Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World

A 3 part series.

“A dream can be the highest point of a life.” —Nigerian writer Ben Okri, The Famished Road

“Anya is a master teacher. Her grasp of world writers and of craft allows her to liberate this knowledge for those of us outside the academy, so that we can learn to wield the pen with power. ” — Demetria Martinez, novelist (Mother Tongue), poet (The Devil’s Workshop), nonfiction writer (Confessions of a Berlitz Tape Chicana: Collected Columns), journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, activist.

  1. Re-Dream a Just World
  2. Place and Exile / Borders and Crossings
  3. Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life

These workshops have been and can be taught in many different formats and time schedules. Each section stands on its own, or can be taught as part of the whole, whether in private workshops, conferences, or retreats, or in a semester-long university course. It treats writing across the genres, using multicultural and interdisciplinary materials.

While it is named a writing course and certainly has that focus—it also offers powerful tools for activists and social change agents in many settings; for self-transformation; for building community; for diversity training; for healing; for leaving writer’s block way behind; for developing tools to write and speak the truth in its fullness; for integrating the parts of the self.

Full descriptions of Re-Dream a Just World; Place and Exile / Borders and Crossings; and Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life are below.


1. Re-Dream a Just World

The first part of the workshop, Re-Dream a Just World, begins with an exploration of the profound connection that the act and art of writing have to the work of increasing social justice. We will find in our passion for justice a powerful engine to drive our writing, to reveal, to witness, to commemorate, and to explore language, character and story. But potent as well in freeing and deepening our writing is our work to re-examine the craft and concepts of good writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, by grounding the craft in its political and historical context. The work of association, for instance, of revealing the connections between things that seem not to be connected, is basic to both the poetic and the political.

Through a series of writing explorations, and with the inspiration of authors who have grappled with how writing makes an impact on the world, the work we will do together offers ideas for and practice in ways of using writing for social change. But it goes much further, examining some of what is at the heart of writing that can break the social silences, recover people’s history, reveal connections among all things and beings, and re-dream a just world.

These workshops support us in coming to voice, which does not change everything, but is an intrinsic part of the process of overthrowing personal, group and societal censors and tyrants to recover what has been silenced and to empower each speaker. We will also work to affirm the importance of the experiences and voices of our families, groups, and communities to the retelling of full history. The aim is to help participants develop the tools and locate the inspiration to write works that support the struggles for justice. For writers at all levels of experience, and all genres.

2. Place and Exile; Borders and Crossings

We will work to go beyond the usual instruction that all writers must write from a sense of place, and instead catch up with a world of peoples in exile from their ancestral homes, often in flight, in war, in refugee camps, and crossing borders that are not only geographic, but also cultural, linguistic, racial, and gender-, age-, and class-related.

This work on borders and crossings connects directly as well to the building of story, and the understanding that there is always a story next to each story we tell or write. As well, the full development of characterization has much to do with the ability of the writer to cross borders, with knowledge, compassion and respect. The ability to enter another’s world, including that of an object, as Neruda does in his Elemental Odes, is of course of central importance for poetry and essays as well as narrative. The work of entering and writing the lives of others with compassion, therefore, is something we will explore.

And very important in our exploration of the relationship of writing to place is the way that writers, even those writing in a language that is not their own, not their first tongue, work to make a home in language, thereby filling their creative expression with tension and resistance, music and power.

We will look at these evocative and emotional issues in our discussions, and in the illuminating work of other writers, and challenge ourselves in our far-reaching writing explorations to cross boundaries that will free our writing, and deepen our understanding of and respect for the worlds and characters we write about.

3. Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life

A very powerful workshop in which we go way beyond the usual concept of the back story as that which has happened to our characters or ourselves, before the moment of the story or poem or personal essay.

For each of us, our society, culture, family, and history give birth to an unlived life hidden within the life we live to get by. This land of yearning, bordered by frustration, overwork, distractions and violences, large and small, is charged by the deep human desire to create and to express, and to fulfill the individual and social self in creativity and community. All that we have not done or said, have not lived or been able to create, all that we deeply yearn for, moves us as powerfully as that which we have lived.

Working with the conscious and unconscious yearnings that move us through life opens us to a tremendous source of writing that not only deepens characterization and opens story, but hits at the core of what we strain for as we write—perhaps, to express the inexpressible—and at core of what we yearn for in our work for social justice.

Writing the unlived life, certainly galvanizing in a political way, touches on the deep yearnings for peace and equality, for health for ourselves and our environment, for safety and an end to unnecessary suffering, for a world in which we can all develop and express ourselves. It moves forward from a yearning for truth, for community, for power over our own destiny, for a world in which there is no devastation in our name, a yearning for our full potential to be realized.

As the storytellers and poets of this unlived life, we will work to begin and develop the stories and poems, essays and articles, that recognize and portray the depth and genius of those aspects of ourselves and of others that have limited social space in which to flourish. This workshop offers ideas for and practice in ways of accessing the unlived life to give birth to powerful images, complex characters, and full and thoughtful analysis of the world around us, which supports the full development of our written work.

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