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At the Crossroads: 2016 Conference Welcome Letter

By Imagining America | October 06, 2016

We gather this year at a crossroads in our nation’s history. So many fundamental issues of equity and justice are looming. Our political system seems unequal to the gravity and scale of the challenges we face. Under these conditions, it may seem impossible to imagine how we can create a better world together. Yet we must resist the impulse to doubt the value and power of our collective Imagining America work.

Our annual Conference creates a space to share stories about what we’re facing in our academic institutions, disciplines, fields, and communities. These stories help us analyze “the world as it is.” They sharpen our understanding of the anti-democratic forces that are undermining an ethos of full participation. And they enable us to see the many ways that leaders are opening up promising avenues for change. How can we support such leaders to shatter the structural barriers and nihilism that constrain prophetic vision? To build a future that’s healthy, sustainable, and just for all, we must together engage in the work of imagining. It is through imagining that we can begin to awaken a bold, hopeful voice that proclaims “the world as it could be.” This is a task fit for the diverse artists, designers, scholars, and community activists that comprise our network.

What kind of organizing practices can help us close the gap between “the world as it is” and “the world as it could be?” This conference marks a five-year journey we have taken as a staff to explore this question. This pursuit is not a new direction for the organization. It is a maturation of the ethos of our founding at the 1999 White House Conference themed, “Honor the Past—Imagine the Future.” It builds on the 2009 creation of our Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals Statement, which expresses who we are as Imagining America and what we stand for.

Here’s the (abridged) story, from the staff perspective, of the last five years.

With Maria Avila, in 2013 we convened a Summer Institute on Organizing in Los Angeles, attended by 12 campus-community teams. With Maria’s extensive background in broad-based community organizing, teams learned how to conduct one-to-one relational meetings and created plans for identifying and supporting leaders who could work together to democratize the culture of their own institutions. That winter, we attended a weeklong organizing training with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and spent a day delving into public narrative with Marshall Ganz. Since Imagining America’s organizing in higher education aims at cultural change, we pledged to more fully integrate methods from the cultural disciplines—arts, humanities, and design—into the next Institute’s curriculum.

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The 2014 Summer Institute at Atlanta hosted by Emory University. Standing from left to right: Kevin Bott, Jamie Haft, and Maria Avila.

Our 2014 Summer Institute added cultural organizing practices, drawing from Kevin Bott’s artistic scholarship and practice. Utilizing methods from Augusto Boal and other applied theater practitioners, the exercises engaged participants in “embodied practice” to think—not only with their brains but with their bodies—about ways to address drastic campus decisions that undermine community engagement. The tenor of the sharing was unique to a professional setting. People revealed their battle scars from working in higher education. The vulnerability was palpable, and we sensed that probing deeper into such “self-interest” (to use an organizing term) would teach us something powerful about transforming the culture of colleges.

Our 2015 Summer Institute in Baltimore began in a circle. Each person shared a story and listened to the stories of others. About 30 faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates from a range of schools, including the local community college and HBCU, were in the circle. And at least ten community leaders and artists were there. Some left the front lines of the Baltimore Uprising to be with us. Some initially sat cross-armed, skeptical of Imagining America’s intentions. But as the circle went around for more than three hours, each story enriching the next, we felt an affirmation of the power of narrative as a critical ingredient in organizing. We began conceptualizing a national story-based campaign to advocate for a more expansive view of higher education’s public mission, drawing on the narrative research expertise of Scott Peters and on Holly Zahn’s creativity and skills in digital media and communications.

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Our 2016 Summer Institute at Appalshop culminated in a lively square dance.

With the recognition that grassroots organizations are at the forefront of cultural organizing, Jamie Haft proposed that the 2016 Summer Institute be the first large-scale Imagining America event hosted by a community partner. In collaboration with the flagship grassroots arts and humanities institution Appalshop, Jamie raised $250,000 from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to sponsor the Institute and a new national initiative, Performing Our Future. Last July, ten teams from across the country and one from Canada spent five days at Appalshop, the rural arts and education organization in eastern Kentucky. The Institute used multiple modalities for learning and exchange, including a 24-hour production period that used the Institute’s discussions about racial and economic equity as inspiration for creating an original play, film, radio show and podcast, visual art piece, and song. Participants experienced a full cultural immersion in the place responsible for cultivating particular organizing methods, such as how Appalachia’s oral tradition informs Roadside Theater’s approach for holding Story Circles that include poor and working class residents. We are proud that Imagining America could play a role learning from and affirming community knowledge.

The staff envisioned all these Summer Institutes in the same spirit as the Civil Rights Movement’s Citizenship Schools. The Institutes were a place where tested leaders could come together to gain knowledge, skills, and new collaborators. Our intention was not to develop one model of organizing for all of Imagining America to implement, but rather, to co-create various models through an iterative process of analysis, action, and reflection. The Institutes also served as a respite. They became, in the eloquent words of Tim Eatman, a “space for hearts and spirits to meet minds for deep, impactful, and sustained knowledge-making and healing.”

Over the course of our journey, there have been moments of sharp disagreement about models and methods of organizing, and their fit with Imagining America. Some initially voiced concern that an organizing focus would make membership in the consortium too partisan, particularly if organizing meant “protest.” But for the staff, protest is not the centerpiece of our organizing work. We approach organizing as long-term relationship building, leadership development, and institutional change grounded in democratic practices and values. Still, there is more discussion to have about how best to respond to the urgent issues of our times, and how to speak out about such issues given the institutional affiliations of Imagining America members.

We’re confident that Imagining America’s collective exploration of organizing will be deepened during this next chapter at the University of California, Davis. In addition to expanding Imagining America’s presence in California, we’re excited that regional hubs across the country are developing. Perhaps we’ll all be hosted by these new hubs for Summer Institutes and Conferences in the future.

This year’s Conference, “At the Crossroads,” will take the social, political, and economic issues facing our country and world in the context of Milwaukee through various workshops at community organizations and on Thursday with a plenary about K through 12 education. Friday’s plenary will feature examples of organizing from our consortium and address various tensions about the practice of organizing in higher education. The conference will conclude with an intersectional dialogue in response to the Movement for Black Lives.

In these trying times, with escalating violence and an election stirring the worst—and best—elements of who we are as a people, we need to redouble our collective efforts to do the work of imagining. We need artists and scholars in public life to elevate stories to help us remember our history of unity—and to engage us in imagining who we can be and what we can do together.

Sincerely,
Tim Eatman, Scott Peters, Jamie Haft, Kevin Bott, Holly Zahn, Karen Boland, and Heather Ryerson