Kelly Writers House is planning to write a new set of anti-racist guiding principles that will complement the institution’s 25-year-old founding mission statement.
The KWH planning committee, known as the Hub, held the first meeting to brainstorm and discuss goals for the statement on Oct. 5. KWH Program Coordinator Alli Katz said additional KWH committees will join the conversation in the coming weeks. KWH hopes to finalize a draft by the end of this semester or the beginning of next semester, Katz said.
First proposed by KWH staff this summer, the principles will establish an explicit statement of values regarding racial and social justice composed through collaborative dialogue among the overlapping communities of teachers, students, alumni, staff, and Philadelphia residents that constitute KWH.
KWH Director Jessica Lowenthal emphasized the importance of community input in this initiative.
“The starting point is to talk to our community, especially students, and to say, ‘in what ways could [Kelly] Writers House be more inclusive? In what ways could [Kelly] Writers House explicitly work towards social justice or racial justice?’” Lowenthal said.
Written in 1995 by the founding students, faculty, and Penn staff of KWH, the original mission statement does not make explicit references to social or racial justice.
The mission statement currently commits KWH to provide a centralized space on campus for writing activities, collaborate with other writing-focused groups from Penn and Philadelphia, provide electronic equipment to writers, and connect students with mentors for career advice, according to the KWH website.
“I think there’s always been a strong commitment to social justice, but it’s often probably been implicit,” Lowenthal said. “There’s something important happening right now where being explicitly anti-racist is necessary.”
The project comes as the latest step in a months-long KWH effort to weave explicit anti-racism activism into the Writers House's activities. In June, KWH held a racial justice forum featuring faculty, staff, students, and alumni reading their own work and works of others to uplift Black voices.
These anti-racist initiatives were planned this summer in response to the murder of George Floyd and the killings of many other Black Americans, Lowenthal said.
The written product of the new KWH mission statement follows a statement released by Penn President Amy Gutmann in June, which left many students feeling dissatisfied. Some students said they wished the statement included an explicit acknowledgment of Penn's history of racism.
“I think generally, statements are hollow — anything from land acknowledgments to statements on racial justice,” College senior and KWH program assistant Husnaa Hashim said.
While Hashim feels skeptical of the effectiveness of any racial justice statement from Penn administration, she said KWH often feels like “a bridge between the University and the community, so oftentimes, it doesn’t feel like a Penn affiliate.”
Lowenthal agreed that the anti-racist work of KWH will require more than a written document.
“The document is important, but it’s so that we can say, ‘and what’s next? What can we do as a community that participates in fighting racism? And what can we do as a community that allows our community members to have voices?’” Lowenthal said.
Lorene Cary, a senior lecturer in English at Penn, felt the initiative fits within what she understands as the unique, community-centered character of KWH.
“There are very few places that hold to the kind of radical humility that one needs to have to do service,” Cary said, adding that she believes KWH is an example of such a place.
Cary added that vocal community criticism is a good sign for any school working to advance anti-racism and inclusion. “That’s the school where they’re being most introspective,” Cary said.
Katz said that KWH plans to continue anti-racist work after achieving a final draft.
“This work is going to be ongoing. The mission statement is neither the beginning nor the end of it,” Katz said.