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Letter to the editor: The UI Nonfiction Writing Program responds to Black students’ demands for change


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Dear Students,

We are deeply grateful for this letter. Thank you for all the painful labor and thought that has gone into it, and for giving us the opportunity to make amends and to change. We want to acknowledge that as a program we have failed and harmed Black students, and you are right to be angry and to demand immediate action. We are committed to listening to you — and working with you — to rebuild the program in a more just way. We recognize your frustration in the lack of a timely response to concerns raised in the past, which is why we want to lay out, here, a set of specific actions we will take right now to recruit, elevate, and support Black students, along with a timeline for actions we will take in the future.

We intend to address all of the items in your letter, and we want to do so thoroughly and in a way that transforms our program’s (and the University’s) culture in a sustaining way. Some of these changes will require the collaboration of other offices and outside parties, the collection of data, and our own conscientious daily action and mindfulness. We are enthusiastically committed to all of this, and will be transparent about our progress. The changes we can make immediately, we will, and they are as follows:

All NWP faculty have already begun the process of scrutinizing and reforming our admissions process. By the next round of admissions to the program, we commit to having a more diverse pool of application screeners, including Black writers, all of whom will be compensated for their labor on behalf of the program. We will update the whole community as soon as these processes are solidified, sometime in the fall semester.

Starting in the fall semester, all NWP faculty will include statements in their syllabi stating how they plan to address racism in the classroom, as well as resources for how to file a complaint.

Starting in the fall semester, all NWP faculty commit to including texts by Black writers (beyond Baldwin and Rankine) on our syllabi, without tokenizing or holding them separate from the canon.

Effective immediately, all NWP students will be allowed to count more than one outside course toward their degree.

We also want to share with you actions that we are currently pursuing that will take slightly longer to implement, but which are underway, and the timelines to which we will hold ourselves accountable.

Starting in the Fall, we will require mandatory implicit bias/diversity training for all faculty and students, that we will do each year, with separate BIPOC-only offerings and support. We also commit to working with DEI experts to develop special anti-racist training specifically around concerns that emerge in the creative writing classroom and workshop. Likewise, we are working to help create special pedagogical support for BIPOC teaching assistants, in acknowledgement of the additional burdens they bear teaching in predominantly white classrooms. We also commit to making sure there are resources in place to help BIPOC writers and support them in their move to a predominantly white city and work environment, understanding that we have not done enough to think thoroughly and empathetically about the well-being and safety of our BIPOC students and that we must do everything to support their retention. We commit to working on this over the summer, with the hope of having concrete steps in this area in place by Fall.

We are committed to making data on program demographics accessible to students and prospective students. In order to do so, we must research FERPA laws and investigate what data is already available and what needs to be collected. We are already seeking this information and will have an update by the fall semester about our progress and findings.

In the immediate days ahead, all NWP faculty have committed to attending a four-week workshop led by facilitators from the organization Liberating Structures. The theme of the workshop is “Reimagining Graduate Education as Preparation for Navigating Crisis,” and it is placing specific emphasis on working for justice. Any graduate students who would like to attend are welcome to join us as well. You can find more about the free online workshops which begin July 16 here.

In acknowledgement of the fact that reform is not effective and healing is not possible if reform is left in the hands of those who are part of the very institutions that have caused harm, we are also currently pursuing the additional step of researching how we can have someone outside the program conduct a diversity audit of the NWP, a neutral party with whom students and alum can speak, candidly, frankly, about their time in the program and what must change for Black students and writers of difference to thrive, all without fear of reprisal, and with the understanding that we want to listen to students and follow their lead for ongoing reform. We commit to working on this over the course of the summer and will update you with details.

For immediate concerns, we invite students who wish to share any comments to this email account: feedbacknwp@gmail.com. We recognize the need to ensure anonymity for those who do not wish to be named, and so we will be working with IT to develop a special anonymous comment form for students. We hope to have that by Fall semester.

All of the NWP faculty and our colleagues in English support the extreme urgency of the hiring needs you so rightly identify and while this is an area where we cannot yet offer a clear timeline, we commit to work in the coming weeks to exhaustively explore all possible ways to achieve this, and we will be as transparent as we possibly can during that process.

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On Saturday July 4 2020, 28 current students across every cohort in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program lifted their collective voices and signed a letter, demanding swift and immediate change. The recipients of the letter include the director #JohnDagata and faculty at their program, the Dean of the @UIOWA Graduate College, the UIowa English Department, the UIowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the UIowa Center for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and several UIowa Provosts. The letter included descriptions of their experiences as both Black and allied students and writers, and the struggles they have endured in the racist environment that the program fosters. Very importantly, the letter included TEN ACTIONABLE steps the NWP can (and must!) take to improve the culture of its program for ALL of its students. Here, on the #BlackatIowaWriters platform, you can read through abbreviated versions of these action steps. Stand with us. Like, share, comment, engage. Help us hold the Nonfiction Writing Program accountable!

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We will work on these longer-term items and have an update on our progress by the start of classes in the fall.

As we move forward, we want to be sure what we do is informed by the voices and experiences of our Black students and all students committed to building an anti-racist program. We are listening. And we thank you for your leadership and strength.

Respectfully,

The Faculty of the NWP


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