Writing Workshops in Emergency Shelters

By Alison Turner

Community Literacy is a cross-disciplinary framework for supporting groups of people who read and write together. Many North American cities have “community literacy centres” and most universities have programs or departments focused on Community Literacy. An annual conference is organized by the Coalition for Community Writing. As an academic subject, Community Literacy aims to understand the collective activity of writing and reading as it is experienced by those involved. Its foundational observation is that literacy is a collective practice, an active and evolving set of relationships among divergent persons mediated through writing and reading together deliberately and self-critically.

Like politics, community literacy is pluralistic and egalitarian—it thrives whenever divergent persons navigate their intersections by showing up in the “space of appearance” (which in this case is “the text”) and recognizing themselves and their interests in others, who also show up. The Polity of Literature is a community literacy project. It imposes a framework on the collective activity of writing and reading to enrich and extend that activity deeper into the lives and futures of those involved.

Community literacy is often encountered as a service offered in the midst of hardship (prison writing programs; abuse-survivor journalling groups; or, as chronicled in this essay by Alison Turner, a weekly gathering in an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness), but the work happens every day in all kinds of lives—wherever a community of writers and readers becomes deliberate and self-critical about their shared activity. Community literacy is as old and cross-cultural as the story-telling circle.

The work of community literacy is chronicled in the Community Literacy Journal. Since 2006, CLJ has published twice-a-year and helped support the annual conference. Alison Turner’s recent account of the ups and downs of facilitating a writers group at Denver’s emergency shelter for people without homes during the covid pandemic is republished here with the kind permission of CLJ and the assistance of the author. See the CLJ website for more.

Our Boxy Circle: Writing in an Emergency Shelter

1 March, 2022