When a Partner Vanishes: The (Counter-Intuitive) Value of Creating Multiple Partner Community Projects

This semester my class is partnering with organizations in Syracuse, NY, as well as with schools in the Middle East/North Africa. Our goal is to foster a discussion on the meaning of human rights, religious freedom, and democracy. Much of this work is taking place in the context of our Middle Eastern student partners being confronted by ISIS on a daily basis. To prepare for these dialogues, my students have been reading, discussing, and considering the history of the region and its political contours. Indeed, this past week, we were just on the cusp of beginning our conversations.

Then one of our Middle Eastern partners vanished.

A scheduled Skype call with my class never materialized. We still have not heard from him. My students feared the worse might have occurred. My sense was less ominous. For the moment, I am thinking that the absence is one of the typical partner issues any project faces. “Time will tell” if I’m being naïve. Still, in the immediate moment, I had to figure out how to move the class forward. It was at this moment that I realized the value of having multiple partners in any community project.

Often, when forming community partnership projects, teachers are advised to keep it simple – work with only one partner. When that partner is unable to keep their commitments, however, the project will often falter, if not actually fail. By itself, this possibility is an argument for creating projects with multiple partners.

Yet the more important reason against the strategy of the “single partner” is that it misrepresents the ways change occurs in a community.  Change is a collaborative coalitional project. To create change within a community is to work within a space where a network of committed organizations share resources toward a common goal, constantly amending plans as organizations encounter difficulties fulfilling their promises. Change is an alliance in constant flux.  If our goal is to show how change occurs then our community-based classroom projects need to demonstrate this fact for our students.

Here are some guiding principles:

1. Your Classroom Should Exist Within a Coalition

When designing a community-based project for my students, I try to think of all the different actors who have a stake in a particular issue. Out of that set of organizations and individuals, I then consider with whom I have an existing partnership and an ongoing effort on a particular issue. Once I have a set of partners willing to join their existing efforts to the possibilities of my class, we develop a plan to distribute required work. (For advice on how to develop “work plans,” see Writing Communities, p. 233.)

2. Each Coalition Member Should Have Unique but Integrated Tasks

The purpose of having multiple partners is to create a set of projects and tasks that are interrelated in that they support a common goal, but are not necessarily dependent on each other. For instance, community projects often find it useful to develop informational sheets on an issue to distribute in a neighborhood; community forums are also considered important, yet one is not dependent on the other. If one partner is unable to follow through on the forum, the other partner’s information sheets can still be produced in alliance with my class. This allows the project (and the class) to keep momentum going despite setbacks.

3. Student Work Should Be Distributed Among Partners

Multiple partners create the possibility of different types of work for students. Rather than just tutoring, for instance, the students might also run workshops with parents about the goals of education; create short videos featuring students reading their work for a local community access station; produce policy papers for use by community organizations focused on school reform. That is, a partnership network allows students to not only experience ways in which collaboration can produce actual change, it also allows them to bring their particular strengths to this collaboration.

4. When One Partner “Vanishes,” Redistribute Work Among Other Partners

If a project exists among many different organizations, when a partner has to drop out (or can’t fulfill its tasks), you can move students to other ongoing projects. This both demonstrates the value of coalitional work when creating change and insures that students have continuous work to do in the class. Such moves are not possible when a class is premised on a single project.

In arguing for our classrooms to be distributed among a network of community partners, I can imagine an argument that this creates more work for the teacher. My experience is that this is just the opposite. Each person’s individual workload shrinks and becomes more focused as collective resources are brought into alliance, and each person can witness greater impact for their efforts when placed within a collective movement. This is a powerful lesson for our students to learn.

As I conclude this post, I continue to hope that soon I will hear from my partner and friend in the Middle East. Yes, partners vanish, but we are all always wishing for their safe return.

From Syracuse to North Africa: Using Writing Prompts to Initiate Dialogue


It is the second week of class. Students’ initial enthusiasm about working with Syrian human rights activists and North African students on confronting ISIS recruitment efforts has turned to apprehension, confusion, and concern. (See my previous post on the teaching challenges of this topic and approach.) The political theory and regional histories have both emphasized the complex reality of the work and seemingly positioned such work as impossible.

As a teacher, it is at these moments that I have often turned to the drafting of writing prompts, which is an important way to shrink the project into a manageable size. The work becomes solely focused on that initial conversation with a community partner.  While initiating a conversation with communities who are in Syracuse and in North Africa might seem particularly difficult, the process of using writing prompts as a tool to explore hidden assumptions remains pretty much the same.  In general, I ask students to develop the prompts through a series of drafts.

1. The Prompt as Summary of Assigned Readings

As students begin to complete the assigned readings that provide a theoretical framework for the class, I ask them to draft a writing prompt that will begin their conversation with one of our community partners. Almost by default, the students tend to draft prompts that echo the terms of assigned readings and, really, are versions of writing assignments they might receive in other classes. We use these prompts to talk about the difference between ways of speaking in an academic community versus “everyday” communities. They are then tasked, in groups, to keep the intellectual framework in class intact but to revise one student’s writing prompt into more ordinary language. I also stress the variety of possible genres – poetry, memoir, photography, etc.

2. The Prompt as Rhetorical Invitation

As the students begin to revise a prompt for an “everyday” audience and share them in class, the language begins to reveal how they imagine their relationship to the community. Students often imagine themselves in the position of providing a service to an “impoverished community.” The prompt questions will ask partners to share hardships – not successes, positioning the community partner’s neighborhood as full of problematic issues – not as possessing attributes of collective insight and actions. Students are then asked to return to drafting the prompt, paying attention to how the community is framed.

3. The Prompt as Equal Invitation

As prompts are being revised into gestures of respect toward the community, the students must also turn their attention to choosing a topic which can begin to open up a dialogue with the community. The goal is to frame a conversation where the full life and school-based experiences of all those involved are seen as valuable to the work at hand. In a university environment premised on “expertise,” finding appropriate language to create this space is a particularly challenging task.

4. The Prompt Completed

Once the language of the prompt is completed, design becomes a key issue. Handing out photocopied sheets full of blank ink shows disrespect for everyone in the project. For that reason, once the writing is done, images need to be found that echo the stance of the prompt. As with all other elements of this process, choosing an image is also an opportunity for students to question their cultural assumptions about the community and their own relationship to it. Images of “urban poverty,” a typical first suggestion, might ultimately be replaced with images of collaboration, collective work, and visions of progress.

5. Community Review

Finally, any completed prompt will be reviewed by the lead community partner – the ally with whom the project was initiated. This might involve the partner attending a class session to point out where the language/images could be unintentionally insulting or misrepresenting the community’s self-image. This is a vital step and, as with all other moments in this process, demonstrates what it means to establish a partnership in terms of equality and respect – where everyone is working together on the issue to be addressed.

There is one final point to make about writing prompts: students should not be the only source. Rather, prior to the first common meeting, each partnering group should develop their own prompts. This ensures that everyone is in the position of “asking questions” and that each group goes through the same process of testing their cultural assumptions about other communities while practicing language that invites full participation by those communities. (As the partners take on such work, I often find it useful to be there as well.) The community’s creation of prompts may not be as time intensive as the students, given they will often have life responsibilities, but it is just as important.


When all the partners finally talk as a collective, one prompt from each group will be used to begin that conversation. This process can be as organized as directly assigning the prompts to specific selected groups. It can be as improvised as allowing individuals to choose a prompt then forming groups according to what prompt was selected. In both cases, the opening session should include individuals reading the results of their work – enacting the moment when community dialogue begins. (If possible, all the writing produced should be collected, as it provides insight into how individuals are imagining their emerging community as well as material for any possible publication.)

As I write this, my class and our community partners are still actively producing their prompts, exploring cultural assumptions, and thinking through that opening moment of conversation. It is difficult work, often frustrating to students. Still, my students also seem to be finding comfort and security knowing that the immensity of the work to come can become as focused as the conversation through which the work will emerge.

Torture, Testimony, and Human Rights: A Semester Long Community Partnership Story


The accounts below are from survivors of torture conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police and military. (Warning: Graphic Testimony/Images of Torture in the links.)

Nothing Else But Non-Violence

A Child and A Bird (video)

These testimonies were collected by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that I have been part of creating over the past several years. In addition to collecting testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses by Assad, ISIS, and proliferating militia, STJ also works with a network of human rights activists based in Syria who document on-going human rights abuses, including a recent report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

Engaging in such work quickly teaches you that Jalal Nofar’s testimony represents just one of many moments of torture and human rights abuse, just one voice among the many that were told to be quiet but continued to speak. It is a lesson I want my students to also learn.

Over the next several months, then, I will be asking students in Syracuse (university and community-based) to join in the work of STJ as well as support high school students in North Africa attempting to work against ISIS recruitment in their community. As a collective, we will be thinking through how to produce print, digital, and performance-based artifacts that can support this important human rights work – work occurring in local moments across the Middle East and North Africa but with resonance for our own communities in Syracuse. Throughout, they will be working at forming a transnational conversation on their responsibilities and role as human rights activists.

It is, perhaps, one of the most challenging community projects I have ever undertaken.

Already, some of the individuals in our network of international partners have faced government repression and threats. Elements of the project has been hampered by our need to have individuals or messages cross international borders in a time of restrictions and travel bans.  And the imagined promise of a fluid digital culture across space and time now seems a bit naïve. My students are already beginning to recognize how such work has real implications, real effects, in spaces to which they may never travel.

And I have had to recognize that the scholarly  work on community partnership and publication on which this course is premised is primarily situated within a certain understanding of U.S. culture. There is a latent faith in the right of individuals to speak, a latent faith in the safety of engaging in such speech, and, perhaps, an optimism that such actions will produce change. The challenges made by movements such as Black Lives Matter have been important interventions in asking all of us to reconsider how we are situated differently to such a faith. Still, with broad brushstrokes, I would argue much of our scholarship swims in such waters.

How, then, to position community literacy paradigms, skills, and practices within contexts that seem to trouble such beliefs? How to provide students with frameworks that do not romanticize the United States (brushing over the marginalization many populations feel) or present individuals in the Middle East/North Africa as victims to be saved? Tentatively, I intend on taking the following disciplinary/pedagogical steps.

1. Create a Complex Historical Narrative

Given the current political debates around the refugees and conflicts emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, I decided to begin my class not with rhetorical theory, but with historical research. I used academic research, online news sources, and current affair blogs, to situate my students popular culture understandings within a history of collective struggle by activists in this region for democracy and human rights. In doing so, I am also indirectly highlighting how such rights have histories outside the context of the United States.

2. Provide Models of Political Change

Within public discussions of the Middle East/North Africa, there are critiques/concerns expressed about a continual failure to establish democratic states. For this reason, I believe that my students need a model of political change, a theory through which they could test how public discussion was framing the situation in a country such as Syria, but also test the theory against their own work. (Here I am latently making the point that many of us inhabit a model of political change of which we are not always fully cognizant.)

3. Understand the Risks Involved

Speaking out always carries risk. Yet often in community publishing contexts that risk is not fully understood, articulated. Perhaps the university is seen as a guarantor of safety for all those involved. After warning about the graphic nature of STJ’s work, I will ask students to explore the site, taking note of the risks each of these individuals faced in their own lives for their public work. We can then discuss how such risks exist for everyone in the United States, though differently situated depending on individual identity. Here I want them to gain an overt understanding of the real-life context of this work and that while I would step in when necessary, they were entering projects where actual risks are involved.

Only then will we turn to the field’s work of community partnership and publishing.

I recognize that discussions of Syria, the Middle East, and human rights might seem far afield from the typical work of our writing classrooms. Yet what I have learned from this “exceptional” class is that any class which engages in community partnership work needs to create a complex historical context of that community, provide a model of social change to frame the work, and enable students to understand the risks being asked of community members. It needs the insights of other disciplines, such as history and political science. Our community writing classes might be about writing, that is, but more than writing theory is necessary to make our work successful.