Vol. 4 No. 2 (Fall 2022)
By Vidya Natarajan and Megumi Taguchi
Vidya Natarajan is a first-gen immigrant whose mother tongue is Tamil, and a settler on the lands of the Anishnaabek, Haudenosawnee, Lunaapewak and Chononton Peoples (now called London, Ontario). She teaches writing and coordinates the Writing program at King’s University College.
Megumi Taguchi lives and works on the unceded, traditional lands of the Qayqayt Peoples, in a city commonly known as New Westminster, in British Columbia. A fourth generation racialized settler, she believes that because her family on her father’s side settled in the Okanagan region, home of the Syilx (say-ooks) people, they were able to avoid the worst of the racial discrimination and imprisonment by the Canadian government during WW2. She is a former peer tutor and English language tutor, and is currently services coordinator at Douglas College, where she supervises and helps run the operational side of tutoring. She is working on her master of education in TESOL at the University of British Columbia.
SIGs and Caucuses
Special Interest Groups (SIGs) have long been a way for likeminded scholars and activists to come together at conferences around subjects or projects in which they are deeply invested. As antiracism became a key node for advocacy, research, and attention among members of the International Writing Center Association (IWCA), the Antiracism Activism Special Interest Group, active since 2006 (Godbee & Olson, 2014) consolidated itself. Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison and Keli Tucker (2019) document how the IWCA’s “Antiracism Activism SIG became a standing SIG in 2017” (p. 4). They note that under their co-leadership, the SIG’s “primary goal has been to develop resources and support to help its members move toward the action invoked in the SIG’s name” (2019, p. 4). Many SIGs function on the basis of common professional and academic interests; in giving racial identity full recognition, however, IWCA’s Antiracism Activism SIG acknowledges the complex involvement of identity-based interests in social and professional interactions.
Convening as an identity-based group nested within a larger organization is one of the many ways in which people have caucused. As a phenomenon within electoral and organizational politics, caucuses have a long and layered history. But why caucus? Mary-Louise Pratt, in her famous essay on contact zones, suggested that when “there are legacies of subordination, groups need places for healing and mutual recognition, safe houses in which to construct shared understandings, knowledges, claims on the world that they can then bring into the contact zone” (Pratt, 1991, p. 40). Caucuses, like SIGs, have become a way of creating such spaces at academic and other gatherings. In recent times, caucuses often involve collective planning and action based on affiliation to, or promotion of the interests of, an identity group.
Caucusing within CWCA/ACCR
Vidya: When, during the 2021 annual CWCA/ACCR conference, Clare Bermingham invited me to host a session exclusively for conference participants of colour, I did not expect that the participants would end up adding a thread or two to the thickly woven fabric of caucusing history. About a dozen conference participants came to the conference session: writing centre practitioners of colour simply being together, finding their hesitant descriptions of their experiences resonating with others, feeling affirmed and less alone. The session was packed with emotion—so much laughter that had been suppressed for so long, so many raw and personal stories, so much mutual recognition and understanding. But it also gave rise to plenty of discussion. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) participants talked of their experiences of lack of comfort and safety, their struggles to find mentorship and to understand “the system,” the explanatory work they are called to do all the time, the social stress they overcome in their professional and academic settings.
The session was packed with emotion—so much laughter that had been suppressed for so long, so many raw and personal stories, so much mutual recognition and understanding. But it also gave rise to plenty of discussion.
Megumi: The 2021 CWCA/ACCR conference allowed for more provocative and important talks, especially on the topic of anti-racism. The special BIPOC participant meeting was followed by the release of CWCA’s new anti-racism statement at the 2021 AGM, which produced feelings of frustration and disappointment among BIPOC members, and sparked the beginning of actionable change within the organization. Using the anti-racism statement as a starting point, Sheila, Vidya, and I started talks about and how to create a more inclusive anti-racism statement as well as build a welcoming space for racialized members to express ideas for future initiatives and projects. With Sheila taking the lead, this initial meeting led to invitations to CWCA/ACCR BIPOC members for their input and ideas, and eventually to ongoing monthly meetings of what we have come to call the CWCA/ACCR BIPOC Caucus. Like the 2021 conference meeting, our regular meetings also became a refuge for members to share stories and experiences that they are not comfortable sharing in other spaces. Consolidating the insights gleaned at that session into a plan for long-term organizing within CWCA/ACCR on the basis of racial identity involved contributions from so many members: Majid Nikoue, Marci Prescott-Brown, Logan Middleton, Vidya, myself, and others, but Sheila Batacharya took on the bulk of the administrative and organizational labour.
Being and doing
Kad Smith (2017), in a brilliant resource for caucusing in Racial Equity Tools asks the question: are caucuses mainly intended for “being” together or for “doing” things together? The CWCA/ACCR BIPOC Caucus discussed this at one point, and we decided we want to do both. It is a relief and a joy to affirm each other, to laugh—often with wry understanding—with each other, and to cry with each other. In a way, this affirmation through shared presence underlines the point Rasha Diab and colleagues make: “Community organizers recognize the value of “caretaking of the collective,” foregrounding our need to build intentional structures to care for ourselves and each other when engaged in antiracism work….” (2017, p. 33). This caring for each other, this being together in friendship and solidarity, can also lead to collective action. To quote Diab et al. again, “At its best, caretaking can facilitate and build a collaborative antiracism network, as partnerships and collaborative leadership are needed for making institutional change” (2017, p. 33).
Thus caucus members also agreed with Morrison and Tucker (2019), who record their belief “that narratives and conversation are helpful, but more so when combined with intention and action” (p. 9). So CWCA/ACCR’s BIPOC caucus has been about both being and doing. An important outcome of caucusing is being heard. Our coming together under able leadership has created opportunities for BIPOC leadership within CWCA/ACCR, as well as for BIPOC voices to be heard and BIPOC interests to be communicated, within our professional association. For example, at the CWCA/ACCR 2021 conference, we spoke up about our dissatisfaction with an early draft of the Antiracism Statement, and were able to individually and collectively contribute to the new version, which was no longer written from a largely white point of view. We should acknowledge Hermine Chan’s important contribution to this conversation. We have been supporting each other in stepping up to publish, review other scholars’ work, conference, and navigate institutional issues. Together, we believe we can push for transformative change.
Reflecting, staying grounded
Diab and colleagues also insert a word of caution: “When working with others—both through caucuses (i.e., within one’s racial membership group) and through coalitions (i.e., in cross-racial collaborations), critical reflection on one’s role is important for building solidarity and sustaining relations toward collaborative work over time” (2017, pp. 31-32). We are mindful that racialization does not make all our interests automatically coincide. The acronym “BIPOC” is a gift to us in terms of building our connections and our collective outside the circle of whiteness, but we know we must not take it for granted. We are mindful of being asked to stand in intersectional solidarity with those who identify as queer, trans, or disabled. We hope that the collective voice of the BIPOC caucus will include and empower members who are dealing with precarity, frustrating workplace politics, funding battles, overwork, and limited opportunities.
In 2019, when racial equity and disability justice were proposed as central themes for our 2020 conference (which ended up happening in 2021), there was concern among Board members that some association members would not be able to identify with these themes.
We are appreciative of the many areas in which the CWCA/ACCR Board has been seeking input from the BIPOC Caucus. Sheila Batacharya has been a wizard at orchestrating discussions and meetings, and has worked on setting up channels of regular communication between the caucus and the Board. We believe that the growing presence, visibility, and leadership of racialized members has changed the texture of CWCA/ACCR. Even four years ago, the CWCA/ACCR conference was a very different space. In 2019, when racial equity and disability justice were proposed as central themes for our 2020 conference (which ended up happening in 2021), there was concern among Board members that some association members would not be able to identify with these themes. We have come a long way, but we continue to push for inclusivity in ways that are both formal and informal. The planned inclusion of a BIPOC caucus member as a Board member will be one step in the direction of formalizing caucus participation in decision making.
Diab, R., Ferrel, F., Godbee, B., & Simpkins, N. (2017). Making Commitments to racial justice actionable. In Condon, F. and Young V.A., (Eds), Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. University Press of Colorado. pp. 19 -40. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/antiracist/pedagogy.pdf
Godbee, B. & Olson, B. (2014). Readings for Racial Justice: A Project of the IWCA SIG on Antiracism Activism.” Antiracism and LGBTQ SIG Resources. International Writing Centers Association.
Morrison, T.H., & Tucker, K. (2019). Introduction. In Potential for and barriers to actionable antiracism in the writing center: Views from the IWCA Special Interest Group on antiracism activism. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal 16(2), 4-11.
Pratt, M.L. (1991). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession, 33–40.
Smith, K. (April 2017). Race Caucusing in an Organizational Context: A POC’s Experience. Compass Points of View. (Blog post). https://www.compasspoint.org/blog/race-caucusing-organizational-context-poc%E2%80%99s-experience.