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Writing Center Wields Power of Words for Social Good

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Alyssa Hurst

Feature  •
DU Writing Center

Nearly 800 individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty visit Denver’s St. Francis Center each day. At the daytime shelter, many visitors rinse off in showers, charge their cell phones, enjoy a hot meal — and fine-tune the latest chapter of their novel.

Taking the time to work on writing is not often counted among a person’s basic needs, but the DU Writing Center sees things differently. Each week, student and faculty consultants from the center venture beyond the comfort of the program’s home in the Anderson Academic Commons to set up at small tables in St. Francis Center and the Gathering Place, another local daytime shelter, to serve as listeners, coaches and confidants.

This has been a weekly ritual for nearly 10 years, since John Tiedemann, DU’s director of social justice, and former Writing Center faculty members Eliana Schonberg and Geoffrey Bateman first explored the idea of expanding the Writing Program’s community-focused ethos.

“We went there not exactly knowing what shape it would take,” Tiedemann says. “We knew there would be some interest in the pure pragmatic value of having someone around to help you with your writing, but what we discovered was that only maybe half of our folks come in for that very immediate, practical kind of stuff.”

The other half wanted help with their creative works, ranging from poetry and novels to Platonic dialogues and screenplays. Over the years, Writing Center consultants have seen visitors from the two community sites publish articles, self-publish books, get jobs, gain ground in court cases and connect with loved ones.

Writing for the social good is a clear thread that runs straight through the heart of DU’s Writing Center. In addition to serving as a place for students, faculty and staff to hone their writing skills, the center is committed to bringing its tools and expertise to bear outside of the University.

From working with students aging out of foster care to holding workshops for underrepresented graduate students to transcribing and preserving historical documents, the Writing Center is far more than just a hub for creating crisp prose. It’s only natural, says graduate student and Writing Center consultant Alison Turner: “There’s a potential for empathy that all writing has to kind of slow down and hear a perspective you might not otherwise stop and listen to,” she says. “Writing can do that.”

Writing Center director Juli Parrish considers the community-focused work a moral imperative. “Writing centers are really very deeply contextual places. You offer the services your particular community needs,” she says. “We want the work that we do to not just be for privileged people who can afford to be here at DU, but for other people in the community.”

The heavy weight of the work is palpable among the graduate and undergraduate students who volunteer their time as consultants at the community sites, says Parrish, and they come away having gained something important. “I think most of the consultants come in thinking that [the work] is kind of a one-way street — that they have something to offer. But they find they learn as much as they give,” she says.

Turner, whose time at the Gathering Place inspired her to research community literacy, agrees. “Academia can be such a vacuum. It’s really important to see what this thing I’m studying is doing outside of the University,” she says. “It takes the lid off of it. It blows it out of the box.”