Class explores the power of the pen

A Northern Kentucky University professor is challenging students to step out of the classroom and hit the streets of Over-the-Rhine. Through the course, students will work in the community, but not in the way many might expect. This class focuses on community service through writing.

Writing for Social Change, a course taught for the last five years by NKU Professor Christopher Wilkey, focuses on the way in which residents and community advocates uses rhetoric to combat stereotypes and bring about positive change that will benefit current residents. It also explores that way in which the media portrays Over-the-Rhine (OTR) and contributes to its bad reputation.

OTR, part of the city of Cincinnati, is located in an area centered around Vine Street, just north of downtown. The community includes several community attractions including Music Hall, Findlay Market and Washington Park. It also features several dilapidated or abandoned homes and businesses.

Over the years, many efforts have been put into place to revitalize the neighborhood, but some residents feel the way in which the revitalization is planned will only displace current residents, a
process they call “gentrification.”

Instead of embracing the community and working to improve it for current residents, some residents believe that developers are trying to displace current residents by raising rents and property taxes so they can no longer afford to live there. In some cases, advocates say they may even evict people for new projects and force them to move.

Students actually have their class meetings in OTR at the Miami University Center for Community Engagement. This gives them the chance to hear from community members and local advocacy organizations about the issues and the point it tries to convey through its rhetoric. The students also get involved with community organizations in making a difference.

Classes have worked with students at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, a public school in OTR, to provide after-school activities.

The Rothenberg students helped contribute to the student’s final project for the course.

Each class works on a collective project where they engage in writing for social change in OTR. In past years, students have created ‘zines, or mini-magazines, featuring photography, poetry and essays. In other years and this semester, students developed a blog.

Students write about what they encounter and witness in the neighborhood.

“By allotting money to development, OTR may become more aesthetically pleasing, the homeless might be erased from the streets, and property values, but for long-time residents, OTR will not improve. Their identities as citizens and people will disappear; they will become invisible,” student Shayna Setter wrote in “The People’s Friend,” a ‘zine published by the class in April 2009.

In a different semester’s ‘zine called “The Herd/The Unheard,” a student decided to convey his message through poetry.

“…[S]tatistics steering people away. The only way they’ll come is a hip little condo close to downtown, affordably priced with no money down,” he or she wrote.

Wilkey said he coordinates carpooling to the classes in OTR for students without transportation, and the class actually meets a few minutes after its scheduled time in order to allow time for students to get there from NKU. He also said he offers flexibility on the kinds of assignments that students create and works with them to establish their own ideas and deadlines.

For students who have completed the course in the past, it is one of the biggest highlights of their NKU experience.

“I guarantee you that anyone who goes into this class with an open mind will come out proud that they took the class and with a lot more insight on the community, different perceptions than they had when they went into it,” Latuan Williams, an NKU student from Hamilton, Ohio, said in a student-produced video to share the students’ experience.

“Rothenberg…that was the highlight of my semester,” he continued. “To work with a lot of these kids that don’t have what many other kids have as far as income…it’s really humbling because you don’t realize how close to home it really hits.”

This was a class that Williams said he was always excited to attend.

“I think that throughout the course of the class, your dedication becomes something that is subconscious because you look forward to coming to class,” he explained.

Wilkey said he was motivated to offer the course with a community-oriented focus on OTR because his father was an activist in the community. He said he understands that students may be afraid at first to consider working in OTR because of how it is portrayed in the media. But, breaking the barrier down is one of the goals of the course.

So far, he said that students have been enthusiastic and he has felt little pushback on the way the class is done or the topic they are addressing. However, he acknowledges that some students may feel the current developments for OTR are the way to go.

“I’ve yet to encounter that kind of pushback, but I have a plan in place if I ever do,” Wilkey said.

English 338, Writing for Social Change, is being offered in the fall 2011 semester. Class will be held Tuesdays from 3:30-6:15 p.m. Wilkey said many students outside the English department have participated in the course in the past and encourages any student to register.

Story by Jesse Call