“Can't let it all go unsaid”: Self -definition, sisterhood, and social change in the literacy and artistic practices of young women of color

Kelly K Wissman, University of Pennsylvania


This study explores how young women of color read, write, and photograph their worlds in an educational setting that is collaborative in nature and that recognizes young women as meaning-makers, image-makers, and storytellers of their own lives. The study responds to and addresses three broad areas of concern regarding the educational experiences of young women of color in schools: silencing, miseducation, and isolation. Drawing from a ten-month qualitative inquiry into the development and enactment of an autobiographical writing and photography elective course, this practitioner inquiry study documents the educational setting the researcher co-constructed with sixteen young women in an urban public charter high school. Drawing upon post-positivist realist theory, Black feminist epistemology, and New Literacy Studies, the conceptual framework of the study posits the epistemic significance of lived experience, the social nature of literacies, and the ethical and epistemological dimensions of cross-cultural knowledge construction. This study was conducted within an interpretivist paradigm informed by the methodologies associated with practitioner inquiry, feminist research, and image-based research. This study describes how young women used artistic and literacy practices to transgress the politics of silencing within schools and to pursue a central theme of self-definition. Within a teaching and learning context centered in the literacy tradition of African American women, the students drew upon cultural legacies to build identities as artists and poets. Central figures in this literacy tradition inspired a shared epistemological understanding of the social nature of literacies and the transformative potential of making knowledge, poetry, and art from named locations of race and gender. Through processes both performative and collective, the students oriented their autobiographical works toward a critique of the socially situated self within dominant discourses and ultimately toward a redefinition of the self outside those discourses. Through dialogue, the arts, and literacies, the students also crafted this educational setting as a place to support their efforts to “make a way” as young women of color. This study contributes to educational research conversations that explore the literacy practices of young women of color, feminist pedagogies and feminist arenas in schools, and literacies as complex social practices.

Subject Area

Language arts|Womens studies|Secondary education|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Wissman, Kelly K, "“Can't let it all go unsaid”: Self -definition, sisterhood, and social change in the literacy and artistic practices of young women of color" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179835.