Why I Left The CWPA (Council of Writing Program Administrators)

The full title of this post could be: "Why I Left The CWPA And What Others Might Learn From It." Know that, and know there's antiracist lessons for everyone in this post. 

Recently, I severed all my ties and professional associations with the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA). I had to. It was the only thing I could do, and I want to tell you about it. 

I've been an active member of the CWPA for about 15 years. I haven't always been able to attend their summer conference, but I have kept up with its journal (WPA: Writing Program Administration), the people in organization, the statements and other work of the organization, and the good work its members have done over the years. Also I was until recently a member of its celebrated Consultant Evaluator Service, which offers a valuable service to the discipline and institutions by reviewing and offering recommendations to colleges and universities concerning their writing programs. 

Up until recently, I've been proud to be a member, proud of the good work that the WPA Journal has done, proud of the good work the summer conference and its institutes have done, proud of the good work that even the outcomes statement has done, despite my reservations about all of these things, despite my concerns about the culture of White supremacy in all of them. But I stayed. 

Why stay in the CWPA so long? My sense was to stay in the antiracist fight. It's the right fight. The CWPA is worth fighting for, as are the people who make up their Executive Board (EB) and the organization's members. But recent events have made me realize that I cannot stay in that fight, even as I continue in the war against White language supremacy. 

Here's what happened. 

I was co-chair of a CWPA task force on revising the outcomes statement to be more antiracist. I was asked to do this job, which I was glad to do, and excited about. With the help of Mark Blaauw-Hara (current president of CWPA) and my co-chair Beth Brunk-Chavez, we assembled a group of academics of color to do this work. That group was made up of mostly non-CWPA members who are also academics of color and experts in the field. I insisted that if the organization was serious about antiracist work, they needed to reach out beyond their very White membership to the very academic colleagues they said they wanted to welcome into the organization, and who have expertise in the work of antiracism. 

Now, it's no surprise that most of the members of CWPA are and have been White -- that is, 12% of CWPA members self-identify as BIPOC, while 88% self-identify as White. In numbers, this means that 27 members out of 301 identify as BIPOC. 

The membership of the task force (TF) on the other hand were mostly BIPOC, with just Beth self-identifying as White. Beyond Beth and myself, the TF members were Vershawn A. Young, Tanita Saenkhum, Melvin Beavers, Iris Ruiz, and Neisha-Anne Green. 

We, the TF, did the work over the last 7 or so months and got resistant feedback from the EB on later drafts of the new goals statement (not outcomes), despite them also saying they really loved the document we created, agreed with its language, and found it antiracist in its work. But they had reservations. As the TF saw it, the EB wanted to control the process of further review and changes to the document, including what would happen to the statement after all was done. We had planned on sending the document to others, many of whom were scholars of color (also not members of CWPA). The EB wanted to control that process too and any revisions of the document. They questioned our expertise, and questioned the process of creating the document and the very processes of review and feedback on it. 

What I was hearing in their resistance to our new statement was typical of what I've experienced in White supremacist institutions. Everyone agrees on the idea of antiracism, but when actual antiracist change is presented, heels dig in. People now think we must move slower, much slower. 

The EB kept appealing to their bylaws, to precedent in similar cases, and to the ways "policies" are approved in the organization. More typical White supremacist stalling tactics. They wanted control of it, to colonize it. We said no. Furthermore, we would not release our work, the work that a very Whitely organization asked us, a group of scholars of color, to do, to them have it watered down to something we didn't intend -- that would not be antiracist. 

No one on the EB has any expertise in this area, so it didn't seem right to let them do anything more than provide their rich feedback, which we took seriously. The EB was showing their White fragility and an inattention to the way they were subtly participating in White supremacy culture with a group of almost all BIPOC experts. 

At this time the president, who was very supportive throughout the entire process, told us that he was receiving nasty emails and texts from EB members about our work, but mostly about how he was mishandling the process. 

To resolve these concerns, the task force had a meeting with the EB. In that meeting, the EB exhibited more resistance and more White fragility. Near the end of the meeting, after some of the TF had left, except for Beth, Vershawn, Tanita, and me, I told the EB this: “I say this with deep love and compassion for everyone in this room and for the organization. What I have felt and seen in this meeting today participates in white supremacy culture.” I gave them a link as a resource, and pointed out 3 or 4 characteristics of white supremacy culture I noticed occurring. 

A couple EB members then jumped all over me. No one defended me or my words. Silence. I did not respond to their harsh and reactionary responses, which felt quite defensive to me and like more White fragility. They called me combative. 

After the meeting in a heated email exchange between the EB and the TF, some EB members claimed that I silenced women in the EB meeting. I should note that the two strongest dissenters in the meeting where White women from the south. They were quite vocal, not silenced. Perhaps some where in the meeting, but there is a difference between silencing someone through masculinist bully discourse and compassionately calling out White supremacy an exchange in a meeting. But I should say that I never called any single person out on anything. I never pointed a finger or word at anyone, but some felt that I did. 

Through both the meeting and in our emails, a few EB members used rhetorical moves that engaged in just about every characteristic that Angie Beeman describes in her research as "racism-evasive rhetoric." Here's how Tsedale M. Melaku and Angie Beeman describe racism-evasive rhetoric: 

external racial ideologies of “color-blindness” interact with internal organizational cultures to produce something called racism-evasive responses. Racism-evasive rhetoric denies naming and addressing the significance and realities of racism. Examples include: emotional responses, such as crying, to deflect from hard conversations; using African Americans as color capital; the performance of sending white children to racially diverse schools as a way to deflect from problematic or racist behavior; and claiming special insights due to traveling the world or having intermarried. In Angie’s experience, all of these racism-evasive tactics have surfaced in everything from departmental discussions about racism to cynicism and incredulity about her research on the experiences of faculty of color.

When discussions of systemic and institutional racism do happen, white people often want to run the conversation. In her forthcoming book, Angie names this phenomenon “liberal white supremacy” – the tendency of white people to constantly place themselves in the superior moral position. This takes many forms. Some want to compete for the title of most “woke” progressive. Some show up to insert themselves in conversations about racial and economic inequality only when it becomes popular or high-profile to do so.

In our email exchange after the meetin, the vice president, Susan Thomas, stepped in and suggested that I step back and let Vershawn A. Young take the lead in all future discussions with the EB. Vershawn said no. Clearly they wanted to silence me because I was revealing things about their organization that they did not wish to confront. 

After the emails, the TF met and decided we were done with CWPA. We will take our document and go publish it somewhere else. We are in talks with Fountainhead Press. Beth, my co-chair resigned her post in protest from the EB (she was an EB member up to that point). I resigned from the CWPA Consultant Evaluator service and will no longer associate with CWPA or its conference, nor will I patronize its journal. These were not decisions made easily or quickly for me. They were 15 years in the making. 

I’ve tried for 15 years to help the organization change, to be more antiracist, to confront its Whiteness and its White language supremacy. They’ve not changed, not a bit. As I’ve said in the past at that very conference, it should not be called the Council of Writing Program Administrators. The CWPA is the Council of White Program Administrators. This is still true today. So this current incident is not the only incident of White fragility or White supremacy culture enacted in or around CWPA or its organs I've experienced, such as the copious racist incidents on the WPA-L listserv over the years. I won't rehearse those here. 

What I will say is that the CWPA continues to reenact White supremacy and White language supremacy. I cannot abide that, not after 15 years, not after so many saying over and over to me that they want change, that they know there's racism there, that they know their organization drives away academics of color, all the while those same people stand by and do nothing, hands in pockets. 

Perhaps in a few years with real structural changes to their bylaws, procedures, and conference, I may change my mind. I may join again. I want to. I ain't one to hold grudges. The organization has lots of value. But the fact is this: I have not seen the CWPA change in 15 years. I must move forward and away from them, since they cannot move forward at this time. 

And so, I encourage all my colleagues of color and White allies and co-conspirators to boycott the CWPA until they address their Whiteness and the White supremacy in their organization. You may formally boycott the CWPA by digitally signing this g'form petition (even if you are not a member of CWPA -- signing means you are supportive of change). 

I do not make this request out of rage or anger or vengeance. I don't keep those kinds of emotions in me very long. I make it out of a love for the CWPA and a deep commitment to antiracist change in it for the benefit of everyone: students, teachers, administrators, all of us. Boycotting is a revolutionary act of love because it is also an act of countering White supremacy in this instance. 

I am, needless to say, disappointed in the CWPA, and in its EB members for not listening carefully enough, for not attending to my words or their own whitely reactions, for not supporting me in important antiracist work they asked me to do. If you know me, then you know I am not a combative or vindictive person. I try very hard every day to be selfless and compassionate, even to those who do not wish me well or who disagree with me. I'm okay with disagreement. I'm not okay with White supremacy culture or racism. 

If you know me, then you also know that I have given and given and given of myself, wrecked my health in recent years, and all in a spirit of compassion and love for everyone around me, all with the singular goal to make a more antiracist, just, and sustainable future for everyone, especially students and writing teachers. In this case, my giving was for those EB members, for the CWPA as an organization that does some good work but has its racist problems, and for the CWPA members and the students they work for.

But the CWPA has disappointed me for the last time, and I've been pretty patient and loving toward them. I have also been very hopeful. I still remain hopeful, but at this point I gotta cut my losses. I lose this battle by retreat in order to win the larger language race war. 

So now, I will put my labors and efforts toward things and places and people who can recognize me and my work as important and valuable, and where I can get the needed support I require and deserve. I don’t mind criticism or disagreement. But in this case, that is not what happened. It was white supremacy fighting back through institutional structures and people. So I sadly turn and go.  

Since all this went down, I have received lots of support from various folks, which I'm grateful for. I know they mean well. They want me to thrive. So I say this next thing with my hand on my heart and my head down and with great love and compassion in my words not just for them but for those we all say we want to help in our writing classes and writing programs: I know from these kinds of experiences that unfortunately our words of support, especially from White allies, are pretty cheap. Words of support really do not protect people of color doing antiracist work unless they make commitments and are backed by actions, such as boycotting the CWPA until they change. 

I don't mind the words of support, but I'd rather see actions in support. Speak with your feet and body, not just your mouth. If you are a White ally, what are you willing to do and risk? So far, I’ve not seen any White colleagues stand next to me and take the hit, except Beth. And I really could have used some help in this one. Instead, what most choose to do was nothing. 

So when people tell me that we don’t live in conditions of a language race war, I say, you are not paying attention. I and other colleagues of color are fighting, and taking shrapnel every day. And eventually, we'll not be able to do it any longer. 

I tell my story in order to help the CWPA and its members, and I'm doing it in the most loving way I can, so that they might change for the better, so they can look and feel deep in themselves and the organization, then change the Whitely structures that are driving way BIPOC colleagues and keeping them from the good antiracist work I know they are capable of and want to do. 

If you are a member of CWPA or considering it -- especially if you are BIPOC -- I suggest you lovingly boycott CWPA. If you are White identifying and you are a member or considering to be one, I suggest you too lovingly boycott CWPA. Both actions can be ones done out of love and support, out of compassion for BIPOC students, teachers, and administrators. It can also be a loving act in support of the very White CWPA, to help it make antiracist change. 

I know that many Whitely folx may have a hard time letting go of their Whiteness, of their attachments to Whitely culture, to White supremacy culture, to the outcomes statement as it looks now, and to organizations like CWPA. Why? Because these things feed us all. They put clothes on our backs. They give us occasion to make friends and network, to learn better practices. These things have sustained us in the past. But all that stuff comes at a price for folx like me and other academics of color. These things are sustained by a White supremacy culture in CWPA and its organs.  

Good ends or goals, like those the CWPA clearly works to achieve, are not good reasons to ignore the  White supremacist ways those ends are accomplished. 

So, what are you willing do for antiracist change in the CWPA? 

To formally boycott CWPA, sign this g'form petition (you may sign if you are or are not a current member of CWPA). 


UPDATE -- See the update on this issue

Comments

  1. Thank you, Asao. I am grateful for your integrity, vision, compassion, patience, & tireless commitment to antiracism in and beyond organizations like the CWPA.

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  2. I would love to see a draft of the goals statement... I think many of us would find that of great use.

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    1. It will happen in some way. I'll keep everyone posted. I may give a peak of the doc at my keynote this Thursday at the Southern Regional Composition Conference (https://ualr.edu/rhetoric/composition/southern-regional-composition-conference/).

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  3. That is too sad. Reforming writing programs is long overdue. CWPA declaring that they wanted change and then rejecting it undermines their credibility.

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  4. It's time for organizations like CWPA to do the work you outline here (and others outline, well, basically everywhere -- or so it feels). Good for you for speaking up and with love, even though it really should not be on you to do so. I hope CWPA takes this incredible opportunity to learn and reimagine alternative ways forward. It would be even better if they used this as an opportunity to model what to do differently so other Whitely organizations could follow suit.

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    1. Thanks for this, Brittany. I hope so too. I really do.

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  5. Asao, I appreciate your leadership. I would like to support you and others in this work. Primarily I would like to bring structural change to my institution, but I feel overwhelmed by where to start. I will also follow up with removing my name from CWPA rolls. Thank you for your courage.

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  6. So sad to see this happen. But so glad to be aware of this reality. Thanks for sharing this. Form signed.

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  7. Done - thanks for this Asao!

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  8. Asao, thank you. You are an inspiration. Signed and shared. - Tabitha

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    1. Your note made my day, Tabitha. Thank you for your care and attending to my words.

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  9. Thank you for telling us about this struggle and for giving us the chance to stand with you. Take care. Renee DeLong, Minneapolis College

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  10. Big thumbs up, Asao. It's disheartening to see the important and timely labor of the TF treated in such a manner.

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  11. For far too long, racelighting and racial lighting (Wood and Harris, 2021) have coerced so many of us not to see what we see. We've been trained to "get along" even at the expense of our personal selves. Thank you for providing the antidote, the red pill.

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  12. While I haven't previously been involved in this institution, as an aspiring English teacher I have treasured every talk and article I have been able to read from you. Thank you for your work and the way you have inspired my future teaching. Signed and supported from over in Missouri!

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  13. Thank you for sharing both your knowledge and your heart, Asao! I'm eager to learn and will be watching for theTF's document. -- Sharon from the Maryland Mountains.

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  14. The Oregon Writing and English Advisory Council (I am a new, non-voting member), will be discussing your post and the CWPA EB Statement today in the context of a planned discussion of April Baker-Bell's "We Be Knowin: Toward an Antiracist Language & Literacy Education." I am not a program administrator (long story) but many are and I will be interested to see if any join your boycott. THANK YOU again for all you have inspired in us here in Eugene.

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    1. Thanks, Steve. I hope to hear some news of what that conversation produces. Did you see my follow-up post, the update on what has happened since that first post? If not, it may help. You can find it here:

      https://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2021/04/update-cwpa-response-to-my-call-for.html

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