“Community publishing” sounds like a relatively quaint thing. In fact, the quaintness is built into the term “community.” As Raymond Williams noted in his Keywords, “community” has always been a “warmly persuasive word” that “seems never to be used unfavorably” (76). Joseph Harris, who builds on and applies William’s definition to composition classrooms, gives two warnings about the use of this “vague and suggestive” term (99–101). First, community can be any group, any discourse community, and thus floats as a relatively empty signifier. The second use of “community” distinguishes one group as insiders who have shared purpose, language, and experiences in contrast to others. While more descriptive, Harris notes how this concept of community often glosses over the internal tensions and differences we know to exist in all communities. In Tactics of Hope, Paula Mathieu looks for a term to describe her work outside the university, also expressing dissatisfaction with “community.” She settles for “street” because “its problems seem generative”(xiii). Most scholars and most of our students live in what they call communities, not in the streets; the street denotes a place outside the university that isn’t always warm and favorable.
Despite its shortcomings, community publishing is our keyword, and I hope my opening digression restores some of the concept’s ineffable complexities while acknowledging it as a contested phrase. As Miller, Wheeler, and White adeptly note in their keyword on reciprocity, we as a discipline have “resigned ourselves to the term ‘community’ to refer to para-university communities,” not yet able to find a term that accurately represents the partnerships, tensions, connections, and differences of groups that we work with (176). Even while we develop the vocabulary to more accurately describe the practice, community publishing is thriving.
The release of the collection Circulating Communities: The Tactics and Strategies of Community Publishing earlier this year, edited by Paula Mathieu, Steve Parks, and Tiffany Rousculp, marks the high point in a stream of scholarship on community publishing. Its eleven essays, each describing different community publishing projects, demonstrate the creativity of community publishers. Circulating Communities builds on the momentum of other recent and influential texts, including Parks’ Gravyland (2010), The Republic of Letters (2009), Linda Flower’s Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement (2008), Eli Goldblatt’s Because We Live Here (2007), and Mathieu’s Tactics of Hope (2005). The inclusion of community publishing scholarship and community-based writing in a number of recent collections provides yet more evidence of the field’s growing interest in community publishing, such as Writing and Community Engagement: A Critical Sourcebook, which includes ten pieces written “from the community.”
While there is much diversity in community publishing, its shared characteristics normally consist of the following: [End Page 141]
1. The writers are among groups that traditionally do not have access to publication, either because of material constraints or because of the social construction of standards for cultural and political expression. The introduction to Circulating Communities describes how community publications move “underrepresented voices” to print, including “people of color, women, working-class radicals, gay and lesbian groups, and homeless advocates, among others” (1–6).
2. Writing is done by the community, as Mathieu et al describe; this is in contrast to other forms of community literacy that write about, with, or for the community (15). Nick Pollard and Pat Smart describe writing from the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers in the UK as “emphatically culture from the bottom up” and that the goal is “making workers’ voices heard and making them count—on our own terms” (21, 31). Descriptions of community publishing often emphasize the agency of community residents. When university collaborators are involved, the goal is to provide resources from the university and/or facilitate some of the publishing process, not to define the purpose, content, audience, or tone of publications. Communities should have full and final editorial control.
3. The writing is normally confined to a geographic locality. Pollard and Smart describe how the term “community publisher” reflects the localness of topics, authors, and distribution (21–25). The publications may take on topics of national and international significance, but often view...