A Space to Write: The People of Color (POC) Writers’ Workshop

Everything starts with an idea, and Adjunct Professor of English Bureen Ruffin literally created the space for one.

She wanted young writers of color to be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings in a supportive learning environment, while at the same time honing their writing craft.  

In the fall of 2014, this manifested as the People of Color (POC) Writers’ Workshop on the New York City campus.

Organic origins

Ruffin, who was recently awarded the prestigious Kenan Award for Teaching Excellence as part-time faculty, first worked with students on an informal basis, with support from the Animation, Comics, and Entertainment (ACE) Dyson House, and its “Don,” Associate Professor of English Stephanie Hsu.  When the Houses were cancelled, the English Department formally launched the POC Writers' Workshop.

It was formed out of an expressed need from both colleagues and students to establish a safe space to explore their experiences as writers of color and/or writers writing about characters and stories of color. 

Erica Johnson, chair of the New York English Department, has been supportive from the very beginning. 

She says, “I think it is vitally important because it arose so organically from students' interests and experiences as people of color on this campus and provides an excellent example of how to listen to and support our students.”

Creating personal works of art

The workshop runs for the course of a regular semester, meeting once a week in the evenings, and is open to both students and alumni from across the university.  Initially, it was offered only as a voluntary workshop, but participants now have the option to earn three credits. Enrollment has averaged four to eight students, with as many as four alumni in a semester.  Students write in genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and prose.

As workshop facilitator, Ruffin’s role is akin to that of a conductor of an orchestra.  She contributes her part, but also listens to the ebb and flow of her students’ artistic expression, the stories that most resonate and represent them. She sets the pace so that, ultimately, they can become masters of their own expression.

Says Ruffin, “I think what students most appreciate is having the space to really explore their craft and stories at their own pace and in a space that is safe and dedicated to their evolution as writers.”

She has been inspired by the passion students bring to this experience, as well as the sense of community and personal connection it has fostered.

“From my perspective, I know that we have created a space that is welcoming, nurturing and safe. I am also truly moved when I think about how these students submit their pages and show up every week, despite their busy schedules. We can often be found, well after the workshop has ended, talking about writing, life, or just about anything. It's really special!”

A space to be free

Melanie Franco, ’10, Biochemistry, writes flash nonfiction, and frequently on her own experiences as a Hispanic woman in the United States.

On the impact the workshop, she says, “Being part of this workshop has made me a lot more confident in my writing. It has also helped me grow as a writer, and it has given me a place where I have the freedom to write about anything that I want, without the fear of being judged or misunderstood. This workshop has become a kind of oasis for me, and I will always be grateful to Professor Ruffin, not only for starting the workshop, but also for being an inspiring and amazing person.”

Looking ahead

Ruffin, who joined the English faculty in fall 2011, plans to continue to hold the POC Writers’ workshop and even see one of these students publish her or his work.

She says, “Often, young writers get lots of instruction on writing but not much about the business of writing - what it means to prepare one's work for publication and the publication process. To that end, this year, we focused a small portion of our workshop time to discussing how to prepare samples for submission and writing query letters.”

What began as an idea, a seed in the minds of thoughtful Dyson faculty, has blossomed into a garden of soulful student stories. We look forward to the continued success of the POC Writers’ Workshop, and picking up students’ writings one day on a Kindle or in a bookshop.

For more information, please contact Professor Ruffin at bruffin@pace.edu.