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  • Keyword Essay:The Streets
  • Jessica Estep

In composition studies, "the streets" is a term frequently employed to delineate a tangible public space and/or the discourse emerging from it, particularly outside the bounds of government or other institutions (such as universities), where people interact and live. The streets also represent a site of protest for political or social change, as when people repeat the mantra take it to the streets! In his 1963 March on Washington speech, Civil Rights leader John Lewis stated, "I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village, and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete." Many people believe that embodying this ubiquitous public space guarantees them a venue and an audience for their discourse, particularly when it takes the form of dissent.

As a result of the streets' symbolic importance, it is the streets where community literacy scholars increasingly seek to establish and maintain a presence. As Christian Weisser notes in Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere, "If our conversations about public writing are to have any real value, we must work toward connections with other disciplines, discourse communities, and individuals inside and outside of academia" (xiv). Engaging with the community means that professors and students alike must transition from the comfortable space of the university and enter into the mobile, material space of the community: into the streets. As tangible spaces built for movement, the streets also contain movements—political or otherwise—and activists' mobility is often captured on mobile phones, thus allowing for a double presence in virtual spaces. As material spaces grounded in communities, the streets provide rhetoric and composition scholars tangible connections to those local communities. Nedra Reynolds explains that "Street practices … are of increasing interest to composition and literacy studies, as service learning, tutoring and community writing programs invite students to explore the streets and cultures of local communities" (113). The streets are simultaneously the connection points to these communities and where communities exist.

Using the term "the streets" as a reference to tangible, real-world publics allows rhetoric and composition scholars to localize public discourse in a tangible space. John Ackerman and David Coogan, in the introduction to their edited collection The Public Work of Rhetoric, argue that "the street" is a term that gives public rhetors a concrete entry point into all public discourses, particularly those beyond protest rhetoric. Ackerman and Coogan assert that "The street as a figurative device, from [André] Breton to [Charles] Baudelaire to more recent scholarship, configures much more than an angry display of political unrest. The street materializes as it represents the prospects of a radically inclusive democracy of human experience" (8). Coogan [End Page 89] and Ackerman see the streets as a located metaphor for public discourse more generally within a democracy—a material arena outside the university in the civic space of a city where citizens freely participate in the exchange of ideas.

The sections that follow explore how "the streets" has emerged within scholarly conversations about community engagement, particularly as scholars seek to effectively define, enter, and engage with local communities. The first section examines how scholars have used the streets as a metaphor for public space and discourse in an attempt to reify the abstract constructs of "local publics" and "communities." By pinpointing these community sites, scholars can more readily identify where community literacy thrives and enter into those spaces. The second section looks to critiques of the metaphor of the street, examining how some scholars interrogate the negative connotations associated with it. The final section examines how the physical streets have played a role in research and pedagogical practices in community literacy, both as a barrier or as a connection point. The aim in this essay is to unravel how "the streets" serve as a metaphor and a material reality in community literacy practices.

The Streets as a Concrete, Mobile Metaphor

In her 2005 book Tactics of Hope, Paula Mathieu explicitly seeks a contemporary re-adoption of "the streets" as a metaphor for public space. She...


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