Writing Centers as Critical Communities: Redesigning community through critical dialogue, rhetorical listening, and the critical embrace

Brooklyn Walter, Washington State University


In this reflective essay, I consider how to build a more intentional community in order to foster confidence among undergraduate writing consultants. After 18 months of remote work and minimal community-building success, our staff seems hesitant to embrace the potentials afforded to the job of writing tutor. As I plan for a return to campus and look ahead to my eighth year as a center director, I’m reimagining our writing center community as a “critical community” (Bettez & Hytten, 2013) in which undergraduate consultants participate in ongoing self-reflection and critical dialoguing across and amidst difference. In such a community, the “critical embrace” can manifest both sides of its claim: a loving, honest, analytic challenge provided to a member of a community so that they might learn and grow; a critical perspective provided between people who care for one another and for their larger community (Gramlich, 2019). I hope to generate community building that leads to bold, brave, confident consultants, especially when it comes to supporting a writer beyond their basic requests and engaging in conversations about identity, race, and writing.

Keywords: Community, community-building, tutor training, social justice, antiracism, critical writing center work, critical embrace

As with so many writing center administrators around the country and the world, I spent 2020 and much of 2021 attempting to maintain some semblance of community among our program staff: creatively arranging office hours, testing various staff discussion board options, rolling out new mentoring formats, and desperately trying to figure out how to play games with 30 people on Zoom. In this strangest of times, I’m sure we’ve all been reflecting on community and what community both means and looks like in our centers. Our rural, R-1 university in the Pacific Northwest has been fully online and remote since March 2020; as I write this (spring 2021), we’re entering month 18 of remote education, and we’re not heading back to campus until fall semester. I know this isn’t the experience of all writing center tutors or administrators, but I’m certain that, regardless of the amount of time spent away from our physical locations and from one another in-person, we’re all imagining how our communities might change and evolve as we continue to persevere through the pandemic.

As I scan my professional memories, I see how a strong community supports and emboldens writing consultants. In one of our program’s ‘eras,’ the undergraduate consultants crafted a statement of antiracist commitment, our local response to a similar declaration at one of our fellow Washington state schools. The cohort of consultants leading that effort were deeply connected with one another and with our program’s mission, and they boldly embraced a most challenging endeavor of critiquing our institutional position and our practices to establish an antiracist agenda we still hold central today. The last year and a half exist in stark contrast to that moment in our program’s history. We’ve been isolated, insulated, cut off from one another. Our gatherings over Zoom were mostly just painful silences and awkward interactions. The sense of community in our program is lagging, and it shows in the collective confidence of the staff.

There’s one consequence that weighs particularly heavy on my mind: our ability, as a program and as individual writing consultants, to engage in important and challenging conversations during sessions, particularly around power, privilege, race, and language. Since 2015, tutor training and professional development have prioritized studying white supremacy and racism in education and imagining what a writing center generally and writing consultants individually can do to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression within education and writing instruction. We’ve had ebbs and flows in terms of our progress toward our mission and goals, but the last year and a half has felt like a particularly noticeable ebb. As a result of some targeted reflective activities and conversations, I’ve found myself wondering how membership in an intentional community develops tutors who are ready, confident, and eager to challenge white supremacy and to engage with race and racism in their sessions.

In this essay, I will reflect on my experiences directing a writing center and my recent deep dive into the intersections of community, writing tutoring, tutor training, and antiracism. I’ll share my exploration of community building in writing center scholarship and my process toward new consultant training that, I hope, might foster more confidence among undergraduate staff to push the boundaries of “writing tutor” and imagine new opportunities for engaging and collaborating with writers.

Locating Resistance & Fear in Writing Center Work

I’ve been mentoring and supervising undergraduate writing consultants for a little shy of a decade. For five years prior, I was a professional writing tutor at a university and at a two-year college. A striking difference between the professional tutoring centers I worked for and the undergrad WC that I currently direct rests in the perception tutors have of their jobs, roles, and responsibilities. As a professional tutor, I knew what the university wanted of students and of student support services. I also knew how to work subversively within my role. I held confidence in my ability to work in this way.

I’ve noticed that our undergrad consultants generally take longer to come to the realization that they, too, can work subversively. Having been in school for nearly two decades by this time, their student-self is deeply entrenched. They are keenly aware of the power dynamics: students perform, teachers assess; teachers set the demands, students meet the demands. Even more powerful, though, is that students are also keenly aware of the consequences of not performing or meeting the demands. They know what low grades mean for students, those possible repercussions such as reprimand from parents, loss of scholarships, or repeating a course, and all of this amidst the ever-rising costs of college.

Writing tutoring, therefore, can be confusing and tense for undergrad students. At the risk of generalizing, we—writing center directors—train new tutors of the overarching values of our field, such as collaboration, resilience, and inclusion; we model effective strategies for working with writers with various requests, at different stages of a draft, and with an array of texts; we contextualize our work within the reality of white supremacist educational systems and “standards” that privilege some and oppress and/or marginalize others. New tutors learn approaches for discussing faculty expectations around an assignment, opportunities for resisting some or all of those expectations, and consequences for all possibilities. They practice noticing moments of subtle, or perhaps unintentional code-meshing, and then supporting the writer in deciding whether or not they’d like to scale that moment throughout their writing. We tell tutors, “welcome to your new job as an antiracist writing tutor, a member in the coalition fighting white supremacy, a valued participant in our writing center community.”

Then, a student-writer walks through the door, sits down at a table and says, “my professor said to come here to get my writing fixed.” Later, from another student-writer: “I need to fix all the grammar mistakes before my professor will let me turn it in.” Yet another needs to survive this assignment and “just pass this class.” University-wide, syllabuses and professors tell students that the writing center will help them meet the expectations of their assignments and satisfy course requirements.

Deeply, genuinely, I understand the tension and the confusion that so many writing tutors must feel.

This seems to be an even greater challenge for those of us who believe in students and their voices: students are told to visit us to “fix” their papers to meet expectations and, more subtly, to change their ideas, rhetoric, or language so that the professor will accept their work. We become unwilling or unaware cogs in the white supremacy machine of university education.

This year, I used a reflection tool with the staff of our program that focused on consultant readiness and confidence to discuss race, white supremacy, and linguistic discrimination during sessions with student-writers. I hoped to learn and talk with the staff about a few things: how frequently consultants are noticing opportunities to talk about race, what they’re noticing in those instances, how they feel when they notice the opportunity (confident, nervous, apprehensive), whether or not they engage, and what kind of approach they take when addressing what it is they’ve noticed. The responses weren’t necessarily shocking, but they’ve got me questioning everything in our training and mentoring.

Without getting too specific, given the lack of Institutional Review Board (IRB) for this informal program-development project, I will say that the frequency of consultants even noticing an opportunity to talk about race with the student-writer, below 30%, was far lower than I expected. Interestingly, many of those who did notice an opportunity to talk about race didn’t go for it because they felt like the writer wasn’t interested in going that direction or because they weren’t certain it would be helpful or relevant in that moment. My reading of this hesitation to engage is that the consultants are feeling uncertain about their responsibilities and their scope; they feel unsure of how to best “do their job.”

As I look ahead to the next school year, building some kind of a “return to campus” plan, I’m re-imagining trainings, meetings, and community building efforts. The questions I keep returning to: What can I do that will support the consultants in thinking about themselves in more flexible or expansive ways? What does our community need in order to push boundaries and engage with writers as more than just assignment-fulfillers?

We know that, generally, the longer undergrad consultants spend in the writing center, the more likely they are to work confidently, creatively, and innovatively; our experienced and veteran consultants tend to take risks and comfortably work beyond the basic text response expected. A sense of membership in the community seems vital for this confidence. The writing center community, however, cannot merely be another surface-level safe-space; we’ve seen over and over how damaging those superficial attempts can be (Haltwanger, Morrison & Nanton, 2019; Green, 2018; Garcia, 2017).

Rather, a writing center community must be a “critical community,” as defined by Bettez and Hytten (2013), one in which undergraduate consultants participate in connection and belonging as well as in ongoing self-reflection, critical questioning, and effective dialoguing across and amidst difference. In such a community, the “critical embrace” can manifest both sides of its claim: a loving, honest, analytic challenge provided to a member of a community so that they might learn and grow; a critical perspective provided between people who care for one another and for their larger community (Gramlich, 2019). Within this critical community, one that prioritizes the critical embrace alongside the shared compassion and grace, writing consultants might evolve from allies to accomplices, as Green (2018) calls for, and might begin to imagine their jobs as writing consultants far beyond the borders that have constricted them.

Writing Centers: Primed and Ready for Community Building

Much of our tutor training scholarship implies that community building should have a role in program development and tutor training. Cooper (2018) names team building and community building as imperative work in the endeavor to make our centers inviting and supportive of both tutors and student-writers. Braiding a pedagogy of empowerment into tutor training and community building is an important element of this work (Cooper, 2018; Denny, 2010). Creating inclusive centers hinges on our ability to promote inclusivity, compassion, collaboration, and community among our staff (Cooper, 2018; Denny, 2017; Bosker, 2005). Inoue (2016) stressed the importance of community building that examines hidden and explicit power structures and calls out whiteness so that the community is genuinely inclusive of consultants of color. Scholarship examining the physical space and environment of our centers address the role that a power-aware, inclusive, community-focused space can play for both the writers who use the center and for those who work in the program (Camarillo, 2019; McNamee & Miley, 2017; Grutsch McKinney, 2013).

The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice (2007) comprehensively examines the community of a writing center. As their overarching theory, the authors discuss writing centers as communities of practice; this definition presents our programs and our work as dynamic collaborative endeavors in which members embrace discomfort and challenging conversations, negotiate values and practices with one another, recognize and challenge traditional hierarchies and power structures, and connect to one another through shared gifts. The authors caution us against “claiming community” in ways that “ring hollow” and emphasize the urgency of regular critical reflection individually and collectively (p. 16).

Such “communities of practice” are central to education largely and writing centers more specifically. Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner (2015), the partnership often credited with theorizing community in this way, explain that “communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner). This is no doubt familiar for anyone who has worked as a peer writing tutor or directed such a program. According to the Wenger-Trayner duo, communities of practice emerge with the convergence of three important elements: a commitment to the domain in which members participate, members who learn from and with one another as well as who stand with one another, and who share a practice, meaning shared “experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing various problems” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner). Peer writing tutoring programs are absolutely communities of practice when we examine them through this framework.

Writing centers as communities of practice, then, isn’t much up for debate. Our programs host tutors who engage in the collective and collaborative process of learning about and practicing writing tutoring. The question I have is whether a community of practice in this regard—or the community building we’ve seen elsewhere—is enough to generate the kind of critical engagement we need for undergraduate peer writing tutors to extend beyond the role of paper-fixer, as defined by outsiders, to work confidently against white supremacy in their day-to-day tutorials and consultations rather than sliding back into “neutral” text response.

In an article that I think most closely gets at this question, McCloskey et. al. (2020) write about a multi-year inquiry project among their peer tutoring staff to explore paths to antiracism in writing center work, and it is clear that the project hinged on a sense of community among those participating. Using a tool called “Equity Centered Community Design,” provided by a nonprofit advocacy group in their region, the project prioritized community building within the staff as a foundation to problem solving and action toward justice. At one point, the authors write that the project led them to lean into discomfort within their community, “risking the relationships [they] value with each other in order to be deeper, more real, and for [their] work together to have a chance at redesigning for equity.” This expansive, detailed, and quite beautiful multimodal piece presents the tireless work of a community examining and reflecting on their membership in a white supremacist system and co-creating possibilities for the future. Their robust accounting of their experience was one of a few that led me to ponder the complexity of community within a writing center: imagining it, building it, maintaining it.

Writing Centers as Critical Communities

Even with all of this mentoring from writing center scholars, I’ve continued to feel a gap when it comes to theoretical and practical guidance around intentionally building community that cultivates brave, bold, and creative work with student-writers. Through my ongoing search for a tutor training model focused on this end, I came across the theoretically-informed practice of “critical community” and found incomparable guidance.

“Critical community,” as defined by Bettez and Hytten (2013) in their article “Community Building in Social Justice Work: A Critical Approach,” provides an important agenda for fostering the kind of community that a writing center can and should strive for. The authors write that this intentional type of critical community “offer[s] connection, independence, and belonging. They are also what sustain us in our social change efforts” (p. 52). Critical community members provide and receive the “support, momentum, energy, guidance, ideas, grounding, and strategies for action” of such change efforts (Bettez & Hytten, 2013, p. 52).

Peer tutors are engaged in challenging work. They’re working responsively to each individual student-writer, negotiating contextual differences across discipline and genre, attending to questions and concerns as they arise, and often, experiencing social pressures and reacting to emotional scenarios that teachers and administrators are spared. During such obviously complex work, writing consultants who are committed to social justice are also attempting to notice opportunities to foster a student’s voice and challenge an assignment’s reliance on white supremacist grading scales; they’re listening for stereotypes or arguments built on biases in order to challenge compassionately those ideas; they’re tuning in to a writer’s subtle code-meshing and encouraging the writer to go further. Peer tutors, no doubt, need a community of colleagues who are “generous, reflective, responsible, and accountable” and who “encircle [them] with the power of shared ideals and offer strength in numbers” (Bettez & Hytten, 2013, p. 52).

This web of responsibility and support is my ultimate goal as I think about prioritizing critical community in our center. When I think of the instances in which writing consultants do actively challenge white supremacy or other forms of oppression in a session with a student-writer, it’s clear that the consultant felt bolstered by and accountable to their colleagues and our program. I remember a consultant describing a mid-session realization that the paper contained a lot of unfounded, biased information about the traditions of a country, and the consultant expressed a sense of duty because they knew that this was the exact thing we’d talked about in our trainings. The consultant felt both invited and obligated to address the issue with the student-writer. The consultant later said that they recalled an approach we’d discussed in one of those meetings for such situations, and they knew that the community of consultants (and me, their supervisor) would support their use of that approach in this situation. In a critical community, most members would experience similar realizations of what they can and should do in such a situation.

Bettez & Hytten (2013) point out that fostering critical community requires members to be inquisitive, open and inclusive, flexible, tolerant, and collegial (pp. 55-56). In particular, we need “abilities to effectively dialogue across differences, to look outward to build connections and networks, and to be patient and hopeful while trusting that engagement” (p. 56). Building community in this way is an ongoing practice, “a verb, not a noun” (p. 54), in which the collective community and individual members continuously reassess power dynamics, participation, goals, values, and practices.

Putting it all to Work

So here I am, looking ahead to a year of probably-in-person consultant training and mostly-in-person tutoring, trying to draw up possibilities for community building work in our program. I’m a white, cisgender woman; our staff of about 25 is comprised of undergrads from an array of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and humanities majors (less than half from English or English education), and we tend to hover around 60% consultants of color and 20% first-generation consultants. In our center, training spans a full semester and includes shadowing and collaborating with veteran consultants, taking a credit-bearing course with me, and attending staff meetings and trainings. We require around five hours of professional development each term for the full staff, focusing on everything from discipline specific genres to the ways that student voices are quieted, marginalized, made to assimilate, and silenced. We try to conceive of antiracism in the way that Green (2019) writes, as “active and determined resistance of structural and systemic racism in all its forms” (p. 288) and consultants agree that such work must be part of what we do in our work. At this point, we’ve no doubt got a foundation of talking about antiracism in our work, but we’ve got to make our talk ‘“actionable” (Diab et al., 2016).

Bettez and Hytten, our critical community guides, offer five umbrella endeavors for fostering and maintaining a community focused on social justice:

(a) engage in ongoing critical self-reflection; (b) explicitly name how power, privilege, and oppression operate; (c) employ critical thinking and analysis skills in linking social justice theory and practice; (d) develop a sense of agency and empowerment working toward social change; and (e) engage in regular dialogue with others.(p. 49).

As I think about some of the other guides we use in our program such as rhetorical listening and collaborative goal setting, I’m starting to see a braided approach to our community building.

Rhetorical Listening toward a Critical Community of Consultant Colleagues

The more time I spend in this work, the more convinced I become that the heart, the epitome, of all writing center work is listening. Bettez & Hytten (2013) write that we “must listen carefully to others, share our own ideas thoughtfully and humbly, seek to bracket our assumptions to better hear others, and remain open to the possibility that our worldviews may fundamentally change” (p. 56). To me, this is writing tutoring. Whether a tutor is listening to a writer’s ideas for a paper, listening to the threads of a paper that seem to rely on stereotypes, or listening as a writer attempts to clarify their understanding of white privilege, the context requires that they do so carefully, thoughtfully, and humbly.

Like Bettez & Hytten’s work, Ratcliffe’s (1999, 2005) theory of rhetorical listening proposes that productive dialogue and interactions amidst differences require an intentional form of listening that stretches beyond listening to repeat back or respond, listening to agree or disagree. Foundational to rhetorical listening is the idea that listening amidst and across differences, such as cultural or racial differences, must involve recognizing and reconciling with our positionality, listening to our own discourses, and being aware of how our positionality and discourses relate to those of the other person.

Similarly, Bettez and Hytten (2013) point out that in building critical community, we must strive for ongoing “acknowledgement of power dynamics” and “critical questioning” (p. 57). For writing center consultants, this might include analysis of the ways in which privilege has supported their academic pursuits, or it might be collective examination of common “academic expectations” around writing through a lens of power dynamics. Key to these activities, of course, are the four moves of rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe, 1999) that enable group members to understand their own position relative to power, resist guilt and blame logics, and work with accountability.

Our tutor training course and many of our staff meetings include interaction with rhetorical listening already, but I’m seeing how we sometimes remain in discussion about it rather than application of it. Even our occasional role-playing activities in professional development sessions might not be quite enough to situate and cement this kind of listening into our work and our community. As I plan for fall, I’m imagining community infrastructure in which we listen to ourselves and one another, revealing to ourselves and to others how privilege and power influence us as writing consultants.

Whereas our staff meetings and trainings used to span a range of topics, this term we’ll use them as opportunities for “reflection, questioning, and exploration of our assumptions, as well as the inevitable power dynamics” of our group and our work (Bettez and Hytten, 2013, p. 54). In order to practice listening rhetorically to ourselves and others, discussions about nuanced issues without simple, binary solutions will take priority, and within those conversations, we’ll practice the four “moves” of rhetorical listening Ratcliffe defines. We’ll dive into complex conversations without easy answers, and we’ll attempt to understand how our perspectives intersect, diverge, and intermingle.

One activity in development will guide consultants to create visual representations of how they might proceed in imagined circumstances in the center: imagining audience for a vague course assignment and noting power dynamics between professor and student; discussing the minutiae of written English patterns with a generation 1.5 multilingual student who has received negative feedback from a teaching assistant; talking with an international student about their argument’s reliance on stereotypes prevalent in U.S. media. We’ll have a gallery walk before partnered interviews in which consultants practice “new, potentially more enriching and just ways of being in the world and in communion” with one another (Bettez and Hytten, 2013, p. 56). Partners will compose their own questions in addition to some provided in the activity:

    • What learning experiences inform the strategies you’ve come up with?
    • How might your strategies embody some aspect of privilege that a student-writer may not share?
    • What would you do if a student-writer disagreed with or resisted your approach or suggestion?

Ideally, through such conversation, these consultant-colleagues can practice thoughtfully challenging one another and employing the moves of rhetorical listening, all of which might weave some threads through this critical community.

Embracing Discomfort in Self-Reflection & WC Practice

In an important article from Gramlich (2019) about the tendency to avoid discomfort in writing center work—something I’ve certainly noticed in our center—we learn about “the critical embrace,” a tool perfect for those building and maintaining a critical community. The critical embrace “rejects the notion that conflict is always negative, that critique is always angry, and that there is a dichotomy between welcoming and discomfort” (Gramlich, 2019). In a community of people who often see themselves as ”helpers” and who pride themselves on being ”welcoming” to all writers, traits that I’m sure sound familiar to many of you reading, conflict is typically avoided or at least toned-down.

The willingness to be disturbed is a necessary element in the shift we’ve seen across scholarship and practice from cultivating ”safe spaces’” to ”brave spaces.” As Arao and Clemens (2013) explain, it’s certainly vital that we work against violence of any kind in our communities, and therefore, some degree of safety is certainly a warranted goal, but we must “emphasize the need for courage rather than the illusion of safety” when engaged in the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression. According to scholars of student development, fostering student engagement with the difficult tasks of analyzing their place in oppression or examining the ways in which they’ve benefited from a racist society requires educators to “take care to balance contradiction to a student’s current way of thinking with positive encouragement to explore new ways of thinking” (Arao & Clemens, 2013, p. 139).

In addition to the activity and the ongoing dialogue mentioned above, I’m planning a long-term activity that fosters and honors the embrace of discomfort. In a multi-semester writing activity, we’ll weave “critical autobiographies”—which Bettez and Hytten describe as a guided reflection on issues of race, gender, or other social positionalities—with literacy narratives in which consultants explore their evolution as reading, writing, communicating individuals. Targeted reflection questions to accompany this activity will invite participants to view their experiences from the perspective of a friend or family member whose life experiences have been noticeably different; others will be aimed at uncovering privilege in their story with help from sources like Saad’s (2019) workbook-style Me and White Supremacy and the “Diversity Toolkit” online activity resource from the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work (The MSW@USC, 2020). Eventually, the examination will come to their positions, beliefs, and actions as writing tutors, taking this critical questioning to why and how we do what we do in our work.

In the day-to-day maintenance of a critical writing center community that we slowly construct through these targeted and structured activities, frequent and informal collaborative reflection can also offer opportunities to facilitate tutors’ embrace of discomfort. Rather than asking tutors to reflect on their sessions individually and privately, a partnered reflection activity built into the daily fabric of the program will nudge tutors to be open with their colleagues and to gently hold one another accountable. I plan to set this up as a brief interview process in which one community member asks another questions about the session that include the basics about what went well and what they might do differently as well as questions about noticing race, power, and privilege. As Gramlich (2019) puts it, tutors need to learn to “allow oneself to be critical of others and oneself, while simultaneously embracing others and oneself, to create a space in which mistakes are critiqued but not shamed, and where privileges are acknowledged loudly.”

Wrapping Up toward the Future

Diab et al. (2016) wrote their chapter “Making Commitments to Racial Justice Actionable” in response to this question: “how can commitments to racial justice become manifest and actionable in our everyday lives” (p. 19). I can’t imagine how we can live our commitments and manifest our goals without a critical community of collaborators.

In our local center, we need to evolve from a community, perhaps a community of practice, into a critical community. Starhawk (2011), a humanitarian and ecological activist who for decades has studied and cultivated collaborative community efforts for social justice, writes, “When [collaborative groups] function well, they can be places of learning, joy, and empowerment, that allow creativity to flourish. They can provide the support and structure we need to change the world” (p. 264). Through intentional programming that teaches and integrates critical embraces, attention to privilege and power within and outside of the group as well as rhetorical listening, I hope to foster critical community among the undergraduate peer consultants.

As our critical community of writing consultants grows and thrives, our writing consultants might find the ground under their feet solid enough to challenge the perceived limits of their scope as tutors. They might, as Benjamin (2019) called for, “explore the edges of [their] own imagination — the border patrols others have imposed, as well as the monitoring systems [they] have installed, including those gatekeepers squatting in the nooks and crannies of [their] thinking, forcing [them] down certain pathways and telling [them] to avoid others” (p. 11). In fostering the WC as a critical community, one in which members move from allies to accomplices (Green & Condon, 2020), perhaps we can come out from under these externally-imposed and internalized rules about what it means to help a student with their writing and expand our conception about what a writing consultant does, about what a conversation between consultant and writer might explore, and about how a writing center might function within the landscape of the university.


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