“Reclaiming Our Time”: Centering the Voices of Women of Color

“Reclaiming Our Time”: Centering the Voices of Women of Color

“Reclaiming Our Time”: Centering the Voices of Women of Color

By Amy Woodworth


One of the newest Rowan Writing Arts courses to emerge from the ongoing revision of the program’s learning goals – Reclaiming Our Time: Empowering Women of Color – is just what Nia McCombs was seeking from her university.

I've always wanted professors to incorporate more diverse authors in their course set-up so I can feel included,” said English major McCombs. “Being in this course changed that for me because I felt fully immersed in every text we read.”

Writing Arts professor Cherita Harrell created the new special topics course that’s centered on the voices and creative works of women of color. It debuted this past Fall 2022 semester and takes its name from the iconic phrase used by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) during a 2017 congressional hearing in which a Trump administration official tried to misdirect and silence her.

Reclaiming Our Time addresses such key program revision objectives as adding a stronger focus on cultural humility, taking responsibility to listen to vulnerable and underrepresented voices, respecting students’ own stories and the stories of others, and exploring the ways power and privilege intersect with writing.

“We can’t honestly have those conversations and do the work,” Harrell said, “if we aren’t actively challenging the canon.” This new course, she explained, serves an intense need of not just Writing Arts students but also all students at Rowan.

Reclaiming Our Time is designed to have women of color regain control of their representation, tell their own stories, and take up as much space as white and male authors have historically in so many English, language arts, and writing courses.

The course also created a safe space for students who are themselves women of color to have an experience that, for most, will be unique to their entire educational career: being in a classroom filled with people who look like them and who would be able to speak, listen, discuss, and give feedback from lived experiences that are similar to their own.

Reclaiming Our Time grew out of Harrell’s dissertation work on critical literacy and Black feminism. She built a syllabus around critical theory, mentor texts of creative work, lessons in craft, and a variety of local, regional, and even global guest lecturers. These speakers included New Jersey-based poet and educator RADI the Poet and South African poets and educators vangile gantsho and Toni Giselle Stuart.

Students each worked on a semester-long project that turned a memory or aspect of their lived experience into a visual narrative drawing on a variety of genres, which they performed for one another at the end of the semester.

The guest lecturers in particular, Harrell believes, were a powerful element of the course.

“What they shared from their lived experiences was a gift,” Harrell says. These working authors not only provided insights and feedback to students, but also served as role models and a vision of a whole world of writing beyond the canon.

Harrell’s students agree.

“I felt fully immersed,” said McCombs. “Reading stories from other women of color allowed me to see that their work lives up to that same potential that more ‘traditional’ works live up to.”

Just as Harrell’s students rethought and honed  their craft, they also gained confidence and came to see themselves as writers.

Jordan Avery, a Writing Arts major who also worked with Harrell as an intern, put the course’s value succinctly: “It allowed me to not only see myself as a black woman who writes, but as a writer point blank.”

Harrell and her students feel this course could do additional transformative work if it was expanded and taken by white students and male students. In the meantime, if it continues to be taken primarily by women of color, the course is providing these students with a special learning experience.

Reflecting on the dinner they had together on the culminating night of the course, McCombs said it showed her “how intimate our class was during the semester. It was great to sit with people who we had shared some of our deepest feelings with and just reflect on life itself. It's definitely an experience I will remember forever.” 

You can hear an extended conversation about the course Reclaiming Our Time with Prof. Cherita Harrell, intern Jordan Avery, and students Nia McCombs and Lesley George from their takeover of Singularity Press’s podcast From the Press, available on Spotify.