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Timothy K. Eatman, Imagining America Co-Director

Timothy K. Eatman, Imagining America Co-Director

In October of 2013, our 13th annual national conference, designed and titled as “A Call to Action,” was a great showcase for IA’s mission. At the conference, we invited and challenged engaged artists, designers, and scholars across the disciplines to organize and pursue a democratic revival. A revival that’s centered on the urgent work of imagining and creating a future that aligns with the deepest cultural and political ideals of a diverse people. A revival that invites and challenges colleges and universities to see themselves as part of, rather than simply partners with, their communities. A revival that advances “full participation” by linking and integrating—in the very architecture of our institutions—commitments to access, equity, inclusion, and diversity with the work of public engagement. A revival that focuses our energy, time, and resources on positive possibilities pursued through a practical and productive politics, even while it also opens up and sustains a critical discourse about pressing public issues and problems. A revival that exemplifies and builds what former Syracuse University Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor refers to as third spaces—open and public free spaces—where the work of democracy takes place.

Scott Peters, Imagining America Co-Director

Scott J. Peters, Imagining America Co-Director

As a growing consortium of over 100 colleges and universities, IA’s central aim is to engage people in the work of democratizing civic culture in the United States and beyond. We place our primary focus on the transformational task of democratizing the culture of higher education institutions through scholars and practitioners who draw on the arts, humanities, and design in their work. As a means to this end, IA’s staff and NAB members have been developing a “Theory of Change” that represents our collective answers to three key questions: (1) What is our assessment of the world as it is? (2) What is our vision of the world as it should be? (3) What strategies can we use to close the gap between what is and what should be?

Here are some of the ways we’re exploring these questions.

With respect to the world as it is:

We see troubling anti-public and anti-democratic trends and realities masquerading as a response to austerity, including the devaluing of the knowledges and practices of the arts, humanities, and design fields. But we also see positive and hopeful trends and realities. Communities within and beyond higher education are rich with talent and expertise, and many people are hungry for more and better opportunities to engage in meaningful public work.

With respect to the world as it should be:

We reaffirm the vision of the world as it should be, which is named in IA’s Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals Statement.

With respect to strategies for closing the gap between what is and what should be, our “signature” strategy continues to be to awaken, develop, and unleash the bold spirit and power of the arts, humanities, and design. We are also exploring the following:

  • Adopting and adapting a set of practices from broad-based community organizing models and traditions to build teams at our member institutions. Such practices include the craft of one-on-one meetings as a means of identifying leaders and building relationships; as a means of grounding and guiding our collective actions, the development of public narratives composed of the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now; and the institutionalization of habits of ongoing critical reflection and public accountability.
  • Facilitating and sustaining a critical discourse that builds and sharpens each participant, and our collective theory, knowledge, and practices.
  • Changing key structures and policies through action research, including those related to access, equity, inclusion, and diversity in higher education, and to government arts, humanities, and education policies. For example, our collaboration with the Columbia University Law School’s Center for Institutional and Social Change is engaging 21 of our member institutions in an initiative aimed at advancing “full participation—access to and success within higher education for traditionally underserved people.
  • Activating a critically hopeful, prophetic stance and voice, by inviting and engaging people in the ongoing work that our name communicates: the work of “imagining” America. Langston Hughes activated this stance and voice in his poem, “Let America Be America Again,” when he wrote:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Any useful theory must be tested, and ours is no different. It must be informed and shaped by the wisdom and experience of many people. We celebrate the wisdom and commitment to civic transformation that exists within the consortium, and hope to create together a “revival ethos” that pushes back against the pervasive “crisis” narrative that burdens the dominant discourse within higher education and society. Such an ethos will be an essential part of IA’s evolution, as we transition to a new phase of organizational development aimed at building our capacity to contribute to the work of organizing a movement.

We would like to note that this year’s conference in the City of Syracuse carried special significance. Nancy Cantor ended her stellar tenure as Chancellor of Syracuse University at the end of the 2013 fall semester. We seize this opportunity to applaud the significance of Nancy’s leadership at Syracuse, and her deep support and encouragement of IA’s growth in her time here. The evidence of this growth is substantial, too robust to detail here, but a few examples will suffice:

  • Public: A Journal of Imagining America, published its first issue this fall. A peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Public is a collaboration between IA and Syracuse University Press.
  • We are pleased that the newly established IA Presidential Leadership Team convened a half-day forum during the conference for presidents and chancellors of member institutions.
  • We welcome new members to the NAB who represent important perspectives: Alexandrina Agloro, co-director of our Publicly Active Graduate Education program; Carole Bebelle, executive director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Lisa Yun Lee, director of art and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Brian Murphy, president of De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California; and Vicki Ruiz, Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies at University of California-Irvine.
  • Ten community colleges have become IA members through the Maricopa Community College district in Arizona. We now claim more than 100 member institutions. And this number does not include IA’s many partner institutions, such as our growing relationship with the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

As at this year’s conference, we encouraged all who attended to engage in critical discourse with their colleagues, and the questions we asked are relevant to all of us. What are you trying to change? What stands in your way? How can we support one another? What are the actions we need to take to realize our shared vision, values, and goals?

Tim and Scott
Tim Eatman and Scott Peters
Faculty Co-Directors