This time last year, we were wrapping up another PWC weekend: finishing three-day workshops, outlining new projects, grabbing a stack of magazines from the coffee room, saying our goodbyes and making plans to meet again soon with writer friends, old and new. For me, Conference Sunday is always a slurry of emotions: exhaustion, relief, and most of all inspiration – that unmistakable electricity that buzzes through your veins after a weekend among a supportive community of writers.
Right now, I miss that part the most. It has been months since I have been in physical community with other writers. While I’m grateful for the connection that technology allows, something different happens when we are together in space and time: serendipitous images triggered by someone’s body wash or the sound of a stranger’s voice floating across a room; the multitudinous interpretations that arise from a shared experience; the cozy feeling of being at a family reunion with people you have just met.
But while I am sad to lose that sense of community by not holding a conference this year, I am all the more sad about all the loss our community – and our world – has experienced because of the COVID 19 pandemic. We have lost opportunities, jobs, resources, and stability. Saddest of all, we’ve lost friends and family, colleagues, coworkers, and neighbors.
As a teacher and a literary organizer, I can’t help but think of the writers’ we’ve lost: How many stories and storytellers, poems and poets were among the more than 400,000 people who have died from the coronavirus worldwide? Yet, I also realize that as I type new writers are being born out of the urgency of this moment. And for that, I am grateful and hopeful – and also not a little bit scared.
In recent weeks, America’s systemic racism and endemic mistreatment of Black people – especially by the police – have been pushed to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Story after story, video after video, shows the truth of how white Americans – civilians and police – brutalize Black people remorselessly. Yet too few white people are really reflecting on our own privilege, our own conscious and unconscious biases, our own need to change. Instead, many police seem to have doubled down on the authoritarian violence: arresting journalists, shooting people on their own porches, tear gassing protestors (in the middle of a pandemic, no less), assaulting protestors with little or no provocation, and, of course, killing more unarmed Black people. Too often, these facts are twisted into familiar racist narratives that blame the victims for the violence and oppression they receive; too often, white Americans are willing to accept these narratives because they are more comfortable than facing the truth.
It is the job of writers and artists to shine light in the darkness, to lay bare our human flaws and foibles, to challenge us to see our worst selves so that we may become our best selves. Right now, that challenge is as great as it has ever been – as willful ignorance thrives and deliberate resistance to facts, reality, and truth grows stronger and more unyielding.
Being a writer is hard work; you must stay dedicated and optimistic while also expecting rejection and apathy. But now, we must push ourselves more than ever before to face uncomfortable truths and take them on, talk about them, and write about them. We cannot be silent any longer. White privilege is real. If you are white, you have it. Racism is real; if you are white, it lives inside of you, whether you know it or not.
Likewise, I must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth about the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: for far too long we have not represented the rich diversity of this city. Although we have made it a priority over the past several years, our board and our faculty still do not include enough people of color, and we have been weaker for it. We have not shown through our actions what we firmly believe: Black Lives Matter. Black Voices Matter.
We can and must do better.
So, yes, I am grateful that we were not planning an event this year, that we didn’t have to cancel an event and bankrupt a 71-year-old Philadelphia institution. I am also grateful for the hard truths this world continues to teach us, the reminders of why it is so important that we lean into discomfort and strive to be more than what we have always been. Right now, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference is rebuilding our Board and reimagining our programming. We are gaining insight from writers and stakeholders throughout Philadelphia. We will not settle for comfortable or easy, and we will emerge in 2021 as the type of Conference that this region deserves.
President, Philadelphia Writers’ Conference