Writing the Border
With a seed gift from Nancy Kelly, graduate students in the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program bridge community engagement and writing – and advance the conversation on environmental and social justice issues on the border. The U.S.-Mexico border wall. Photo by Francisco Cantú. “Words, arranged just so, create movements and bend society towards justice,” wrote Logan Philips while he was a Fellow in the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program, or SFSW.
Each summer, the SFSW Program sends three to four University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA student Fellows to research and write on social justice and environmental challenges unique to the U.S.-Mexico border during a two-week residency in Patagonia, Ariz. These students also lead storytelling workshops and engage in hands-on environmental restoration projects with 10-15 high school students from underserved border communities, in collaboration with the Borderlands Restoration Network’s Borderlands Earth Care Youth Program. 2021 SFSW Fellows learn from a rancher about erosion prevention and sustainable agriculture. Photo by Susan Briante. The SFSW Program, housed in the Department of English , is led by two award-winning writers: English Professor Susan Briante, author most recently of Defacing the Monument , and English lecturer and MFA alumnus Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border .
The SFSW Program launched in 2017 as a companion program to the Field Studies in Writing Program in the Canadian Maritimes, founded by Regents Emerita Professor Alison Hawthorne Deming. The program has received support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice and the Arizona Institutes for Resilience.
Recently, Nancy Kelly donated to fund the program for three years. She hopes her gift will inspire other donations that can ensure the long-term sustainability of this unique program. Reciprocal Learning
The SFSW residency includes various hands-on activities: The Fellows have met with groups addressing overgrazing, served food to deported migrants, refilled water tanks for migrants lost in the desert, visited ecosystems destroyed to make way for border wall construction, among other activities.
“We are blessed as writers to have the internet at our fingertips to pull up facts and figures,” Briante said. “But there’s nothing that beats being there.”
Being immersed in the border is an essential part of the program, certainly. But what makes the program special are the community partnerships and what Briante and Cantú call “reciprocal learning.”
“There is a long-standing model where writers and journalists parachute into a community to write about an issue without really engaging or reciprocating,” Cantú said. “But with this program, an exchange happens between the writer and the community.”
When Cantú talks about writing about the region, he emphasizes doing so with a sort of humility. “We invite our writers to think of their work as part of an exchange of ideas rather than a definitive representation of this issue or this place,” Cantú said. “And we try to examine nuanced, caring, and careful ways for us to include other people’s stories in what we write.” Students in the Borderlands Earth Care Youth […]