February 17, 2015

2015 National Conference Call for Participation

America Will Be!
The Art and Power of “Weaving Our We”

Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life
2015 National Conference
September 30 – October 3, 2015
Hosted by UMBC
Baltimore, MD

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O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet …
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be! …
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.     
The mountains and the endless plain—        
All, all the stretch of these great green state—
And make America again!

–Langston Hughes
(excerpted from “Let America be
America Again”)

WE learn this ritual, this flirtatious dance
of catching spirits, collecting people
Adding them over and over to our WE.
And WE grow better and better at this graceful
effort, The new ones pull us, push, shape us,
helping define us.
This scares us, but also propels us, find our
center, test our bonds of connection…..

…Intentional, like a patient weaver, WE hold
the common thread while adding color, pattern
to loop together in the making of our unique
design for life.

Oh but WE are not always careful to make sure
that the design and structure can tolerate
contrast, resistance, unexpected and
sweet distractions.

For these…..these in the end, make our life
fulfilling, satisfying and……….
worth the living!

Akua (Carol Bebelle)
Excerpted from “Weaving Our WE,”
written for our 2014 conference

The members of Imagining America advance a vision of the world in which publicly engaged artists, designers, scholars, and culture workers play critical roles in enacting the promise and ideals of a democratic society. Together, we explore the power of shared identity — of understanding who we are and what we stand for, and therefore, what we are called to do.

The purpose of this conference is to facilitate bold, creative and effective work that enables people to build and sustain the relationships that will link our stories, fulfill the democratic purposes of higher education, and address our collective challenges.

Proposed sessions should be as interactive as possible, and provide opportunities for sharing and co-creating practical and theoretical frameworks that guide our understanding of engaged art, scholarship, and design. Those proposing sessions should note that over the past several years, significant energy and interest within the consortium has been focused on:

The Bold Power of Arts, Humanities, and Design

  • How, precisely, can and do the arts, humanities, and design impact the quality of life?
  • How do we create expansive learning experiences which blend community and cultural work with academic work?
  • How can arts, humanities and design — on their own and in relationship with other fields and communities — animate, elevate and extend the power of democratic public work and create the aesthetic disruptions that allow a space for new ways of thinking and being in relationship?
  • How can we achieve a productive synthesis between our practices of cultural critique and counternarratives, and other, directly participatory, entrepreneurial and hopeful ways of engaging?

The Power of Story/Narrative

  • How can we best tell the stories of our tangible successes in multiple areas of longstanding social challenge?
  • How can we best identify and articulate the specific and critical mechanisms of positive change that occur when we engage the arts, humanities and design to improve lives? What is the key research literature support that exists?
  • How do we tell our individual “stories of self” and our shared “stories of us” in ways that can transform our institutions into publicly engaged institutions and advance our work?
  • How we invite multiple stories and ways of knowing, and develop new kinds of relationships that advance a counter narrative of higher education as a space for risk-taking and transformation on campus and beyond?
  • How do we craft stories that are at once urgent and hopeful — that inspire people out of apathy, cynicism, and inertia, and toward a vision of the world “as it should be”?

Institutional and Community Transformation

  • How do we envision and manifest democratically transformed institutions, communities, and relationships?
  • How do we highlight and deepen understanding of emerging campus practices of democratic engagement and co-creation, changing policies and structures, and developing cultures of collaboration across disciplines and roles?
  • How do we develop creative, effective, and inclusive collective action in a society where vast gulfs exist between the lived realities of different racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups? How do we attend to the urgency of our work in ways that are ethical, collaborative, democratic and fully inclusive?

The conference planners envision our time in Baltimore as an opportunity to move beyond our individual comfort zones and to expand our circles of relationships and our ways of knowing and doing as we attend to the urgent task of transforming the culture of higher education in ways that are relational, inclusive, democratic, and just.

The submission platform will open on March 2, 2015.
The deadline to submit proposals is April 2, 2015.

To learn more about session formats, click here.
To learn more about Baltimore, click here.
A hotel block is reserved for conference attendees at The Lord Baltimore Hotel.

February 16, 2015

How Every Museum Can Respond to Ferguson

greenberg_photoBy Alyssa Greenberg, PAGE 2014-15 Fellow

In December 2014, a cohort of museum bloggers and their colleagues published a joint statement on Ferguson and related events that incited a wave of conversations about the relationship between museums and #blacklivesmatter.  The cohort contended that because Ferguson and its aftermath have impacted virtually all communities across the country, and because museums have a stated commitment to the public, museums should get involved.  Significantly, the cohort urged looking inward as a first step, asking:

Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?[i]

Although this joint statement only raised these questions briefly, they gesture toward an important and under-discussed issue: museums’ complicity in social inequality.  The response on Twitter, on the airwaves, and in the blogosphere made it clear just how direly the museum community needs further dialogue — and action — on this issue.  Social justice has been a hot topic in museum education in recent years (this year, the theme of the American Alliance of Museums’ annual conference is “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”) and though it’s widely accepted that museums can and should act as agents of social change, the field has largely failed to interrogate the relationship between a commitment to social justice and internal museum practices.

On social media, the conversation about how museums’ internal conditions impede their capacity as agents of social change is beginning to surface.  In two #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chats, museum professionals discussed museums’ public-facing responses to Ferguson (or lack thereof) (see Storify summaries here and here) and the second chat honed in on museums’ internal politics in areas including hiring, leadership, and working environment.  On the Museum Life podcast, cohort members Gretchen Jennings pointed out that until museums transform internally, they will be unable to “really connect with the audiences that they say they want to attract, and specifically people of color” and Adrianne Russell explained that “philosophically, a lot of museums would agree” that social justice is important, “but that internal, organizational work is not being done that reflects that.”  Russell also illustrated that the same social problems in museums’ communities linger unaddressed within museums as well, and this disconnect will remain in place until museums transform internally.[ii]  And here on the Imagining America #PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon, La Tanya S. Autry declared that her “Art Museum Mission” entails admitting, addressing, and resisting systems of privilege.[iii]  Through powerful calls to action, social-justice-oriented museum professionals have proclaimed the internal transformation of museums as a necessary step to asserting that #blacklivesmatter.

In my own career as a museum professional and museum researcher, I have seen these internal inequalities manifest.  I have seen the pervasiveness of unpaid work in museums, and how most of the unpaid interns I know are white women, often interning under the umbrella of an academic program. Those not fortunate enough to be cushioned by financial support from families often take on student debt in exchange for the dubious privilege of working for free.  (I have been one of these interns, and the numbers suggest that they’re ubiquitous: according to a recent survey of 66 American museums, 86% of museums benefit from the labor of unpaid museum educators.)[iv]  I have seen the dearth of available living-wage museum jobs.  I know many talented museum professionals who are people of color, who have left the field because they could not secure living-wage museum jobs, instead turning to different fields including social science research, food service, and tutoring.  I have seen how museum directors earning six figures and their colleagues who cannot afford their living expenses parallel the dynamics of the 1% and the 99% that spurred the Occupy movement.  And I have seen how the internal culture of museums stifles conversations about wages and working conditions.  The irony of the situation is obvious: as museums publicly proclaim their commitment to inclusivity, they perpetuate the exclusion of people of color and those from low-income backgrounds through their own internal labor practices. (Adrianne Russell’s description of the “‘social justice for some but not all’ conundrum” comes to mind.)[v]

Museum professionals don’t always see that their internal practices perpetuate exclusion, but I hope that this conversation is beginning to make that clear.  Internal museum dynamics are preventing people of color and those from less privileged backgrounds from having a seat at the table in museums.  When museum programming emphasizes inclusion, but museum work is only accessible for the privileged, an all-too-familiar dynamic results: privileged groups write and interpret the history of the marginalized for them, and the museum perpetuates the very exclusivity it claims to be challenging.[vi]

[i] Adrianne Russell et al., “joint statement from museum bloggers & colleagues on ferguson & related events,” Cabinet of Curiosities (blog), December 11, 2014, https://adriannerussell.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/joint-statement-from-museum-bloggers-colleagues-on-ferguson/.

[ii] Carol Bossert with Gretchen Jennings and Adrianne Russell, Following Up on Ferguson, Museum Life (podcast), January 23, 2015, http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/82947/following-up-on-ferguson.

[iii] La Tanya S. Autry, “My Art Museum Mission,” Imagining America #PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon, January 26, 2015, http://imaginingamerica.org/blog/2015/01/26/my-art-museum-mission/.

[iv] Rebecca Herz, “To Pay or Not to Pay: A 2013-14 Study of Museum Practice” Museum Questions (blog), December 18, 2014, http://museumquestions.com/2014/12/18/to-pay-or-not-to-pay-a-2013-14-study-of-museum-practice/.

[v] Adrianne Russell, Twitter post, January 21, 2015, 3:31 p.m., https://twitter.com/adriannerussell.

[vi] La Tanya S. Autry, Twitter post, January 21, 2015, 1:22 p.m., https://twitter.com/artstuffmatters.

February 15, 2015

“Checking Your Privilege 101”: A Social-Justice Movement in Higher Education

Lydia FergusonBy Lydia E. Ferguson, PAGE 2014-15 Fellow

Notre Dame and DePauw Universities have recently come under fire for promoting dialog on current social issues such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the concept of white privilege, which although it has its critics, is generally an accepted theory in academia. A simple Internet search on white privilege results in a disheartening descent into an unrepentant rabbit hole of bitterness, anger, and intolerance. Ironically, and sadly so, those who rush to defend themselves against what they perceive to be the liberal juggernaut of white privilege theory make the best arguments as to why all college students should be taught a thing or twenty about the social, political, and economic advantages and disadvantages relative to skin color. The standing audience fPAGE pic 1or such indignant cries of “indoctrination” and reverse racism, packaged in blatantly unapologetic racist comments, can themselves be traced to a history of privilege—one where whiteness and maleness automatically made a speaker’s voice and views deemed worthy of public attention and consideration.

Conservatives en masse have been logging in and lashing out against any mention of training in diversity and discussions of white privilege in higher education. Princeton freshman, Tal Fortgang’s April 2nd, 2014 piece for The Princeton Tory titled, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” republished a month later by Time as, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” created a national stir, with conservatives praising him and liberals denigrating him. Fortgang unabashedly refers to the concept of white privilege as a “phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.” Placed at the forefront of Fortgang’s invective, the author’s bias and the aggressive manner in which he presents his political predisposition actually weaken his later claim that his family’s painful history precludes him from having in any way benefitted from his status as a white male.

On the heels of the Fortgang frenzy, The Harvard Crimson ran a story on May 4th, 2014 stating that around 80 students from the Kennedy School of Government had “participated in an exercise to visualize the differences in privilege created by race and gender. The students began in a single line, but as students were asked to step forward or backward based on questions about the social repercussions of their socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities, the line became disjointed.” Spearheaded by the group, HKS Speak Out, the demonstration was accompanied by a petition of nearly 300 signatures from students who felt the university should make classrooms a “safe place” for students, and include considerations of race, power, and privilege in discussions of “systemic policy issues.” When unverified stories began circulating that the Kennedy School was instituting an orientation seminar in “power and privilege training,” Bill O’Reilly responded by using the national platform that is his own television show to claim he is exempt from white privilege because as a boy he had to work cutting lawns, etc. When O’Reilly finished listing his boyhood jobs, he demonstrated his position of privilege and power by stating matter-of-factly, “I don’t believe the Kennedy School is going to do this, because now we’re on it and it’s very bad publicity for them to do it.” Thus, members of the conservative media, bloggers, and their followers all rushed to shut down an effort to teach students about alternative worldviews when, according to Harvard’s Associate Director for Media Relations, Doug Gavel, no such plan ever existed. This unwillingness to entertain even the idea of instruction on cultural diversity and privilege is yet another indicator of the necessity of such training for university students entering an increasingly-global workforce and community.

In December 2014, Notre Dame’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services announced they were offering a White Privilege Seminar for students planning to attend the 2016 White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The aim of the seminar and conference is for students to be “more aware of injustices and be betterequipped with tools to disrupt personal, institutional and worldwide systems of oppression.” feeAlthough there are clearly students who are engaged in and see the value of this type of instruction, the portion of the public who l that higher education is out to vilify white students through such instruction were angered and appalled that the university would dare offer such a class.

In the fall semester of 2014, “faculty at DePauw University voted to suspend classes for a day in light of discussions that were PAGE pic 2occurring on campus surrounding diversity and inclusiveness.” Although the university attempted to make their “Depauw Dialog” mandatory, threats of withholding class registration and the ability to walk at commencement prompted such an outcry from students that the university was forced to retract the mandate. Nonetheless, there were students who took advantage of the day off by choosing to attend the dialog, and who rallied with a #WhyImGoing Twitter response in support of their university’s “understand[ing] that we are in the midst of a national moment”—one that deserves attention PAGE pic 3from all America’s citizens, but especially from the nation’s higher education students, who, whether they are aware of it or not, are in a privileged position to help their communities and their country.

After reading more than my fill of negative comments regarding the subjects of white privilege in academia and those who think it merits university-sanctioned discussion, a friend shared a 2012 piece from Everyday Feminism titled, “How To Talk About Privilege To Someone Who Doesn’t Know What That Is.” The author, Jamie Utt, discusses how her work on white privilege has been met with aggressive opposition and offense in her own life, and she shares her advice on how best to confront people with claims they are not ready to hear, let alone accept. Utt offers the following advice to help people bridge the conversational and ideological gap that is so apparent regarding the concept of white privilege: “Start By Appealing To the Ways In Which They Don’t Have Privilege” and “Stress that Privilege is Relative.” These approaches (amongst others Utt suggests) acknowledge that prejudices based on issues such as sex and low socio-economic status have had enduring and often detrimental effects in our society similar to that of race. Approaching the subject with an open mind as to the difficulties others have endured is what will make dialog possible to those resistant to the idea.

Thousands march through Manhattan to protest police violenceTo discuss the subject of privilege is to acknowledge and be clear about the fact that we all have different worldviews formed by our respective experiences, and those experiences are in part shaped—through no control of our own—bythe world in which we live. Since we accept the storied and difficult histories of subjugated peoples of the world (common university curriculum) it’s clear that there’s precedent for many forms of privilege, and there are bound to be residual effects. This is why, despite the very public backlash against instruction in white privilege and cultural diversity, I believe that in the near future we will see more universities responding to current social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and related countrywide protests by offering their students additional opportunities to participate in diversity instruction…and those who approach it with open minds and hearts will be the better for it.

Postscript: I no sooner finished writing this post than La Tanya Autry shared that Dartmouth’s Geography, African Studies, and African American Studies departments are introducing a course for spring 2016 titled, “10 Weeks, 10 Professors: #BlackLivesMatter,” to be taught by professors “from over 10 academic departments and programs, including anthropology, history, women’s and gender studies, mathematics and English, among others.” Progress is possible.

February 13, 2015

Beyond the Object: A Call to Art Conservation

By Kimi Taira, PAGE Co-director

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare” [Japanese Proverb]

I am writing because I am becoming a furious art conservator. I recognize that this partially comes from my personal attitude about civic responsibility and social involvement, but where are the voices of my field in light of Ferguson? We are not immune to issues of racism, discrimination, and injustice. Coming into graduate school, part of my professional goals included efforts to make conservation accessible to minority histories that live outside The Museum and to concentrate on the ones needing to be revisited within The Museum. If, as a professional charged with the physical preservation of cultural heritage, I ignore what happens to the communities surrounding me, then I am mistakenly operating in a vacuum. While the work is object- centered and science-oriented, ultimately, conservation is still tied to people and to the social values that govern us.

KimiTaira_DSC0138Since the work of art conservation is often a hidden activity and perhaps argued that this work has no place in this social dialogue, I have not found many discussions about how conservation is socially engaged. My question is how can it not?! It may be a more quiet, less excitable expression, but we enforce a cultural norm by agreeing to privilege which objects receive stabilization and can therefore be accessed or exhibited; we are privileging certain histories.1 Preservation is nothing without having the communities to cultivate the value, interpretation, and care of the things that conservators painstakingly repair. If we do not share in the small joys or the phenomenal struggles surrounding us—if we do not participate in our present–what is conservation about?

This field is not about passively witnessing history or placating an ancient artifact; I want to know how my field defines its role in shaping the future.KimiTaira_DSC0196 We are more than just nostalgic for a past; we are advocates for a legacy to the next generation. We preserve things that we hope continue to have meaning and value, that we refuse to forget, that needs to be deeply communicated. As we so intensely discuss sustainability of our treatment practices or digitization for wider public access, when do we incorporate the social issues that impact the publics we are serving? Why are we not building this into a critical dialogue about the economic and social implications of our work?

While a conservator’s specialized research and skills may not be the most suitable actions in bringing a direct solution to Ferguson, this is a call to say that we cannot ignore the world that we live in. Cultural stewardship is more than just about caring for a collection because it is not frozen in time; our eyes need to be tuned to the social attitudes, how we perceive ourselves, and how we cultivate our identities. However we are empowered to engage with our communities, we have a daily impact in the actions we take inside and outside the lab.

1 Paris, J. 2000. “Conservation and the politics of use and value in research libraries.” Book and Paper Annual 19 (accessed February 8, 2015: http://cool.conservation- us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v19/bp19-16.html )

February 3, 2015

On Teach-Ins, State Violence and Institutional Racism

By Elyse Gordon, PAGE Co-directorElyse Gordon

I rescheduled my day to attend a teach-in on #BlackLivesMatter, Ferguson and state violence. It was organized by scholars of color. Public intellectuals, all of them. Many, from communications and history. I looked at the time of arrival. 9:30. Then I looked closer. 9:30 – 10:00 was check in and breakfast. I reassessed. I arrived at 9:50, taking my time. Wanting to meter my energy, knowing the day would be long. I scanned the room. No one I knew, save for a few familiar faces from other events. I sat next to a man, leaving a seat between us. Then I changed my mind and sat next to him, closing the space. From Uganda, been in Washington for 5 years. His whole family is here – wife, kids, mom, dad, cousins. Home is where family is, he says.

Introductions were made. Appreciation offered. The Provost said a few words. They were somewhat violently rejected afterwards by an audience member. Ground rules were shared for the day. A white boy near the front shrugged his shoulders and said, “Safe space…”, almost casually. I grimaced. Safe for who? For white folks to say ignorant shit? For our friends of color to speak their experience? For the provost to share her words of support, however clumsily, and not be rejected from the audience?

Photo: Scottlum via Flickr. Seattle protestors on 12/4/14. Published with Creative Commons license.

The first teach-ins, according to Wikipedia, our facilitators told us, were led by white male faculty in the Midwest, in protest of the Vietnam War. They were academia lite. A sharing space rather than a lecture. A chance to learn context and history. To be together to learn and understand the atrocities of the moment.

Collective learning is nothing new, of course. Oral history and storytelling have long been key components to many communities of color, and the teach in is one form of democratizing knowledge and taking back collective history.

So ours began with histories of state violence and the growth of hostility against Black Americans.

We heard reflections on the haunting similarities between freed Black saves in the South proclaiming, “We is human flesh” to today’s cries of “Black Lives Matter”.

We were reminded of the long history of US state violence against Indigenous peoples, slaves, freed slaves, Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, Latino immigrants, and again, today, Black Americans.

We listened about the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex and it’s long tentacles that grew out of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

We heard about the myth of the ‘model minority’, and how the media positions Asian Americans to distance, alienate and shame Black communities (cue, Bill O’Reilly: “If they can do it, then it must be a cultural thing, and Blacks just need to get with the picture.”

We saw many statistics showing us the aliveness of institutionalized racism: the excessive disenfranchisement of Black communities that expresses itself along metrics of education, health, wealth, policing, incarceration, home ownership and more. These are not isolated incidents. These are not aberrations. They are symptoms of a living system that has racism built into its roots, that are intertwined into its genomic code.

And then we heard about the police.

Since my first #BlackLivesMatter march in November, I found myself uneasy with calling out racist police. I struggled to say the words “Fuck the Police” as many protesters did. I wanted to empathically connect with both protestors and police, realizing that most of these cops are just people trying to do their job. Of course there are explicitly racist folks there (the ‘bad apples’ of legend and lore), but many people are just carrying out their orders within an otherwise broken system. Anger against the cops themselves struck me as somewhat misdirected.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, from Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, from Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

But then I went to this teach-in. And I heard again and again how the roots of the police were always meant to antagonize Black folks. The first police forces in the South hunted down escaped slaves. The police protect property and people (of which Blacks were the former and Whites the latter, until much more recently in our nation’s history). How sheriffs are elected by their constituents, but disproportionately fewer African Americans can exercise their right to vote. Where de facto segregation and gentrification has pushed communities of color into suburbs that were never built to support robust community or public transportation. How “to serve and protect” appeals implicitly to those deemed worthy of protecting, and attacking those that are not.

I started to see why anger against racist police pulsed so fervently at the marches and protests. As a white woman, I am afforded the chance to *choose* whether I empathize with a cop or not. I get to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they probably won’t [shoot me, pepper spray me, taze me, arrest me] if I approach them unprovoked. For my friends of color, especially my Black peers, this extra grace with cops has never been on the table. It is “avoid the police”, “keep your registration on the visor, not in the dash”, it is, “yes, sir, no, sir”, and, “how many times have *you* been pulled over?”

Why would a parent teach their children to trust an institution that has never demonstrated that trust?

Photo credit: Rose Colored Photo on Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Rose Colored Photo on Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

No, not all police might be explicitly racist. But there is a deep entanglement between individuals and the institutions from which we’re born. This is the blessing and the curse of institutions. We can create great strength and morality in them, of a shared commitment to diversity, to mutuality, to intersectionality and collective history – like the teach-in was trying to do within the University of Washington. And, of course, then there’s institutions like the police.

So, yes. In solidarity now, and with empathy, I feel I can call out an institution with racism in its roots. An institution that gives its employees no choice but to exercise their jobs under oppressive constructs and assumptions. That limits individual police officers opportunities to practice empathy and instead labels people as threats or ‘demons’, as we well heard via Darren Wilson. The police are not an institution I feel I need to ‘go easy on’ or to lighten my blows. Hey hey. Ho ho. These racist cops have got to go.