Felicia Rose Chavez Wants You to Commit to the Work
Ruth Joffre interviews Felicia Rose Chavez about ‘The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop,’ what led her to develop these principles, and why anti-racism is important—in the classroom and beyond.
The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom
The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop
Ruth Joffre: was published almost two years ago, in January 2021. What has your experience of publishing it been like?
RJ:Since the book’s publication, you have visited many organizations to talk about it and to discuss how to implement anti-racist practices in workshops. What questions come up the most in these sessions, and what do you say in response?
RJ: In the book, you combine memoir and instruction, weaving how-to information, lesson plans, and other educational material into recollections of your experiences of racism as a student and your journey toward being an award-winning educator. How did you develop this format? Did the structure change as you drafted?
FRC: I wanted to write a text that I’d actually read. I’m totally turned off by dense academic language. My intuition was to invite others like me into the conversation. I say intuition because there was zero forethought about structure. There simply wasn’t any other option—no possibility of me talking about my present-day teaching practices without reflecting back on the why behind those practices, a sort of personal, pedagogical lineage. Culling material for the memoir sections was certainly easy. Students of color endure racist educational policies, practices, and personal exchanges on the day-to-day. This isn’t to say that writing it was emotionally easy, because it demanded great courage. I’d hand my husband a chapter to read, and my stomach would be in knots because I was exposing something about myself that I’d never really shared with anyone before. More technically challenging, then, was putting words to my pedagogy. It’s one thing to experiment with techniques in the classroom; it’s another to articulate those moves in a way that’s practical, clear, and succinct. Structure-wise, first draft to present draft went untouched. The editorial exchanges centered on refining my classroom hows and whys. I smile when I remember conversations with Maya Marshall, my editor. She’s a poet and an educator, and she came at me so respectfully, using the manuscript itself as a guide for our talks. It was dope to shift the traditional dynamic between editor and writer, modeling techniques from the very text we were revising.
RJ: The personal narratives in the book also offer fellow instructors a clear view of how your pedagogy changed over time and was refined over years of dedication in the classroom. Why was it important to you to talk about how you changed as a teacher, and what do you hope other teachers will learn from your journey?
FRC: What a great question. Because, absolutely, yes, it’s essential to have candid conversations about failure. I fail constantly. Which means that I evolve constantly. For so many of us, the emotional experience of failure is devastating because of its staying power. A lesson goes wrong. An assignment bombs. An off-the-cuff exchange is clumsy. So we carry that awful pit-of-the-stomach feeling home, callously judge ourselves, then retreat back to the safety net of the tried and true. What if, instead, we used failure as a launchpad for learning? What if it wasn’t shameful to fail, but helpful? For me, failing is one step closer to success. It’s essential to my practice. When I don’t fail, I restrict my professional growth. I’ve consulted with educators who tell me, “This curriculum that I’ve taught for the past twenty years, it works. It feels good to me. And so I will continue teaching it in the exact same way over and over again because I know best.” In response, I ask, how have your students changed in the past twenty years? What is their experience of your curriculum? When we prioritize the Other over ourselves, we’re forced into new territory, and that might feel uncomfortable. I say normalize discomfort! Failure, and the communication of failure, is anti-racism in action; we humble ourselves as lifelong learners. I have conversations with my students about why something didn’t work, and they go on to teach me how to improve for the next go-round. I’m so appreciative of that reciprocal relationship, teacher-student, student-teacher. The truth is that there’s no finish line, no awards ceremony designating us Officially Anti-Racist. It’s an everyday attempt. We’re going to get things wrong. And that’s okay.
RJ: Though you focus specifically on anti-racist writing workshops, many of the lessons and guidelines in the book (such as decentering the instructor and questioning the “canon”) could also apply to any literature classroom. How might instructors begin to implement some of these practices outside of the writing workshop?
FRC: While I was at work on the manuscript, a friend hired me for a phone consultation. After an hour together reimagining her syllabus, she asked, “But what do I say to my students exactly? What makes this pedagogy anti-racist?” I rambled that it’s a model of deep listening, kindred community, mindfulness, generosity. “Oh, wow,” she said. “You’re talking about a deeply human approach to teaching.” I’ll never forget that. She saw right through to the heart of it.
Today, I work with physics professors on implementing a question-based workshop model, math professors on how to use the Liz Lerman methodology to critique equations, and biology professors who want to incorporate a daily check-in ritual with their students. I work with playwrights and rhetoric instructors, musicians, dancers, actors, directors, and visual artists—even therapists have reached out about how to best implement an anti-racist pedagogy. Because they see through to the heart of it too. It’s human-to-human connection: I see you, I hear you, you exist. Everyone deserves that. To fuel this movement, we have to broaden our thinking. Boxing ourselves in—“Well, I’m not a writer, so this doesn’t apply to me,” or, “I don’t teach college students, so this doesn’t apply to me”—is an easy out, a willful upholding of the status quo. Enough with all that. Let’s open ourselves up to love and beauty and joy. Allow yourself/your students/your coworkers/your colleagues to collaborate in community, to contribute resources that reflect their passions, to give voice to their priorities, to practice sincere dialogue skills, to articulate their personal learning goals, and to reflect on their learning journeys.
RJ: The past two years have seen some good strides in implementing anti-racist practices and strategies in education spaces, but they have also seen setbacks, performative declarations of allyship, and a lot of racist legislation. What, if anything, gives you hope in this moment about the future of writing workshops and education in this country?
FRC: It’s disheartening as hell out there, for real. I hold on to hope when and where I can. Knowing that my former students advance this practice, starting their own anti-racist writing circles, self-advocating in other classrooms, practicing real dialogue skills in their personal and professional relationships, convinces me that young people get the urgency of this movement. They get that these are lasting, life skills, and that they’ve changed as a result of our time together. I also hold on to the belief that I will break free of academia—the toxicity and the abuse and the fearmongering and the lip service—and do right by you and me by starting my own school. I’m gonna grow it myself because it needs growing. Who’s out there to join me?
RJ: What other books about writing and the teaching of writing would you recommend for those hoping to improve their practice?
FRC: Of course I have favorites, like Lynda Barry’s What It Is and Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World, but most of the teaching tools I recommend aren’t craft books at all. My students and I study what we’re most drawn to, from graphic novels to TV shows to rap albums to paintings to comedy routines to documentaries to novels. These are our mentors. In other words, we study what we love, what we gravitate toward for joy or comfort or distraction or escape or that warm feeling of home. There’s a lot of pressure to write right, that we need to be told how to do it so that we don’t mess up, but I advocate that we’ve been students of art for our entire lives! Look left, look right at what you already know and love and grow from there. The “pleasure read” on your nightstand, the Netflix binge fest, the podcast on your daily commute—all capital-A Art, prime for study. Austin Kleon tells us to “write what we like,” and I’m so down with that practice.
RJ: What is fueling your creativity now?
FRC: Reading. Walking. Cooking. Swing by and you’ll find me in the kitchen. I’ve taken to printing a New York Times recipe every day and just going for it. As a present, my son bound all of the grease-splattered printouts from the past year or so into a binder titled “The Art of Cooking.” Just the other night, we flipped through it as a family, remembering, together, “Oooh that was so good,” and “Remember that? Totally not worth it.” It’s like our memory album! Professionally, I’m in the process of pitching a killer website/app project that puts narrative power into the hands of college and university students and teachers. I hope to reveal more very soon—it’s The Big Idea.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf,Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.