The Collegeville Institute: A Place to Belong
On the first evening of a workshop entitled, “Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay” at the Collegeville Institute, we gather around a rectangle formed from four long tables pushed together. We are primarily people of color. We are strangers to one another. We are not sure what the days ahead will hold.
Enuma Okoro, our workshop leader, asks us to share something important about our identity that someone wouldn’t know just by looking at us. The answers vary from flamenco dancer to Nigerian to Colombian to chemical engineer. We learn about the people who will share this space with us for the next five days. With our words and stories, we begin to traverse the globe.
I am the black American daughter of Jamaican immigrants who was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. In personal essay after personal essay, I return again and again to the question, “Where do I belong?” It makes senses that this subject of belonging might be a question haunting my writing. The question, however, reaches beyond my race, my ethnicity, or even my place of birth. I find I consider this question in all sorts of realms in my life—including my faith and my writing.
I’ve attended many wonderful writing workshops and classes. However, in these spaces, I’ve often been the only person of color in a class and the only person writing about topics related to race, ethnicity, and, at times, faith. These experiences of being the “only” have left me struggling to determine where I belong in the writing world.
The Collegeville Institute identifies themselves by the tagline, “Exploring faith, igniting imagination, renewing community,” and each summer they offer a variety of week-long writing workshops. Last winter I applied to attend the workshop about identity and (dis)belonging. The idea of participating in a workshop that sat at the intersection of identity formation, belonging, faith, and writing the personal essay grabbed me. I’d never been part of such an environment before. Let me repeat that sentence. I’d never been part of such an environment before.
When I received workshop acceptance details and logistical information, I immediately realized that this workshop would be unlike anything I’d ever experienced. First there was the list of participants primarily composed of other people of color. Then there were the readings comprised of authors with identity formation experiences that shared some similarities with mine. Before the workshop officially began, a wave of affirmation already engulfed me.
The week did not disappoint. We fell into rich, full conversations that I believe happen when the majority of those around you understand certain aspects of your experience. We passed quickly over basic ideas around identity formation and dove headfirst into deep discussions about the ways we can write about how we came to be the people we are today. We learned and we talked and we learned and we talked some more. We read each other’s essays and shared our stories. We laughed and we ate (truly we ate so much) and sometimes we stayed up long enough to watch the clock turn into a new day. We arrived as strangers and we departed as friends.
Sometimes I think it’s possible to realize you are standing in a moment so special that you wish you could stop time if only for a second. You wish the iridescent bubble floating through the air could pause, and you could cup its beauty. On the final night of the workshop, one by one, we rose from our chairs and shared our words. I wanted to grab that iridescent bubble, even though I knew that would make it burst. Instead, when my turn came to read, I began by saying, “Thank you,” to the group. I could feel my throat tighten.
That week is a memory I already treasure. I continue to push out new words on the blank page, and I remember how I am not alone. What I cup now is the reality that at a workshop exploring identity and (dis)belonging, I found a place to belong in this writing world.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (Thomas Nelson, August 2018), an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. Please visit patricegopo.com/book to pre-order her book.