Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry

Authors Lorraine Higgins, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower set out to define community literacy, specifically using a rhetorical model in the context of local publics. Having delineated four processes crucial to community literacy, Higgins et al. indeed helped clarify, as well as broaden, my understanding of the topic. Coming from the discipline of sociology, I am still in the process of acclimating myself to a new discipline, such as English, equipped with a unique set of tools and strategies for thinking about literacy.

So what is community literacy exactly, one might ask. For Flower et al., community literacy can be understood as the development (or presence) of a distinct rhetorical agenda within a particular community, comprised of the entire set of literate and social practices. Key to community literacy is the existence of discourse outside academic, educational, or professional settings. Not only is the actual content or knowledge important to the community, but also how these messages are internalized and utilized throughout society. Moreover, community literacy also involves the meaning and symbolism of a discourse and the role it plays in the larger society.

Although community literacy involves multiple and diverse stake-holders, Flower et al. highlight the importance of viewing the community as a problem space. Central to this notion is the idea that community issues should be analyzed from the vantage point of a “pluralistic community” (13). I very much appreciated this concept in the article and plan to keep in mind while working with the men at LCDC. It is imperative to re-frame particular issues in the context of the larger community, rather than in an individualistic manner. However, I do envision encountering some difficulty in doing so while working with the men at LCDC. I wonder what is the most appropriate strategy for re-focusing a discussion to make it more inclusive and functionally relevant for all writers/participants.

As a possible solution to the quandary stated above, Flower et al. discuss the significance of diversity in the context of community literacy. Referring to the common tensions resulting from increased diversity, the authors’ call on communities to embrace diversity as a resource, a source of perspectives (30). Diverse publics are imperative to literate practices as they serve to stimulate dialogue among the varying parties; they guarantee difference in perspectives, hypotheses, or “stories-behind-the-story.” Through the presence of diverse local publics, circulation of fresh, preferably contrasting–for the sake of continued dialogue and understanding–ideas, arguments, or policies is manifested.

One last issue I would like to raise from the article is the idea of transforming discourse into documents for publication into practice. The authors’ stressed the importance of putting discourse into practice, but also cautioned against hopelessness in this regard. Rarely does one work radically change the discourse, much less national policies or systematic inequalities such as racism. Although reading this was slightly disheartening, I did feel inspired by their conclusion, which focused on strengthening community incrementally through circulation, debate, and dialogue. It helped bring into perspective our work with SpeaktOut! and made the CLC’s mission and goals more salient.

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