October 21, 2014

Weaving Our WE: A Poem by Carol Bebelle

Weaving Our WELEW-0041

Since, that parting at the start,
from our safest home and anchor
WE yearn for belonging.

Soon, human touch defines our new sense of intimacy becoming a good exchange for our first sanctuary.
Familiar, though not the same,
It soothes and inspires us
to begin our necessary launch to living.

Holding fast at first, then tentative, to our new shores of connection, WE begin our dance of cleaving to, yet holding from, those like us
Who are also seeking their own delicate balance to life.

With every fiber of our spirit, WE struggle to become able to be alone , yet part of those who help us know our emerging selves.
They mostly look like us, sound like us and ………. WE become like them.

WE are so satisfied with this way of being, till the day that new presence shows up and WE start to feel the pull to be with this new discovered pleasure
Though different, WE bask in it.

WE flirt with it. It makes us laugh, feel good, reluctant to leave.

Call it neighbor, friend, teacher, or just community, Now,a needed part of our happy.
So, our life long collecting of others begins
More and more to choose from, to add to our anchoring, our tending of self and our expanded self, called WE.

Yes, WE sense the difference from those first ones, the ones WE once needed so much, called family.

Once taken for granted, now, WE fear the risk of losing either one or the other

So…. 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, helping to anchor us, find our center, test our bonds of connection..…belonging.

WE lose some along the way, yet WE continue the dance, ever searching and collecting the ones for our WE.

Some stay, some leave, some melt into us.
Absent minded, automatic, like breathing sometimes.

But, also 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 compelling sweet distractions.

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

Akua (aka Carol Bebelle)


Performed at the 2014 Imagining America National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.


Artist Statement

LEW-8111All Us, a New Orleans way of saying We reminds me that there are so many ways in which we all perform being human. Our style, our frequency, our velocity may differ but we all journey life’s adventure negotiating the tension of alone and together from and with others.

Our independence sturdies us while our interdependence nurtures us.  And we dance between needing others and needing to be alone. The dance is sometimes so subtle it escapes even us. But we are always looking for the added flavor and stimulation that some other being provides to our sense of self and well- being.

For it is in the “we” that we find our most definitive self, refracted exponentially through the eyes and hearts of our others.

September 25, 2014

A Call to Action: Civic Science and the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century

Announced at the White House conference in January 2012, Civic Science is a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership. Civic science, developed over a number of years, is a mode of inquiry and action which integrates scientific approaches and other ways of knowing with civic agency and democratic practices. It seeks to address “grand challenges” like climate, health, early childhood education, and sustainable agriculture while simultaneously deepening democracy. Below is an overview and a short description written by two principal investigators, Gwen Ottinger and Nick Jordan. The civic science initiative has also launched a website with case studies and other background materials: http://civic-science.org/.

A Call to Action:
Civic Science and the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century

A White Paper for the National Science Foundation Workshop
October 2-3, 2014

Sherburne Abbott, Harry Boyte, William Doherty, Nicholas Jordan, Tai Mendenhall, Gwen Ottinger, Scott Peters, & John P. Spencer

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d…a great word, whose history remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”
-Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

A democratic society requires a democratic people with the habits, knowledge and dispositions to work together across differences to address common challenges and negotiate a shared way of life. Today, as the challenges our democracy faces are multiplying, democratic capacities are diminishing. We need a new way of doing business – and developing ourselves as heirs and architects of the great word, “Democracy.”

Science was once widely understood by practitioners and the larger citizenry as a wellspring of democratic energy and a constellation of democratic practices (Jewett 2012). Today, many fields of science are generating an explosive increase in our knowledge about the world. But the democratic energies and practices of science have receded from view. At the same time, society is beset with “knowledge wars”; politics is bitterly polarized; people feel powerless; and skepticism about public, economic, and civic institutions has dramatically increased. We are in danger of becoming a nation of democracy’s spectators, not democracy’s co-creators.

We are convinced that civic science—scientific inquiry that offers opportunities for participants to develop their capacity to work across differences, create common resources, and build a democratic way of life—offers hope beyond this impasse.  Civic science is a framework and set of democratic and scientific practices that bring citizen scientists and lay citizens together in ways which build respect, that enhance capacities to act, and that generate positive public outcomes.

In the report below, we describe three case studies which show that civic science can bridge enormous differences. For instance, the Family Education Diabetes Series (FEDS) initiative, a supplement to standard health care for members of the American Indian community in the Twin Cities, addresses diabetes. Chronic conditions such as diabetes can be considered “wicked problems”— problems facing society that are daunting in their complexity. Such problems often generate high distrust between scientists and minority cultural groups (Fadiman 1997).  FEDS was created through collaborative work between health scientists and providers and the Indian community—from early efforts in relationship-building and establishing mutual respect and trust, to brainstorming the program’s design, educational foci and format, public visibility, implementation, and ongoing modifications. Quantitative evaluations of FEDS have found significant improvement across key objective diabetes-related measures (e.g., weight, metabolic control). Qualitative evaluations (conducted within the culturally-consistent context of talking circles) have also found that the community-owned nature of the program—and the social support and interpersonal accountability that this encompasses—is perceived as the principal driver of these improvements and change (Mendenhall et al., 2010, 2012).

Building on such case studies, this report is a working document for the National Science Foundation Civic Science Workshop, October 2-3, 2014. We provide an overview of what civic science is. We describe several case studies on grand challenges of our day—sustainable agriculture, the achievement gap in education, and challenges of health care—which show commonalities of how to put civic science into action. Part of the workshop will explore and analyze these lessons. More broadly, we will examine obstacles to civic science in our funding, educational, and policy systems. And we will strategize about how obstacles can be overcome, and how we might organize an international civic science community of practice as a way to address the grand challenges of our time and awaken the potential of our democracy.

What is Civic Science?

Gwen Ottinger & Nicholas Jordan

Civic science is a method of inquiry into important contemporary issues that enriches democracy by bringing citizens from all backgrounds and disciplines – not just scientists – together in shared projects that analyze current conditions, envision a better future, and devise a pathway to that future. Civic science is both an approach to generating knowledge and a democratic practice. In civic science, scientists express democratic citizenship through their scientific work: they engage in democratic world-building efforts as scientists. Such efforts include democratic projects in which broad-based civic groups are working to impact complex problems in, for instance, agriculture, education, and health care, the three areas emphasized below. By linking scientific work to these democratic efforts, scientific inquiry expands, taking a crucial civic role. The fundamental scientific question of “how does the world work” is situated in the context of democratic inquiry into a critical question—“What should we do in the face of complex problems?” Civic science, thus, integrates its work closely with the “purposive” disciplines of arts, humanities, and design, which ask fundamental questions about what is good and just, encouraging us to envision and debate ways of relating and living as civic agents.

Civic science is like “transdisciplinary” science (e.g., NRC 2014), but expands and enriches such frameworks by closely linking the practice of science to democracy and to other ways of knowing and learning from arts, humanities and design traditions and fields. Similarly, Civic Science is like community based participatory research (CBPR) and social movement-based “citizen science” in that it focuses on complex, pressing, real-world problems, and values diverse ways of knowing. However, in ways that usefully challenge theory and practice in CBPR, civic science intentionally and explicitly aims to promote democracy by framing scientific inquiry as an opportunity for participants to develop their capacity to work across differences, create common resources, and negotiate a shared democratic way of life.

As a democratic and scientific practice, we argue civic science has the unique potential to advance public deliberation, collective action, and public policy on pressing issues like energy security, climate change, sustainable agriculture, poverty, and health care. These and other “wicked problems,” require not only the insights of numerous academic disciplines and situated knowledge, but also approaches to governance that are not paralyzed by uncertainty and can adapt to new information as it emerges.  Effective approaches to wicked problems must also explicitly engage purposive questions such as “what should we do?” to work through political stalemate. Civic science’s combination of knowledge production and democratic practice is thus clearly called for.

Civic science draws from research and theory in three areas: science and technology studies (STS), civic studies, and complex systems theory.  Together, they provide the rationale for civic science and point to the benefits of pursuing civic science as an approach for furthering knowledge and democracy.

Science and technology studies argues that values are inherent in all scientific inquiry (e.g. Sarewitz 2004) and demonstrates that knowledge, ways of knowing, and the research efforts of non-scientists can contribute meaningfully to our understanding of wicked problems (e.g. Corburn 2005; Fischer 2000).  This line of thinking establishes the need for policy-relevant science to be a collaborative, transdisciplinary effort.  We argue that more recently emerging fields, which rely heavily on co-production of knowledge, such as “sustainability science,” demonstrate these tenets.

Civic studies posits that “civic agency” is essential to a well functioning democracy. This field—which includes not only the social sciences but also the humanities and political philosophy—views citizens as co-creators of civic life and stresses their collective capacity for negotiating and shaping social and political environments (Ostrom 1990; Calhoun 1992; Boyte 2011; Tufts Civic Studies Institute Curriculum 2013; Levine 2014).  Civic studies provides a framework for conceptualizing how scientific inquiry can serve as a democratic practice, and for theorizing about the contributions of scientific practice to democratic culture.

Complex systems theory provides a framework for characterizing wicked problems and holds that adaptive and foresight-based governance approaches, in which scientists are central participants, are necessary to make progress on them (Liu et al. 2007). This theory strongly underscores the necessity of employing a democratic, agency-building approach to science in order to confront wicked problems.


Overview and what is civic science?

Boyte, H. (2011). Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature. Political Theory 39(4), 630-660.

Calhoun C. Ed. (1992). Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Civic Studies Curriculum (2013). On web at http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/research/civic-studies/summer-institute/.

Coburn, J. (2005) Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision Between Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Fischer, F. (2000). Citizens, Experts and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge . Durham: Duke University Press.

Jewett, A. (2012). Science, Democracy and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Levine, P. (2014). We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitman, W. (2003). The Portable Walt Whitman. New York: Penguin.

September 24, 2014

IA Launches the Commission on Publicly Engaged Design

susan.kravitz.2Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life announces a new initiative, the Commission on Publicly Engaged Design (CoPED). The commission is co-chaired by James Fathers, Professor and Iris Magidson Endowed Chair of Design at Syracuse University, and Marc Norman, the 2014–15 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The purpose of CoPED is to ascertain the leading edges of publicly engaged design, and develop an agenda regarding what IA can do to leverage our 100 plus institution member consortium to maximize breakthroughs and innovations, but to also meet continuing challenges and barriers.

Scholars and artists within IA have long been engaged in exploring the power of publicly engaged design for knowledge creation and institutional transformation. IA Faculty co-directors Tim Eatman and Scott Peters believe that it is now time for IA to consider the state of the field in more strategic ways. Working across disciplines and campuses, the commission will identify, engage, and convene design leaders in an ongoing exploration of the ways in which IA can facilitate and support publicly engaged design.

The planning team will officially launch the CoPED at the 2014 Imagining America national conference in Atlanta, Georgia on October 11. In a roundtable session, design leaders throughout our network will review the state of public interest in design and consider ways IA can advance such work at member campuses across the country.

In Spring 2015, the planning team will host a CoPED Summit at Cornell University. Ultimately, this initiative hopes to gather together the potent synergy around publicly engaged design in a research agenda, which collects and analyzes best practices, past and present, as a means of developing innovative strategies for engagement.

IA Conference Session: Commission on Publicly Engaged Design

Saturday, October 11—Afternoon Session (1:30–3:00 p.m.)

Oceanic Ballroom C, 4th Floor

In this session, design leaders throughout our network will launch Imagining America’s new Commission on Publicly Engaged Design (CoPED), co-chaired by James Fathers and Marc Norman. Led by the CoPED planning team, the session will be comprised of national leaders in the range of design fields including engineering, architecture, and interactive design. Together, participants will review the state of public interest in design, consider ways IA can advance such work at member campuses across the country, and create a charge for the commission moving forward.

Participants should come prepared to share several exemplary case studies of publicly engaged design work in the current field, not just as a report, but to draw from them key learning moments from which an agenda for the commission can be imagined.


  • James Fathers, Professor and Chair of the Department of Design, Syracuse University
  • Marc Norman, 2014–15 Loeb Fellow Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
  • Tom Fisher, Professor and Dean of the College of Design, School of Architecture, University of Minnesota
  • Marybeth Lima, Cliff & Nancy Spanier Alumni Professor, Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, Louisiana State University
September 22, 2014

Public: A Journal of Imagining America announces new issue, Vol. 2 No. 2

Public: A Journal of Imagining America is pleased to announce that Vol. 2 No. 2, Hybrid, Evolving, and Integrative Career Paths, is now available at public.imaginingamerica.org.

Public: A Journal of Imagining America, Vol. 2 No. 2

Submissions address alternatives to siloed, static, linear job trajectories that public scholars, designers, and artists find and generate. Contributors consider ways of applying skills associated with one discipline to something else, or moving between an academic position and on-the-ground engagement.

Public: A Journal of Imagining America is a peer-reviewed, multimedia e-journal focused on humanities, arts, and design in public life. It aspires to connect what we can imagine with what we can do. We are interested in projects, pedagogies, resources, and ideas that reflect rich engagements among diverse participants, organizations, disciplines, and sectors. Public is part of the national consortium Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, committed to the intersection of culture and participatory democracy, and is aligned with its Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals.

In January 2015, we will accept submissions to Vol. 3 No. 2, Globally Engaged Scholarship and Creative Practice. For more information see http://public.imaginingamerica.org/about/call-for-submissions/.

September 18, 2014

Collaboration, Creativity and Civic Engagement with The Talking Band

By Andy Horwitz, Founder, Culturebot Arts & Media, Inc.

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

In June 2013 I went to see The Talking Band’s play Marcellus Shale at the La Mama Theater in New York City’s East Village. I’ll be honest; I was skeptical. I had heard the play was about fracking and I attended the show fully expecting to be subjected to a didactic story told through familiar diatribes about the environmental and economic destruction wrought by corporate oil on unsuspecting American citizens.

I guess somehow I forgot that that is not what The Talking Band does.

Marcellus Shale, inspired by Talking Band members Paul Zimet & Ellen Maddow’s firsthand experience when their upstate New York community was divided by fracking, offers a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of this divisive and contentious issue.

The opposing views of a spectrum of characters – a veteran with PTSD, local farmers who sold their rights, and those who refused, women “Prayer Warriors” from the local church, spectral “Men In Suits”, Occupy Wall Street-style radicals – all are given equal weight and complexity. The story is told in such a way that each character has respect and dignity; they struggle to maintain their human connections even as they hold ideologically irreconcilable positions.

In Marcellus Shale, The Talking Band moves beyond the talking points and into the underlying questions we all face when struggling with life-altering (and possibly life-threatening) decisions: “What really matters to you? What would be the last thing that you would give up? What do you consider a good life? Have you lived one? Are you living one now?”

Marcellus Shale Prayer Warriors. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Marcellus Shale Prayer Warriors. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

After the performance Paul and I stood in front of La Mama on East 4th Street and talked about the play. He told me about the process of making the play, of the challenge of bringing the voices and stories of his upstate neighbors onto the stage, of honoring their human complexity while staying true to the Talking Band’s 40-year creative practice of collaboration and experimentation in theater.

As we talked, we started to think about how the play might work if individual regional productions were developed through a transparent, collaborative, community-engaged process. What would it look like to engage local individuals and groups associated with the various ideological positions represented in the play in a collaborative, creative process of making the play?

But let me explain – and maybe this is a bit of theater “insider baseball” – The Talking Band’s original interdisciplinary performance work has been a cornerstone of New York City’s avant-garde theater community for 40 years. Founded in 1974 by Paul Zimet, Ellen Maddow, and Tina Shepard (all former members of Joseph Chaikin’s seminal Open Theater), the company has produced over forty new works marked by a commitment to radical collaboration and a fusion of diverse theatrical styles and perspectives.

For 40 years The Talking Band has been illuminating the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life through their elegant, eloquent, profound performance work. Combining richly textured music-theater with striking visual imagery, their work is infused with creative generosity that makes each show an experience that is as emotionally moving as it is aesthetically rich.

In a cultural moment where the infinite imagined futures of theater (and cultural life in America, generally) seem to be narrowed to a very few, mostly commercial and market-driven visions, The Talking Band stands in stark contrast. Their body of work and their way of working offers a powerful alternative, demonstrating the viability of a lived and living theater that is created by a community of artists and creates new communities around the ideas, questions, values and processes from which the work is born.

So we started imagining a framework where local productions of the play Marcellus Shale serve as platforms for civil discourse and civic engagement around the issue of fracking.

A conversation with Jan Cohen-Cruz led to a conference call with Scott J. Peters, Monica Hargraves and Rod Howe, where we learned about the Extension Reconsidered Initiative. After a thoughtful, wide-ranging and productive conversation we exchanged links and source materials via email. While reading Scott Peters’ preface to the new edition of Ruby Green Smith’s The People’s Colleges, we were struck by his words:

But people have more than problems; they have knowledge and creativity, hopes and ambitions, values and ideals. And they have a desire to learn and grow and to contribute to and make a difference in the world. Organizing opportunities for people to come together to develop, express, and pursue these things has been a part of what extension has done for over a century.

The belief that creativity and a desire to learn and grow is inherent in all people is central to The Talking Band’s understanding of theater as an art form; it infuses how they make their work and how they intend it to be received.

And as we consider the framework for building Marcellus Shale in and with communities, we are trying to be as expansively imaginative as possible. For inasmuch as it is a play about fracking, it is a play about people; it is influenced by Dostoevsky’s fiercely political novel Demons, some of the characters were inspired by the work of American photographer Alec Soth known for his “large-scale American projects” combining cinematic grandeur with the mythic scope of folklore, the design of the set and lights were influenced by the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who shares a similar aesthetic of finding the epic in everyday American life. So even as Marcellus Shale tackles the problem of fracking, it touches on many influences and poses questions about faith, family, community, ethics, history and philosophy.

Later in his preface to The People’s Colleges, Dr. Peters writes:

[The pursuit of the people’s college ideal] can be interwoven with gritty, down to earth problem-solving that involves ordinary, everyday things in ordinary, everyday places — things like weeds and diseases and pests on farms or disagreement and conflict in neighborhoods and communities. When it includes opportunities for meaningful contribution, for learning and growth, for the development and expression of people’s talents, power, creativity, imagination, judgment, and knowledge, problem solving can lead to personal and public happiness.

Golden Toad Episode 2: Songbus. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Golden Toad Episode 2: Songbus. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Our premise is to create partner cohorts comprised of a theatrical producing partner, an academic partner and a civic partner in communities affected by, or concerned about, fracking. These partners, in collaboration with The Talking Band, will develop and present unique versions of the play; the entire creative process will move in tandem with a participatory program of discussions, social events and open rehearsals.

We also hope that through this process we will provide local theater artists (and interested community members) an opportunity to be exposed to the theater-making practices of The Talking Band.

Over the course of forty years as one of America’s foremost collaborative ensembles, The Talking Band has developed a vast body of practical and theoretical strategies for making performance collaboratively and across disciplines. From acting to directing to music performance and stunning visuals, The Talking Band has pioneered an integrated, collaborative approach to theater making that resonates widely with young artists.

We are currently in the process of identifying and organizing local cohorts across the country and are in conversation with colleagues in Charleston, West Virginia; Telluride, Colorado; Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans. We are actively seeking additional partners in those cities as well as partners in Pennsylvania, New York and other communities where there is interest. We are especially looking for producing partners and/or academic partners who are interested in co-developing the framework.

If you are interested in participating or learning more, we’ll be at the upcoming Imagining America Conference in Atlanta, please find us. And if you are interested but unable to be in Atlanta in October, please drop us a line!

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.