; and the intersections of rhetoric, literacy, and writing. Symposium contributions since issue 1.1 have expanded the scope of the section, encouraging exchange in areas of concern such as mis/disinformation, health literacy, The Indianapolis Resolution, prison literacy programs, and teaching literacy in the post-Obama era. As a space of productive critique, Symposium contributions offer rich ideas and arguments that, when exchanged, propel the shared conversations of the journal forward and open up new avenues of coalescence and enrichment across disciplines. As the central site of exchange in LiCS, the Symposium section is a conduit for circulation and allows ideas to be reproduced, used, extended, refined, and modified to meet the complex and ever-shifting terrain on which composition studies and literacy studies rest. 

In addition to the ongoing Symposium, LiCS also hosts special issues that provide unique opportunities to extend and transform the ongoing mission of the journal in important ways. To date, LiCS has published six special issues. In March 2015, Ben Kuebrich, Jessica Pauszek, and Steve Parks guest edited a special issue titled “The New Activism: Composition, Literacy Studies, and Politics.” Just a few months later in October 2015, Rebecca Lorimer Leonard, Kate Vieira, and Morris Young guest edited a special issue on “The Transnational Movement of People and Information.” A special issue on “Literacy, Democracy, and Fake News” was published by the Editorial Team in Fall 2017.  Recent special issues include “Composing a Further Life,” guest edited by Lauren Marshall Bowen and Suzanne Keller Rumsey (2018); an issue dedicated to the life and work of Brian V. Street, guest edited by Antonio Byrd, Jordan Hayes, and Nicole Turnipseed (2021); and “Working Toward a Definition of Queer Literacies,” guest edited by Collin Craig, Wilfredo Flores, and Zarah Moeggenberg (2022). These special issues have provided important spaces for exploring focused areas of inquiry in the pages of the journal.

From our perspective, special issues offer multiple points of exchange and a chance for coalition building: first, as editors we’re provided an opportunity to expand our vision of the journal by collaborating with experts and practitioners in our field. Second, for the readership of LiCS, the special issues connect scholars in a specialized area with a larger audience for their ideas. Because the majority of LiCS articles are in some way politically engaged, the special issues give readers a peek into specific contexts and situational ecologies and encourage action, reflection, and connection building on a given topic. Third, the special issue also democratizes the editorial process, allowing the LiCS editors to exchange roles and authority in the administration of the journal. This process of exchange between the ongoing and guest editors is a learning process for both groups and is an action in keeping with the feminist commitment of democratizing power that guides our editorial vision. In some ways, any journal that publishes special issues under guest editorship is engaging in coalitional work. On the other hand, this coalitional action might be mediated through greater or lesser editorial transparency, making it more or less likely that early career scholars, for example, would feel empowered to propose to guest edit.

While Vignette Two discussed the technologies of dissemination and circulation that undergird LiCS, we hope this third vignette has provided a peek into how the structure of the journal itself is designed to encourage various forms of exchange and possible coalition-building across a diverse range of contexts and topics. Because the free exchange of ideas is a logical outcome of the rights to access encouraged by open-access scholarly publication, we’ve designed structures to promote this exchange into the infrastructure of the journal itself. As the journal transforms and our readership shifts and expands, the forms of exchange facilitated by these sections will likely necessitate new sections and permutations in the journal’s composition. For example, based on our website analytics, readers of LiCS in non-English speaking, non-North American contexts have been visiting the site with increasing frequency. We very much welcome these readers and hope they’ll also contribute to the journal and enrich our readership with their own epistemologies around literacy. Providing a space for reprints or original work that appeared outside of a North American or English language context is something we’re trying to grow through scholarly networking, international conferencing, and membership in international literacy-focused organizations, such as the Writing Research Across Borders conference and the International Writing Research Workshop at CCCC. Because of the flexibility of digital journal administration and organization, we need only reach a critical mass of submissions and participation to launch additional sections of the journal that sponsor coalition building around future reading audiences outside of our own North American, English speaking context. The economics of circulation and the ecological transformations in technology, readership, disciplinarity, and editorial make-up will continue to transform the coalitional possibilities encouraged by LiCS’s commitments to engagement and will continuously remake the journal in exciting ways.

Vignette Four: Mentorship & Opportunities for Coalitional Labor

As highlighted in Vignette One, decision-making processes and editorial responsibilities are shared across the LiCS Editorial Team. Our form of horizontal organization allows each editor to play an important role in the publication process from manuscript submission to article launch. This horizontal organizational structure also provides opportunities for editors to build coalitions on other journal matters, such as decisions regarding preservation technologies, publishing management systems, Editorial Board interactions, and social events to promote the journal. The editors of LiCS also believe that a horizontal mentorship program is at the core of the journal’s mission and demonstrates a commitment to the democratization of the publication process in an open-access paradigm. In addition to the horizontal mentorship program, the LiCS Editorial Team incorporates vertical mentorship to leverage disciplinary and historical knowledge and experience from senior scholars in the field to guard against presentism and provide contextualization of issues in the intersecting fields of literacy studies and composition studies. The LiCS commitment to mentorship in horizontal and vertical forms is another form of ethical engagement with colleagues and collaborators both inside and outside the field of Writing Studies; further, it is a core infrastructural component that extends the open-access ethic into the relational aspects of disciplinary membership and scholarly communication in our shared areas of inquiry. Reflecting on what we have and have not accomplished in mentoring raises interesting questions about formal and informal modes of coalition as described below.

Providing mentorshipfor writers was a central goal of the journal at its founding. Initially, the LiCS editors saw a major part of their mission as guiding emerging scholars who lack extensive experience formulating arguments at the intersection of literacy studies and composition studies. The editors saw this goal as an extension of the coalitional action of the journal. In short, we wanted to build an experience for authors that expressed respect and investment in a shared outcome. However, taking a coalitional approach to mentoring is complex. Because of this, our mentoring processes reflect a spectrum of informal and formal activities and surprises.

Creating a formal mentoring infrastructure that is coalitional is challenging. Faced with our authors’ job pressures, we worry about inviting a writer to engage in a process of revision with no guarantee of publication over an undefined period of time. We have been engaged in a multi-year process of designing a formal mentorship process with active collaboration from members of the Editorial Board and headed by a newer member of the Editorial Team, Al Harahap, who brings experience in building formal mentoring infrastructure. The types of questions we need to answer to build a responsible mentoring program include: 

  1. How does an author access mentoring? Is it requested, assigned, suggested? At what stage in the submission process does this happen? 
  2. What is the timeline for mentoring? 
  3. What commitments is the journal undertaking in mentoring an author on a publication? What happens if the piece is not “publication ready” after a certain period of time? 
  4. Who should be mentors? How is their labor accounted for? How are they trained to facilitate a productive mentoring experience? 

These thorny questions have delayed our initial ambition to offer a formal mentoring infrastructure. This delay can feel like a failure, but it is also an outgrowth of the carefulness that emerges from our coalitional ethos.

One success we have had in a mentoring ethos is more informal and emerges from our commitment to openness. We strive to be transparent with writers at every step of the process and to treat writers with respect by communicating about–and being accountable for–our timelines for review. Even in cases of manuscripts we do not send out for external review, we write extensive revision notes so that authors will potentially find something useful in their communication with us. In reflection, we think the active practice of collaboration and communication necessary for editing the journal as a coalition might foster the values of transparency and accountability that inform our communication with authors. 

We have been more successful with horizontal mentorship within the editorial coalition itself. The Editorial Team has supported members as they apply for jobs and go through tenure and promotion processes. We have been readers of each other’s drafts, both scholarship and job materials. Likewise, we have experienced horizontal mentorship within the community of editors of journals in Composition and Rhetoric, particularly with editors of other independent journals. These experiences of horizontal mentoring have been a surprising benefit from our local editorial team coalition and from the unexpected coalition we found with other journal editors. The coalition with other journal editors was initially fostered through conference panels on journal editing; in this way, the infrastructure offered by professional organizations has been central to the creation of coalitional relationships. Conversations with other editors led to multiple journals offering collaborative workshops intended for conference attendees interested in publication practices and participation in journal editing. 

This horizontal mentorship among journal editors has led to collaborations meant to mentor emerging editors and writers. Partnering with Laura Micciche of Composition Studies, the LiCS Editorial Team proposed a horizontal mentorship workshop for the 2017 CCCC conference in Portland, Oregon, that targeted new and experienced scholars interested in getting published in independent academic journals in the field. Editors from LiCS, Composition Studies, Enculturation, and Across the Disciplines facilitateda half-day workshop that demystified the publication process from submission to release. At this workshop, attended by pre- and post-dissertating graduate students, early career faculty, and scholars and instructors in non-tenure positions, we intended to focus on a set of access points to publishing: strategies for submitting a manuscript or a book review to an independent journal, for example. We were reminded quickly, however, not to take for granted what people know about submitting manuscripts to journals—or even about journals themselves. In response to questions from attendees, we found ourselves talking about a range of other issues: not just how to identify “fit” with a journal but also the fact that even journals within the same subfield have specific, sometimes quite narrowly-defined, focuses. Not just how one might begin copy-editing for a journal as a way to get some editorial experience but also what copy-editing really involves, and why it matters. In asking our attendees to think about the work that goes on behind the scenes at independent journals, we also found ourselves offering them richer ways to imagine themselves participating in the life of academic journals as potential writers, reviewers, and editors. 

Our participation in this workshop reminded us that our coalitional goal might bring with it a responsibility to provide a venue in which people might publish their work and to understand that many people—established teachers as well as newer graduate students and scholars—need help entering into and navigating this process. Our commitment to open access, in other words, might motivate us to open up more points of access to more potential writers and to make those points of access more transparent. To this end, we partnered with editors from other independent journals to offer a half-day workshop at CCCC in Pittsburgh in 2019 to invite new people to consider editing or even starting new journals. This workshop, “Building and Running an Academic Journal: A Behind-the-Scenes Workshop in Independent Publishing,” was a collaboration between editors at LiCS, Laura Micciche of Composition Studies, Kristine Blair of Computers and Composition, and Michael Pemberton of Across the Disciplines.

These kinds of horizontal professional engagement opportunities allow the editors of LiCS to enact mentorship in the interest of flattening the academic publication hierarchy, a hierarchy that might lead to black-box decision making processes or concentrated disproportionate amounts of power in the hands of a single editor. For the long term infrastructure health and growth of our field(s), we see horizontal mentorship as an ethical imperative to sustaining inquiry at the intersection of both composition studies and literacy studies.

While the LiCS editors distribute authority and agency across the editorial coalition, they also realize that vertical mentorship from experts in the field is important to their own growth as scholars as well as the growth of authors that appear in the pages of the journal. By frequently relying on the Editorial Board to provide guidance and direction in matters of concern, the journal editors receive instruction from other scholars that safeguards against presentism and locates the journal and its commitments in longer social, cultural, and academic histories. In addition to mentoring the editors, some members of the Editorial Board are providing direct mentorship to emerging scholars in the field. This form of vertical mentorship not only enriches the production of scholarship but allows pre-tenure authors the opportunity to connect with Associate and Full professors over issues outside of the scholarship, including the tenure and promotion process, interfacing with administrators, and the ability to find a productive life-work balance. Though these kinds of issues aren’t the concern of LiCS directly, our commitment to mentorship and to our colleagues and disciplines more broadly make this kind of engagement an ethical necessity.


In this short piece, we’ve attempted to show how our editorial infrastructure is anchored in a commitment to open-access, feminist editing praxis, and coalition building among authors, editors and readership. These commitments shape our production, circulation, exchange, and mentorship activities in important ways, allowing the LiCS editorial team to organize the complex labor of publishing an independent journal in non-traditional ways. Yet, our work is not without its challenges: the disadvantages of organizing our coalitional activity include a significant investment in time, workload, and editorial labor. Because the LiCS editorial team is responsible for every aspect of the publication process, from author submission to manuscript publication, to digital publishing platform design and implementation, to indexing and preservation of journal contents, the workload required from each editorial team member extends beyond decision making into the doing of academic journal publishing. Further, our commitment to collaborative deliberation and coalition-based decision making means we also spend a large amount of time working toward decisions in the administration of the journal, the publication of manuscripts, and the determination of the journal’s future direction. All of these tasks and processes take time, and time is something in short supply for most. 

Challenges aside, the LiCS editorial team wouldn’t trade our current infrastructures for more traditional organizational models. We believe that the aforementioned engaged, coalitional networks and  infrastructures we’ve created and refined over the last ten years allow us to maintain a high level of transparency both among each other as well as with the authors we hope to publish; further, because of the intensely collaborative nature of our work, we are buoyed by the ongoing, real-time nature of our process and genuinely excited when we collectively move a manuscript from submission to publication. By augmenting traditional notions of open access via circulation and preservation with social and relational open ethics via production, exchange, and mentorship, we hope that the LiCS coalitional editorial model extends the conversation about open access in the realm of academic publication toward opportunities to sponsor coalition-building in the creation and production of scholarship in our respective fields.

Works Cited 

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 1984.

Eyman, Douglas. Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Glenn, Cheryl, and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Coalition: A Meditation.” Peitho, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 11-14. 

Gottesdiener, Ellen. “Decide How to Decide.” Software Development Magazine,  Jan. 2001.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

“Minutes of Weekly LiCS Meeting.” Literacy in Composition Weekly Editorial Team Meeting, 15 February 2014.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Feminism without Borders.” Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press, 2003.

Raja, Tasneem. “Is Coding the New Literacy?”. Mother Jones, 1 Jun. 2016, 

Ridolfo, Jim, and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, vol. 13, no. 2. 2009. 

Smutko, L. Steven. “Negotiation and Collaborative Problem Solving.” Natural Resources Leadership Institute, Dec. 2005,

Vee, Annette. “Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy.” Literacy In Composition Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, pp. 42-64. doi:10.21623/

Walton, Rebecca, Kristen R. Moore, and Natasha N. Jones. Technical Communication After the Social Justice Turn: Building Coalitions for Action. Routledge, 2019.

The Risks and Possibilities of Academic Feminist Coalition Building

“You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive” (Johnson Reagon 356-7).

“Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort…You go to the coalition for a few hours and then you go back and take your bottle wherever it is, and then you go back and coalesce some more” (359).

“Coalition can kill people; however, it is not by nature fatal” (361).

A significant part of my scholarly and political work has involved understanding the contours of creating political coalitions and actively trying to build them. It is safe to say that, especially as a young scholar, I tended to glorify coalition, thinking of it as an ideal political practice, maybe the most ideal political practice to affect change and achieve liberation. It has only been through the years of really doing the work that I’ve come to understand more fully the cautions that Bernice Johnson Reagon offers about coalition. There’s nothing to glorify in coalition. Coalition building is necessary; it is dangerous; and it is not home. Yet, Johnson Reagon did not offer her stark warnings to deter people from the practice; after all, if you’re attempting it, it is because you need it. I tend to believe that Johnson Reagon put things in such blunt terms so that people would know what they are getting themselves into and proceed with care. 

This essay is a short meditation on the dangers and possibilities of what I call “academic feminist coalitions.” I offer a simple argument: it is useful for us, as academic feminists, to think about our relationship building, networking, and mentoring as coalition work. Doing so provides a framework to ask crucial questions that robustly attend to the risks engendered by feminists relating in the academy and lean into the possibilities that such work can simultaneously invite. There is so much possibility for meaningful social and political change in coalition, but we cannot think about the possibility without thinking about the danger, and the danger for whom. In other words, we can’t think about coalition without thinking about our differences from one another. 

In the academy, we don’t exist in Habermas’ ideal public sphere where differences can be bracketed. As Audre Lorde says, “Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women [or insert your assumed collectivity here]” (118). What Lorde points to are the dangers inherent in assuming a coherence in identity categories like “woman” or “feminist,” which may be better thought of as coalitions comprised of people with a multiplicity of identities and therefore fragile and incoherent. In our contemporary time, this fragility and incoherence has become even more transparent as we have been called so forcefully to consider the multiple subjects of feminism by those who question the gender binary, particularly as binarized gendered thinking intersects with ability, race, class, caste, age, nation, religion and more. 

In striving for the possibilities of coalition, we cannot take coalition for granted nor can we take coherence for granted, either within a coalition or within a supposedly coherent identity group on the basis of which one joins into coalition. This is essential when we think about our feminist practices in the academy. Sure, it may seem as if we come together under the auspices of our shared identity as feminist scholars of rhetoric, communication, and composition, but how much do we share? 

When we reflect upon feminist teaching, learning, and mentoring, we must raise questions about the coalitions we hope to form among ourselves as faculty and with students. Although in my experience we often begin by asking what we have in common with each other, like Lorde suggests, we may be better served by asking in what ways we are different from each other and from students. For those of us with positions of structural power—as professors and mentors and people with stable jobs, we must then ask questions about how structural power impacts the way we seek and build coalitions. Again, my experience suggests that we must take that power very seriously and interrogate what it means constantly in our relationships with each other and with students. The interrogation of power is not a straightforward endeavor. As Foucault so poignantly reminds us, power is not held, and it is not uni-directional. Power is exercised. To me, this is a reminder that while faculty are obviously structurally empowered vis-à-vis students and differentially so with each other, no one is without the ability to exercise some form of power in a given relationship. For example, students can exercise immense power, and sometimes that power is even threatening. As a younger gen-Xer, I am on the learning-curve end of social media platforms and practices, and the idea of being an “influencer” is strange to me. It is also hard for me to imagine broadcasting my life on social media like I see some of my students and junior colleagues doing. But many of them do it, and that’s totally fine, and many of them have huge followings, sometimes in the tens of thousands on platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter). If someone takes to X to air their grievances about someone or some institution, that is a powerful move. It can rightfully call attention to damage done, and it can also do harm by reducing complex interactions to 140-character bites. I’ve seen this happen. For example, I once knew a student who identified as a queer feminist of color who felt that a faculty member who was also a queer feminist of color was dishonest with them because the faculty member didn’t tell the student that they might be leaving the institution—before the faculty member even knew if the move was a sure thing. When the student found out that the faculty member was leaving, they took to all their social media to publicly decry the faculty member as a liar. While the student couldn’t harm the professor’s position at either university because the faculty member was tenured, reputational damage was no doubt done as the student had power by virtue of a significant social media audience. 

Moreover, often students are far more up-to-date on the latest scholarship, theory, and thinking than those mired in service and teaching, and/or they have very specific (and often quite informed) views about the ways certain course material should be taught. That knowledge can be exercised as a form of intellectual power (and one I hope we generally welcome), but it can also be used to reinforce other forms of power and privilege. For example, I know several Black women professors in feminist courses who have had their syllabi challenged by their non-Black students because they are supposedly teaching too many white scholars or too much “canonical” work. This has happened even in cases when most of a syllabus is comprised of scholars of color and more recent works. In some instances, students have made their grievances known to a department chair or senior faculty member before questioning the professor who teaches the class. The students may have had legitimate concerns, but going directly to someone with more power than the professor is a problematic power move. It suggests both a level of disrespect for the professor’s intellectual choices and an understanding of the power the students hold in relation to that professor. I am making some blunt cuts around the different kinds of power people have, but I offer them as anecdotes to remind us that power is complicated and should be treated as such. And those power lines are even further complicated when considering contingent faculty of all kinds, relationships with department chairs and administrators, and even governing boards or legislators.

When we think about academic feminist relationships of all kinds as coalition work, I think it invites us to ask critical questions about difference and power so that we enter into such relationships intentionally and cautiously. A coalition framework invites us to remember that our academic feminist relationships are political and that it is crucial to consider carefully the harms we can cause, and have caused, sometimes, oftentimes, without even realizing it. When students of color, for example, seek us out as feminist mentors in predominantly white departments, they are in a very precarious position. It may not be life or death, to return us to Johnson Reagon, but it may be. And, we may not know. For instance, I once mentored a brilliant queer, feminist, first-gen, graduate student. The student had a lot of mechanical issues with their writing and came to me for assistance, which I eagerly offered. To me, this student seemed smart and self-assured, so I didn’t shy away from offering them very critical but constructive feedback. I didn’t hear from them for a good long while after offering the feedback. When they finally surfaced, they reluctantly let me know that my feedback had catapulted them into a bout of extreme anxiety that felt immobilizing. I was stunned, but through conversing with them, I realized how my failure to more carefully frame my feedback in a way that emphasized the strengths as well as the weaknesses did significant damage. I had just come from teaching at an institution with almost all white and privileged students, and so doing this kind of care work had apparently stopped occurring to me. I have since worked hard never to repeat my errors, so that I can meet students where they are and support them in more appropriate ways. 

We thus must be transparent about and accountable to our differences and listen to those we want to support, for example, about what support means to them, while never shying away from erecting boundaries that are meaningful to us and that enable our own survival. And it is on this last point where things can also get complicated, particularly when students have an idea about what feminist mentorship, across many lines of difference, is supposed to look like, even more so perhaps when we’ve signaled to them one kind of relationality only to change course later. That difference, too, must be considered and tended to. I once had a queer feminist student of color with whom I was good friends before they entered the graduate program. When they entered the graduate program, they, rightfully I think, expected our friendship to continue as it had. I expected, without clearly communicating, that for the duration of their graduate program, our relationship would transition to something more professional. I assumed that it was obvious that if I maintained a close friendship with them while not offering the gesture of friendship to other students in the same way that I would be perceived as playing favorites. But this was not clear to a student who was new to graduate school, and it took some careful tending and hard conversations to come to a place where we could both understand where the other was coming from and come to an agreement about what our relationship would look like in this academic space. 

This work is hard. It is not, by nature, fatal. But doing it wrong, and I have done it wrong, can be very deeply damaging. It probably sounds too simple, but clear and honest communication is at the heart of effective coalition building. Thinking of our teaching and mentoring as coalition building is important, not so that we can glorify the possibilities of our coming together across difference, but so we can take those relationships with the dead seriousness that Johnson Reagon insists is necessary for coalition work. 

Works Cited

Johnson Reagon, Bernice. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table: Woman of Color Press, 1983, pp. 356-69.   

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, The Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 114-23.