May 18, 2015

To be anti-racist and White. Or, A snapshot of an anxious mind

Elyse GordonBy Elyse Gordon, PAGE Co-director

Good grief. I am overwhelmed by what is going on and my responsibility to act.

But I am so stretched right now: deep in my research, so near the end; in the struggle of personal wellness and some long overdue healing.

Forget that! I don’t get to lean on my Whiteness as an excuse to opt out. The mere fact that I get to opt out means I can’t opt out.

But self care is radical. It is the most important thing. Can’t care for others unless I care for myself.

And, you know, this isn’t a war. It’s a journey, a change of consciousness, a new paradigm is rising. It’s ok to sit out this chapter if I need to. And I think I need to.

But I have rarely been one to just sit things out. I may not participate, but I usually direct my energy around somehow else. How will I direct my energy this time? And I still feel responsible to do something.

Oh yeah! The salon series – that’s putting my energy to work in a really concrete way in a small little microcosm of action. Who knows what the ripples will be from engaging other White folks in these conversations.

And I live my value of justice all the time, or at least I try to. My lens for the world is one of racial justice now. Once you have that analysis, it isn’t going anywhere. So everyone I talk to, everything I study, it will have that perspective.

Ok, ok, ok. But is that enough? What’s enough?! People are being killed. Folks don’t feel safe in their cities, in their neighborhoods. Other folks are so frightened to give up power that they sling racist and hurtful words and deny White Supremacy as if it wasn’t the very thread of our nation’s institutions. And folks are finding themselves in stark, material poverty after months of being on the streets of Ferguson. And still justice hasn’t been reached.

And why isn’t anyone really talking about poverty, anyway? I mean, that’s not entirely true. In Baltimore, it is clearly being framed as structural violence, systemic oppression, dispossession. People understand that what we’re seeing isn’t an individual thing, and it isn’t just about the Police. These are deeply intertwined with the history and geography of that city and its people. But I’m talking more about the actual experiences of poverty; how movement work reproduces poverty; who gets the money when we direct money to black-led organizers; how we convince people to give their money to Black liberation instead of the Boys and Girls Club… How we direct money so that the people fighting this fight on the front lines aren’t having to choose between food, shelter and cell phone bills.

And then this crisis in Nepal! And my neighbors and their daughter who died in an avalanche, and the heartbreak of bearing witness to their process. And just feeling like there can’t possibly be more pain in the world! How can I make space for all of this? And where can the joy be brought back in?

But then there’s food, and cooking, and art, and friends, and colleagues, and hummingbirds, and sunshine, and yoga, and breath.

Breath. I sometimes wonder if I just let all of this go if things wouldn’t be simpler. If I really embraced Buddhist principles, then would I be so distraught? But is that just supremely selfish?

Who cares?!

And what am I making for dinner??

Being in my own head about all of this is a privilege of its own; its a sign of my whiteness, my tendency to analyze, to over think, to dwell, to worry, to ruminate.

Enough, already!

My exercise in collective liberation today is this: When People of Color have power, I will benefit by not being plagued by anxiety and concern about how to be in the world as a White person.

May 15, 2015

Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and the IA Summer Institute

P1010456-1By Kevin Bott, Associate Director, Imagining America

What if they knew each other’s stories? What if they knew each other beyond their fear and their mistrust? I’m talking about dead men and police, but I’m also talking about all of us. What if we all knew? What if, instead of being told stories through media about others, we told each other our stories? And what if someone actually listened?

I’m in Staten Island, not much more than a mile from where Eric Garner was killed last summer. I was invited here 2 summers ago by Wagner College, an IA member campus, to pilot a community-based theater project in the Port Richmond neighborhood with which Wagner has developed a number of deep partnerships. The community and campus leadership understood the potential power of art in bringing people together but didn’t know how to start something. The process was a success and, based on the enthusiastic response, we did it again last summer. The fact that Eric Garner was killed just days before I arrived inflected our conversations and our work. The 40 participants, mostly, teens, told stories and developed theater about their hopes and dreams but also about the pervasive violence that surrounds them, in the streets and in their homes.

This week, the team of community and campus leaders that has emerged over the past 2 years is holding 4 nights of auditions all around the Island for a theater piece we’ll devise this summer, and perform on the one-year anniversary of Garner’s death. Ostensibly “about” Garner, this is really a piece about community members finding aesthetic means to tell real stories about all the issues that the Garner incident surfaces – race, class, power, and violence in 21st century America.

I’m thinking about Freddie Gray, who died the night before I arrived in Baltimore last month to attend a leadership meeting of local and regional partners invested in the upcoming IA conference. The room resonated powerfully with a call for the IA conference to be a place where real conversations can happen — about race, class, power, and privilege — in Baltimore and beyond.

The events in Baltimore have changed how the participating teams are thinking about the 3rd annual IA Organizing Institute, which is just around the corner, June 12-14. We had always intended to share stories about the power of art and organizing in 3 Baltimore-based initiatives and to explore together how those praxes could be translated into participants’ local contexts. And we will still do that. But we will also use this opportunity – and the months anticipating the national conference – to “get real” about how we can organize, using the bold power of the arts, humanities, and design, to respond to and ameliorate the unacceptable level of violence toward those whose voices we never hear and whose stories we never ask be told.

The Imagining America consortium needs to come together with our voices, our hearts, our intellect, and our stories – in June and at the October conference. This June, we will come together to tell our stories, and to hear the stories of others, and find a way toward building a kind of power that can speak and act clearly, locally and nationally, in response to a pervasive and unacceptable violence toward our fellow citizens… Toward our brothers and sisters in this human family.

We hope you’ll join us. Registration for community members, students, and adjunct/contingent faculty is sliding scale by request. Register here.

May 15, 2015

Announcing the New Issue of Public: A Journal of Imagining America: “Organizing. Culture. Change.”

Public coverWe are pleased to announce that “Organizing. Culture. Change.” is now live. The first section grows out of the 2014 IA Conference on the same theme: the keynote, “Words Changing the World: The Power of Personal, Communal, and Allegorical Stories in Bringing Dreams to Reality,” by Doug Shipman; a response to Shipman’s presentation by a cadre of IA PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) Fellows; Erica Kohl-Arenas’ conversation with long-time IA friend and civic engagement leader Harry Boyte and executive director of Alternate ROOTS Carlton Turner; and an inside look at how the 2014 conference was organized by IA associate director Kevin Bott, community organizer Maria Avila, and Emory University faculty member and administrator Vialla Hartfield-Mendez.

We then feature a piece by Marion Wilson on the integration of art as social practice with her teaching, followed by a conversation with McArthur winning artist Rick Lowe.

A broad range of case studies provide examples of integrating culture and organizing: “Public Life through a Prison/University Partnership,” by David Coogan; “ART CART: Saving the Legacy” by Joan Jeffri; “Lost Stories and Cultural Patrimony” by Pat Steenland; “Citizen Stories: A New Path to Cultural Change “ by Alexander Olson, Elizabeth Gish, and Terry Shoemaker; and “Reimagine A Lot” by Claudia Paraschiv. The issue ends with Ben Fink’s review of Harry Boyte’s Democracy’s Education.

Access the journal at Enjoy!

May 15, 2015

We Stand With Baltimore

We, at Imagining America, stand with those in Baltimore calling for restorative action and equity. A current Imagining America Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow and resident of Baltimore, Enger Muteteke, writes “Baltimore is about all of us.”

The death of Freddie Gray is dually emblematic of larger systemic problems, and also represents the precious value of individual lives. We see the ways violence and brutality, which have affected brown and black bodies from Ferguson to Sanford to Baltimore, challenge those of us in higher education who would like to do better in terms of our contributions to societal issues, to take up the deep work of building relationships and power to address and sustain change.

We look to reflections on #BaltimoreUprising by our partners; they are educators, students, artists, designers, and humanists concerned with esteeming and promulgating values of justice, empathy, and community.

  • UMBC students, faculty, staff and alumni share perspectives on #BaltimoreUprising as part of the UMBC Breaking Ground blog. “This is about all of us; about our country, not just about Baltimore. What we see in our city is what we see in our country. When we think about inequality, when we think about questions of justice, these are issues that we face in our nation. And the role of the university is to teach people to think critically about the challenges that human beings face.” -Freeman Hrabowski, President, UMBC
  • AlternateROOTS Executive Director Carlton Turner writes “In Solidarity with Baltimore” and ROOTS member, visual artist, and Baltimore resident Ashley Minner shares LOVEbaltiMORE. “Alternate ROOTS stands in solidarity with the organizers, artists, and everyday people that are walking tall in their dignity and determining their own self worth. We value your lives and will work alongside you to support the work that needs to be done to build stronger together.” -Carlton Turner
  • #PAGE2Ferguson, a blog salon by Imagining America’s PAGE Fellows, features articles, poetry, and prose as a means of conjoining multiple perspectives and processing the #blacklivesmatter movement, together. “Baltimore City is about all of us – every ounce of power and privilege we have misused, every time we witnessed daily microagressions done to ourselves or another and said nothing, every time we are tempted to take up space in this Earth without speaking hope and peace into the life of another.” – Enger Muteteke, PAGE 2014-2015 Fellow

We invite you share your reflections by considering the following questions sending responses to Imagining America at

  • What is the role of of higher education in the #blacklivesmatter movement?
  • How are you as an artist or scholar responding to #blacklivesmatter?
  • How can higher education continue to foster dialogue around these issues?

Imagining America is collaborating with UMBC and MICA: Maryland Institute College of Art to hold our annual national conference in Baltimore, October 1-3, 2015 around the theme, America Will Be! The Art and Power of “Weaving Our We.” In advance of the conference, we are hosting our 3rd annual IA organizing institute, June 12-14, 2015, where we will create a space to share stories and have important conversations around ways to organize around justice and utilize the arts, humanities, and design to provide civic agency. Click here to learn more.

April 29, 2015

Call for 2015-15 JGS Photo Fellows

Are you a photography or digital media student engaging in your community?

Are you looking for an opportunity to collaborate with peers and mentors as part of a national network?

(L to R) Abel Hernandez, David Flores, Cheyenne Harvey, Jocelyn Ramirez, Amanda Breitbach, Stephanie McKee, and Juliana Stricklen at the 2014 IA National Conference in Atlanta.


Thanks to a generous grant from the Joy of Giving Something Foundation (JGS), Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life invites publicly engaged students of photography or digital media from its member institutions to apply for a tuition award and to join a national working group of students. Imagining America is a national network of publicly engaged scholars, artists, designers, students, and community members working toward the democratic transformation of higher education and civic life. The goal of the IA/JGS Fellows Program is to elevate photography and digital media as a pathway for students to pursue their careers and make a difference in their communities.

Criteria includes:

  • Financial need
  • Artistic merit
  • Quality of community-engaged practice (for example, students with demonstrated leadership facilitating community-based photo or media arts experiences with people unlikely to otherwise have access to art-making)

To be considered, we ask the student to contribute three work samples and write an essay (please see prompt below), and to have a faculty or staff member email a letter of recommendation with information about the student’s financial need to The submission deadline is June 1Only one award will be given per school.

The 2015-16 IA/JGS Fellows will receive tuition scholarships of $2,000 each and will commit to engaging in a yearlong learning exchange that will result in a collaborative media project. Fellows will be invited to participate in the Imagining America National Conference, October 1-3, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland, and will be eligible for a limited number of travel stipends to attend the conference.

Fellows will be announced in July and the funds will be released shortly thereafter. Checks will be distributed to the institution, and the faculty or staff nominator will be responsible for seeing that the winning student receives the scholarship funds. Please contact Imagining America Communications Director Holly Zahn at with questions.

Essay Prompt and Work Samples

A topic of this year’s cohort of IA/JGS Fellows will be the practice of “creative placemaking” to “shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” In “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging,” Roberto Bedoya points to the need to consider how race, class, poverty, and discrimination shape place: Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces enacts identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of ‘belonging’ through human and spatial relationships. … The relationship of Creative Placemaking activities to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights. If Creative Placemaking activities support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, real estate speculation, all in the name of neighborhood revitalization, then it betrays the democratic ideal of having an equitable and just civil society.”

How does your photography or digital arts promote a sense of belonging in your community? How has a motivation to advance an equitable and just civil society motivated your work? We encourage each student to use the essay and work samples to tell a story about your life, photography and media practice, and aspirations. For example, you might describe an experience you’ve had that impacted your sense of belonging or dis-belonging in community.

Please write your story in less than 500 words and upload 3 work samples (e.g., photographs, videos, digital animation, stills from performances or installations). Be sure to curate your work samples to demonstrate your range of skills in art and community engagement. Fellows will have their multimedia essays published on the Imagining America website.

JGS Application

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