Professor Marcelle Haddix appears in a warmly lit room and smiles at the unseen audience on the other side of her screen. You are a writer, she tells them. “You write every day—maybe text messages to your friends, or in videos you post on TikTok. Whenever you write, you are making meaning.” She invites her audience members to reflect on the ways they write, honoring whatever form that might take.
This was how Haddix—Dean’s Professor and chair of the Department of Reading and Language Arts in the Syracuse University School of Education —opened a week’s worth of daily writing prompts for participants in the Writing Our Lives (WOL) Conference held virtually in October 2020.
WOL is a program Haddix founded to support creativity and writing in middle- and high school-aged youth in the Syracuse area. The program first started to take shape in 2008, shortly after she and her family moved to Syracuse. Haddix, whose own son was 6 at the time, attended a conference at a local public library on the education of Black children. “I was struck by the frustration and disappointment many in the community expressed, and how they felt the education their children received fell short,” she says. “I then saw a way that I could contribute.”
Haddix’s scholarship focuses on the experiences of students of color in literacy and English education and on the education of teachers. In her work, she has examined how conventional practices and pedagogies discourage Black youth, especially boys and young men, from seeing themselves as communicators and scholars. She argues for the importance of centering Blackness in educational practices and spaces.
After hearing the parents’ grievances, Haddix began offering a writing workshop at the library. The sessions were open-ended and responsive to what students asked for. “I wasn’t there to teach writing, but to encourage the writing the students already wanted to do and to give them opportunities to share their stories,” Haddix explains. It was important, she says, to create a sense of community, which they participated in as writers.
The workshop was a great hit, and soon WOL evolved to include book clubs, after-school programs, summer writing classes and theater performances, as well as an annual youth writing conference. Haddix’s students at the University became involved, helping with the organization and administration of the programming. Some of these students, inspired by their work with Haddix in the Syracuse community, have launched similar programs around the country and internationally.
“What draws me to Marcelle’s way of thinking is her hands-on, face-to-face work with schools. It’s a ‘let’s reimagine what’s possible, and let’s build it together’ approach,” says Bryan Ripley Crandall G’12, who worked with Haddix in WOL’s early years and is now an associate professor and director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University. “WOL is founded on the premise that everyone is a storyteller. Our role is to guide our students’ natural tendency to share. And when kids are asked to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, they are invited to be part of this world. That’s validating. That’s what counts.”
At the University, Haddix has a wide range of responsibilities. In addition to teaching and her work as department chair, she is chair of the University Senate and co-director of the Lender Center for Social Justice . But, she says, the titles she holds don’t particularly represent how she defines herself or her work. By way of explanation, she quotes one of her favorite authors, Toni Morrison: “‘You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.’ That resonates with me.”
In order to understand education, and to work effectively with students, literacy educators need to understand the contexts of their students’ lives.—Marcelle Haddix
Haddix grew up in a predominately Black community in Milwaukee. She says she absorbed the ethic that motivates both her daily life and her scholarship from the culture she was raised in, which emphasized collective responsibility. “A strong legacy of Black women instilled in me the importance of service, of doing what I can, and of trying to bring a level of excellence, rooted in Black community and Black tradition, to everything I do,” she explains. “A life of activism is for me a life of joy, and I find that in community work. That is what compels me.”
In addition to WOL, Haddix has spearheaded and contributed to a range of other initiatives in the community, many of them focused on health and wellness. These initiatives include reading clubs specifically for Black women and girls, support and education around reproductive healing and justice, exercise and yoga practices (Haddix is a trained yoga instructor), and securing the availability of fresh foods and affordable housing. Recently, Haddix has centered her programs at Café Sankofa , a cooperatively run community space on the South Side of Syracuse.
Haddix’s work at the University and in the community is interconnected. Through the Lender Center, she’s able to build bridges between the University and the community and extend opportunities to colleagues and students who are working on issues of social justice. Community engagement is a critical component of the courses she teaches, as well. “In order to understand education, and to work effectively with students, literacy educators need to understand the contexts of their students’ lives,” she says. But, she cautions, the purpose of being involved with communities beyond the University is not to observe other people, but to understand oneself in relation to particular histories and communities.
Haddix has garnered a range of awards and recognition for her scholarship and community work, but what she finds most gratifying is seeing the growth and development of the students she has worked with over the years.
One of the prompts in the lead-up to the most recent WOL conference was delivered by Evan Starling-Davis, a literacy education doctoral student and one of Haddix’s advisees. Haddix first met Starling-Davis when he was a high school senior who joined the WOL workshops. Starling-Davis became a professional writer before returning to his hometown for his doctoral studies. In the prompt, he shares his experience of writing as a healing process and offers guidance for writing about emotion. “And,” he says in closing, “have fun! Write! We need you, the storytellers of the future.”