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Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement by Linda Flower (review)

From: Community Literacy Journal
Volume 7, Issue 1, Fall 2012
pp. 155-160 | 10.1353/clj.2012.0047

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In 2009, the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) awarded Linda Flower the RSA Book Award for producing that year’s best work in rhetorical study. Flower’s book Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement spotlights her experiences with Pittsburgh’s Community Literacy Center (CLC), an innovative project in community literacy initiated in 1990. The 2008 book details a rhetorical model of engaging the privileged and marginalized voices of community leaders, academics and urban teens into meaningful dialogue that values all perspectives and embraces differences as valuable resources. According to Flower, the discourse of academic cultural critique has taught “us how to speak up [and] speak against” (2 original emphasis). However, what we lack and what this text provides is a model that teaches us “to speak with others [and] to speak for our commitments […] for a revisable image of transformation” (2 original emphasis).

The value of Flower’s work rests in challenging prevailing social standards in regards to authority and literacy: who speaks, who is given the right to speak, and who is heard. Primarily, she aims to use her work in community literacy to build a platform upon which those labeled as “voiceless and powerless” can stand (6). Although dominant social structures bestow authority upon a select few, Flower seeks to promote a dialogue model that embraces diverse perspectives and experiences.

The book is organized into three main sections. Part 1 (Chapters 1–2) creates a framework for Flower’s investigation into community literacy. Part 2 (Chapters 3–5) presents multiple theoretical perspectives within community literacy. Flower labels Part 2 a section “framed by academic debates”, guided by her effort to “show academics, mentors, and activists working to construct situated working theories of engagement, collaboration, and empowerment” (73). Part 3 (Chapters 6–10) concludes the book with specific tools readers can implement into their own community literacy practices.

Chapter 1 introduces the CLC through narrative prose and invites readers to take a tour of Pittsburgh’s Northside. Flower’s use of vivid anecdotes and participant dialogue sets an informal, conversational tone, a rhetorically-purposeful move as this book challenges readers to consider alternatives beyond traditional academic discourse. In Chapter 2, Flower calls upon her definition of community literacy as “an intercultural dialogue with others on issues that they identify as sites of struggle” (19 original emphasis). She posits the rhetorical agency of “everyday people” (44) central to community literacy. Through rhetorical agency, individuals engage in intercultural rhetoric, a dialogue across cultures that seeks to redefine problems in light of personal and public factors and discuss “what if ” statements on possible outcomes (53–54). These discussions may lead to the recognition of cultural differences and power imbalances; however, Flower encourages us to embrace these differences “as a resource” (55).

Part 2, which explores different ideas about community literacy, begins with Chapter 3, where Flower analyzes the current bent within composition towards critique. According to Flower, critique only serves to heighten our awareness of “‘others’ in our society” (78). She asks, “How do we prepare ourselves to go beyond the safety of critique into the vulnerable stance of reflective, revisable commitment – to speak for values or actions even as we acknowledge them to be our current best hypothesis?” (79 original emphasis). Flower calls for rhetoric and composition to “recover the practice of ‘doing’ rhetoric in its wider civic and ethical sense” (81). Then, Chapter 4 takes a slight turn from the previous chapters. Here, Flower focuses on her position as a researcher rather than the research itself. In this chapter, she appropriately labels herself “a person of privilege” (100) and considers the various ways to ethically balance this position alongside her work with community members and the CLC. Ultimately, Flower concludes that her privileged position is mediated by the relationships she builds with those around her: “So the question of What am I doing here? can take on a special urgency and feel very much like a problem of identity. Yet […] identity in this partnership is not something you bring with you; it is not about who or what you are. Identity is defined by the relationships you create” (122 original emphasis). Chapter 5 shifts focus to various sources...

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