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The Wildcat Writers

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Rachael Wendler is a scholar-teacher working at the intersection of Rhetoric/Composition and community engagement. Rachael completed a PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English (RCTE) at University of Arizona and starting in August 2015, will be an Assistant Professor in the Composition and Rhetoric program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As part of the Heart of Engagement blog series, Rachael tells us about a project she coordinates, Wildcat Writers

Every year, thousands of college professors enact their commitment to public engagement by inviting their students to work directly with community members in programs like tutoring initiatives, oral history projects, and youth mentorship programs. But what is this experience like for community members who interact with university students? As part of a recent research project, I interviewed Latino/a and Native American youth who were mentored in their writing by college students through a high school-college partnership program called Wildcat Writers. Strikingly, the majority of youth reported experiencing fear at some point in their partnership with college students. They explained that they were “nervous” about working with college students, or felt that visiting campus would be "intimidating." One high school student challenged other youth to make the most of the opportunity to collaborate with university students, but reflected that fear that their writing or ideas are not good enough might hold many of them back.

This fear may be surprising: University representations of public engagement might lead us to expect youth to express only gratitude or excitement at the prospect of working with college students. This fear, then, is what Alison Jagger might call an "outlaw emotion" - emotions experienced by marginalized people that deviate from the dominant script of a situation. These instances of outlaw emotions, Jagger argues, are important starting points of critical inquiry, because they suggest that something is a bit different than the story we have often been told. As the youth explained, fear that they might be stereotyped or might not be taken seriously by the college students made it difficult to fully engage in the community partnership, share their work with college students, or participate in group discussions.

The youth offered suggestions for university instructors and non-profit professionals who connect college students with community members. They had several concrete strategies for how program design and particular practices can mitigate these fears, but there was one suggestion I find particularly powerful: They emphasized the importance of taking time for university students and community members to build personal relationships through informal conversation. As high school student Keianna Robles put it, “As soon as I got to know [my college partner], I got comfortable.” The youth emphasized the need to place people above tasks. As high school student Chynna Araiza explained, talking about non-school related topics like prom and hearing her college partner remember what position she played on the soccer team helped her get over her fear and be more open to participating in the partnership. Establishing this relationship before beginning tasks such as offering feedback on essays or working on a participatory action research project made the tasks more generative. 

While community engagement practitioners might all too easily get caught up in logistics, academic theories, and measurable results, what these youth reveal is that emotions may play a key role in engagement partnerships. In other words, emotions and relationships are not insignificant components of a community engagement partnership, secondary to outcomes; emotions and relationships are sometimes the oil in gears that allow the outcomes to occur.

What strategies have you used to create positive emotional environments in community engagement partnerships? Leave your comments below.  

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