Parks: Shaping Policy by Giving Voice to the People
Interview by Donna Mühs-McCarten
Steve Parks was interviewed this summer by the Peace Newsletter (PNL). Steve is an Associate Professor at the Writing Program at Syracuse University as well as the Executive Director of New City Community Press (www.newcitypress.org). He has served as Director of Teachers for a Democratic Culture and is currently a founding member of PSCC, an alliance of progressive caucuses focused on literacy and politics. He has recently been named editor of Reflections, a journal focused on community/university politics, and he is currently planning a special issue on the Iraq War. This article contains highlights from the interview.
PNL: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
STEVE I was the first in my family to graduate from college with a PhD and become a university professor. While I was making this trek up the educational hierarchy, my dad, a Viet Nam vet, was trying to survive in the declining economy of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. My mother took a job as a bank teller to help make college affordable to me. Since it was through their work and those around me that I was able to go to college, I ended up thinking a lot about how to position myself between the university and the community. I began to wonder how well-endowed universities, such as Syracuse University (SU), could support the community, and, in particular, community-defined goals, those not imposed by a faculty or university research agenda.
PNL: And what was the result of this thinking?
STEVE At Temple University, my colleagues and I created service-learning classes that placed students in the community. Since service learning can't capture or realize the full possibilities of university/community partnerships, we also began to develop writing groups, public school projects and New City Community Press. While I was doing this work, I became friends with Eileen Schell, now my department chair, who was truly committed to building such work at SU. Based on that, I decided to leave Temple. Now that I'm at SU, I've tried to join efforts here. I've led a writing group of union workers, capturing their experiences in the Syracuse economy. We're just about to publish a book out of that group.
PNL: And how did New City Press come about?
STEVE The Press grew out of a commitment to give voice to the people through their writing, and then publishing their work and distributing it locally, nationally and later internationally. Working with Kristina Montero of the SU School of Education, we published Soul Talk, stories from a middle school project and from high schools in Syracuse. The students wrote in their journals describing their lives as urban youth. And later, SU students also wrote about how they too, were not allowed to express themselves in their own schools, and how frustrated these same students were that they weren't allowed to be truly educated concerning real life issues and situations. We just completed a project with middle school teachers Don Gates, Jen Callander and Joan Brown. Students read about the Underground Railroad and used that historical knowledge to reflect on what they felt freedom, civil rights and liberty should mean today. We'll have other Syracuse residents respond to their writing, and then hopefully, use that as a vehicle to get a more progressive view out into the public debate.
PNL: What became of your authors' stories?
STEVE Our goal is to get the books integrated into the local curriculum as well as heard locally and nationally. We make sure the books are used in schools because part of the goal is to change who people think of as intellectuals. It's not just the talking heads on TV or the talking head in front of the class; it's also the person across the street or across from you in a classroom. That's the belief that started the Press and demands we circulate these voices to the widest possible audience. For instance, our book Espejos y Ventanas/Mirrors and Windows was a book on immigrant oral histories, Mexican migrant workers told their stories of crossing the borders and establishing life in the US. It is used in the local schools where the workers live, but it also has been used in universities, public schools and Mexican consulates nationwide.
PNL: The author and poet, Eli Goldblatt, once wrote that
you have a commitment to activism and a responsibility to the community. Would
you care to comment on that?
STEVE I think those beliefs emerge from the people I grew up with who lived in a suffering economy. It comes from living with my father's struggle with being a Viet Nam vet, trying to keep his family afloat and the hours my mother worked to enable me to go to college. Now that I get to move in different circles economically and socially, I feel a responsibility to that home community. My place, where I am now, is a gift, and with that gift comes responsibility. I can't keep looking up while the ladder below me is being kicked away by conservative policies. Without trying to be pompous or preachy, I also try to get my students to see that being an SU student is a gift and with that comes responsibility to others. I place my students with unions to become aware of the other economy and to learn that the working class has values very important to them also. I have them work on the history of the Underground Railroad so they can see their responsibility in that and the work that needs to be done today. The privileged have a responsibility to society. The sometimes narrow views of the privileged are a moral loss. Students need to understand the collective responsibility of citizenship and see their neighbors as part of a collective project. To go back to an earlier point, as a teacher, I wish to get students to feel that everyone is an intellectual. Accept that belief and the world changes for you.
PNL: On another note, what is your vision of advocacy
STEVE Writing gives people an opportunity to represent themselves as authors and reconfigure themselves as activists in the process. If done correctly, community- based writing can change who the voices of power are - who is listened to in debates and in important local decision making. It's a new terrain.
PNL: How does the writing of these books work?
STEVE: People who have ideas approach me and then I ask myself if this project has legs and who is helped by this project. For example, instrumental in the publication of Soul Talk was Kristina Munroe. She continually reminded everyone involved that the writers' ideas are the focus. Sometimes, it's too easy to make yourself the focus, to pat yourself on the back for being so liberal or so brave in your work. I admire Kristina because she understands that the writers are the heroes and are courageous. They are speaking out about real issues in their neighborhoods, neighborhoods which they continue to live in once the book is published.
PNL: And how are your writing projects financed?
STEVE: To a small extent, book sales, since we often give books away free to participants. To a greater extent, foundation support such as the Gifford Foundation, which has been an amazing resource for us. We've also received federal funds, which I realize is problematic, but I like to think at least the money is being used to empower local communities.
PNL: How are New City Press books used?
STEVE: They are used by think tanks, grassroots organizations, and community information centers and now by consulates. These books hit you on all levels - we need to be activists. These books are just one piece, but they allow people to align themselves with different groups to seek change, and in this way they are used to shape policy. The stories and books create conditions of possibility. The process involves faculty/community/policy; it extends the conversation.
PNL: What then do you see as the major goal of the projects?
STEVE: This work validates real experiences. These books are part of the process in building collective movements. They offer an initial chance to create a common understanding of the problems and pose possible solutions. After that step, perhaps larger policy and political work becomes possible.
PNL: What are your plans for the future regarding narratives
and social justice?
STEVE: My current thoughts are to undertake a book on Iraqi War veterans in Syracuse, and try to use the book to lobby for better medical treatment.
PNL: And what ideas do you have as editor of Reflections?
STEVE: The work will have different themes. I want to do an issue focused on New Orleans and the role of universities in rebuilding the city. I'm also planning an issue on how faculty has developed partnerships with local organizations dedicated to peace in the "age of terror." I am hoping to work with the SPC on that issue.
PNL: Your work seems very important to you.
STEVE: It is. I never forget that I'm the son of working class parents who finds himself blessed to be teaching at SU. I know a lot of people have enabled me to enjoy this privileged life. I hope my work respects the gifts I've been given and that when I'm done, folks will think of me as putting my shoulder to the wheel. Hopefully, this has meaning for the generalized movement for peace and justice and is doing some good.
Donna is a longtime member of the PNL editorial committee.