Speaking and Serving: Citizen Rhetor Symposium
As an alum of the school where I now teach, I cannot remember a day we were not reminded of the school motto: Serviam--I will serve. We had required hours, an entire year focused on service, and Monday mornings senior year devoted to going out into the community to serve.
Sadly, I was not the best custodian of that service. Don’t get me wrong! I did all my required service hours and have fond and meaningful memories of serving with the North Texas Food Bank. (Granted, a few of those memories center on the rides to and from, sitting in the back seat of a classmate’s car and joining her in belting Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” on repeat.) Still, I saw and felt the particular good of serving. Yet I still remember the itch of noticing that of the many families I worked with, most seemed hemmed in by bigger problems than groceries alone could solve. I came to see service as a good thing in a small way, but at that point I couldn’t really see what good it did in the grand scheme of things. And, like most 18 year-olds, I had an appetite for the grand scheme of things. So, I served with little long-term conviction or sense of purpose.
On the other hand, in my education I was overflowing with purpose and conviction. As a junior, I had just gotten an inkling of the adult-sized problems of the world in an independent study focused on Langston Hughes’ “Thank you, Ma’am” and LBJ’s War on Poverty. From this, I knew that poverty was very bad and full of thorny details. I also came to know that even adults were unclear on exactly how one solves poverty. I mean, I wanted to use my voice to help and serve, but I felt paralyzed. Or to be more precise: I was a person of sufficient privilege that I had no inkling of or concrete empathy for the particular changes that were eminently necessary. Thus, my appetite for change had passion but no action steps. No direction in how to serve.
So it went with most of the issues that I noticed and was passionate about. They always seemed some combination of too big or too far away. Systems were too broken. Politics was too divisive. The world was too far gone. And adults were not going to listen to me anyway. So I allowed myself to rest in that complacent frustration. After all, what difference could one teenager make in the face of systemic racism, xenophobia, hunger, poverty, gun violence, genocide, climate change? Here, we have come to my sad knowledge that I was not a budding Greta Thunberg or Malala. I did not know how to use empathy and logic to bridge the gap between the elephant-sized problems of the world and the particular steps and services that I could undertake. So, instead of a budding activist I spent an embarrassing number of years as a budding pessimist. That inertia took an embarrassing number of years to work through.
Imagine my joy when I came back to teach at my alma mater and joined the English III: American Voices teaching team with Dr. Megan Griffin and Kate Schenck and got to step into an entire course seemingly tailor made to address the exact disconnect I had felt between the passion to fix the systemic issues permeating American conversation, and the particular logical and empathetic steps they can take toward remedying them.
They had designed an entire course building to the Citizen Rhetor research and writing project that Megan outlines far more eloquently than I could in her post: “Lifting Her Voice.”
The goal is to help each student to become a Citizen Rhetor: “a socially aware writer and speaker who not only has the confidence to engage in written and oral conversations about public issues but also the empathy to do so in a way that seeks both to understand and to eventually act.”
Literature trains in nuance, rhetoric, and building logical arguments. Poetry develops individual voice and an eye for what they are each uniquely suited to speak on. Research builds an appetite to dig into the nature, causes, opinions on, and possible solutions for the real problems they see. And finally, the Citizen Rhetor paper pushes them through that disconnect I had languished in. In the end, they assemble and prepare to undertake measurable actions -- not some distant day, but now! – to build the community they hope for.
That alone would be a gift. However, I cannot express my gratitude for that course that year. My first set of juniors turned in their papers March 4, 2020. The world shut down March 13th.
Entering those first anxious months of the pandemic, I carried with me the lifeboat of my students’ Citizen Rhetor papers. Instead of merely doom scrolling COVID-19 numbers and then accounts of police brutality (though of course I did that, too), I spent those first weeks grounded in the beautiful, empathetic, and purposeful words of my juniors, tackling problems and finding ways to serve in issues that adults blanche at. This set of 17 year-olds left us in the dust in the best possible way.
Over and over, I found myself wishing that I could share this light in dark times. That everyone could hear their words, and more importantly join in their proposed actions.
So when our teaching team started planning for the next year, one of the few things I knew was that I wanted to bring the words, empathy, logic, and purpose of this new set of juniors to the larger community. Thus was born the First Annual (Virtual) Citizen Rhetor Symposium.
Sharing the steps of setting up the first symposium, I want to again refer you to Megan’s account of the project as a whole. Everything I am about to describe is really the easy part of the process. It came after the girls read their memoirs, used them to guide their empathy and curiosity about a pressing current issue, researched the background and nature of the issue, created an intensive annotated bibliography, parsed the rhetoric of proposed solutions, and wrote an 8-12 page paper persuasively advocating for a particular solution and directing us to the first action steps.
After the students turned in their papers (and caught their breath), we embarked on writing scholarly abstracts of their own papers. Keeping with academic submission standards, they condensed their arguments down to a 150-250 word abstract. They summarized their key points and the necessary context of the conversation on their issue, and gestured at the solution they proposed. (All as briefly and engagingly as possible!) We ended with about 150 abstracts.
On that basis, the girls took ownership for the selection of our semi-finalists. Each read their class section’s anonymous abstracts and voted for the papers they wanted to see advance to be judged by a faculty panel. 25 papers ranging from the foster care system to intersectionality in activism to welfare to the private prison system to hunger in America and beyond.
The depth and breadth of issues our girls were now ready to serve in was staggering. (Still, I confess I was even more touched by the delight they took in the questions and insights of their classmates. In learning how to empathize, research, and seek out challenging opinions, they had developed an appetite for listening and learning from others.) In the week between their selection as semi-finalists, each of the 25 condensed her paper into 10-15 minutes of remarks (roughly 2500 words) to be evaluated by a panel of faculty members. Our criteria were the same as our course goals: clear and logical individual voice, contributions to the American conversation, and commitment to service through civic engagement. This first year, our six finalist papers were:
"They Are Lying to Us: How the Oil Industry Misled America Into Investing in a Biased Climate Policy"
"The Opportunity for Opportunity: Immigrants and their Access to the American Dream"
"Segregation in the Music Industry"
"Seeing Color: White People Following Black Leaders in their Fight for Equality"
"Equal Access to Health Care is a Right: Black Women's Deadly Struggle"
"The Blindfold of Ignorance: Whitewashed History Textbooks in Texas"
On May 5th, each stood up, spoke, and took questions not only from the junior class, but also from the entire school community. I saw each take their first tight breath to present to Ph.D., principal, and peer alike. I saw a flash of the same fear I remember: What if I don’t know the answer? What difference can a teenager make in the face of problems that are too big?
Then, I heard each speak. Relaxing into her own voice, her purpose, her education – the start of her service.
Rachel Davies currently teaches mostly junior and senior level English at an all-girls independent school. She has also taught middle school and high school English in Central Texas, and K-8 Music at a Title I charter school. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Dallas. Beyond her background in English and teaching, she also has a Master of Music in Opera Performance, and has a career as an operatic mezzo. Rachel is an inimitable young troubadour who composes both melodies and manifestos, spreading joyful truths while on her sojourns.