Vershawn Ashanti Young

Professor, University of Waterloo
Vershawn Ashanti Young

dr. vay is, inter alia, a performance artist and actor, he enjoys using his glamour shot here for academic purposes.

Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young a.k.a dr. vay is Professor of Communication Arts and English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, where he also is a founding member of the Black Faculty Collective and the Black Studies Implentation Team--efforts that developed after the anti-Black racism protests over the murder of George Floyd. dr. vay brings expertise to this panel in the form of organizational experience and knowledge as current Immediate Past Chair of CCCC, 2020 CCCC Chair and 2019 Convention Chair. Under dr. vay’s CCCC leadership, the organization issued three social justice position statements for faculty and students: (1) “Statement on Effective Institutional Responses to Threats of Violence and Violent Acts Against Minoritized and Marginalized Faculty and Graduate Students”; (2) “This Ain’t Another Statement! This Is A Demand for Black Linguistic Justice”; and (3) “Statement on Black Technical and Professional Communication.”

Panel: "Making Social Justice Work an Integral Part of the Conference on College Composition and Communication" 

Date: Wednesday, April 21, 1:30-3 pm EST

Description: In 2017, as the CCCC was preparing to host its annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri, the Missouri legislature passed SB 43, a discriminatory bill that, in the words of the NAACP, “would prevent individuals from protecting themselves from discrimination, harassment and retaliation in Missouri.” In response, the NAACP issued its first ever travel advisory for the state, which caused many members of the CCCC to demand that the convention be cancelled in protest. Though the Executive Board decided, after much debate, not to cancel the convention, largely due to the devastating financial consequences that would result, convention planners, led by Asao Inoue, reshaped the program theme to focus strongly on social justice issues in research, in the classroom, in our nation’s infrastructure, and in our home communities.

A central component of this new direction was the formation of the Social Justice and Activism at the Conference (SJAC) Task Force, chaired by Akua Duku Anokye, which planned, organized, and participated in a number of social justice initiatives including two free pre-convention workshops, a system of volunteer travel companions, access to sessions via streaming media, and collaborations with local activist groups. The CCCC Executive Board voted soon after to extend the SJAC’s work into future conventions, forming the Social Justice At the Convention Committee for a three-year, potentially renewable, term. Among the committee’s charges was “[w]ithin the program chair’s vision, collaborate with the local committee chair to develop social justice and local engagement activities that complement the convention theme, either via activities co-located or co-proximal to the convention, activities built into the convention program, and/or some other alternative.”

The reconstituted SJAC is now in its third year of operation, and its journey has not been an easy one. After organizing and implementing a full slate of social justice activities at the 2019 convention in Pittsburgh with convention chair Vershawn Ashanti Young, the 2020 convention in Milwaukee was abruptly cancelled due to the pandemic, and the 2021 convention in Spokane moved completely online. The challenges of doing social justice programming in a shifting convention landscape have been tremendous but, we have found, they are not insurmountable.

The consultants for this panel have had extensive experience planning social justice initiatives for the CCCC convention, and the lessons they have learned in the process will be important and useful to others who want to highlight such programming in national, regional, local, and online venues. The consultants and their roles on this proposed panel are as follows:

Vershawn Ashanti Young, University of Waterloo, 2020 CCCC Chair and 2019 Convention Chair: “Elevating the Prominence of Social Justice Programming Within and at a National Convention”
This presentation will focus on the challenges of working on social justice issues in controversial times, with supportive and reluctant stakeholders, and how to deal with personal injustices as a person of colour while trying to lead an organization to renew and recharge commitments to racial and social justice. This presentation will also introduce how individuals and groups can create Black Body Acknowledgment statements similar to the Indigenious and Native Peoples Land Acknowledgements. 

Michael Pemberton, Georgia Southern University, Co-Chair of the SJAC 2018-2021: “Developing Social Justice Initiatives in the Years of Living Dangerously”
This presentation will discuss the history and work of the SJAC over the last three years and how it has adapted to the challenging impact of a global pandemic. Specifically, the presentation will describe several of its social justice programming initiatives for the 2019 convention in Pittsburgh, how it managed the cancellation of the 2020 convention in Milwaukee, and how it prepared for and handled its social justice work for the 2021 convention, originally scheduled to take place in Spokane but moved online in January. The speaker will then discuss several of the lessons learned from doing this work, focusing on the opportunities and constraints inherent in building social justice programming for a national convention as well as the emotional labor involved when doing so during a global crisis and a shifting, unstable convention landscape. 

Maria Novotny, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Local Arrangements Chair for the 2020 CCCC convention and Co-Chair of the SJAC: “Localizing Sustainable Social Justice Commitments at Host City Sites”
Reflecting on Dr. Novotny's role as the local arrangements chair for (the then canceled) CCCC 2020 in Milwaukee, this presentation will speak to the various predicaments featuring community organizations at national, disciplinary conferences. The presentation operates on the assumption that: if rhetoric and composition, as a discipline, is committed to supporting the local social justice actions of conference host-city communities, then we must work towards developing a sustainable labor-based infrastructure such work requires. The speaker then proposes developing a framework of care as a potential model to sustain local community organizing efforts at national conferences. 

Antonio Byrd, University of Missouri, Kansas City, SJAC committee member 2018-2021: “Creating Social Justice Conference Events for Greater Impact in and Beyond Local Community”
Reflecting on his experience of getting involved with SJAC, Dr. Byrd asks, “What do we leave behind and what do we take with us after the social justice event ends?” This presentation speaks to how national conferences can be focal points for inspiring and rejuvenating justice-engaged work for local community organizers and conference attendees. The speaker considers how his discourse on attending conferences often highlighted economic contributions to the community while returning home with broader social networks and intellectual fulfillment. However, the 2018 social justice initiatives, and subsequent SJAC membership, led to important lessons about how national conferences cannot separate themselves from the social and cultural struggles of the host city. Drawing on an activist panel the speaker helped organize at the 2019 annual CCCC, the speaker proposes ways one can organize social justice events that lead to more than just roundtable conversation but strategies for social justice work that local community and conference attendees can practice when they go their separate ways.