My Art Museum Mission

By La Tanya S. Autry, PAGE Co-director

*The life and thoughtful words of the beloved Maya Angelou guide me as I carve a career path in the arts. Her statement: “I am working toward a time when everything gives me joy!” encourages me to consider what is important to achieve.

Yinka Shonibare, Scramble for Africa, 2003, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2009. Photo by La Tanya S. Autry


I am working toward a time when
being black and a curator doesn’t elicit surprise
the curators, educators, conservators, and directors are of all races, ethnicities, and

I am working toward a time when
past and present systems of omission, discrimination, and privilege are admitted,
addressed, and resisted

I am working toward a time when
more people realize that works by women and people of color are integral to the social
relevancy of institutions

I am working toward a time when
fear of donor disapproval doesn’t obstruct progress, education, and inclusion

I am working toward a time when
programming regularly engages diverse communities

I am working toward a time when
art museums operate as sites of dialogue and social justice, places for public
conversations about things that fracture society

I am working toward a time when
institutions work as collaborative partners with local community organizations
to improve the lives of oppressed people

I am working toward a time when
art museums are truly centers for all people


By Naphtali Leyland Fields, PAGE Fellow 2014-2015



I stand in the cold holding the sign with numb hands. A line of us stretched along the main road of a small town in the South.

‘#blacklivesmatter’, ‘RIP Mike Brown’ and ‘White Silence = White Consent’

These are the signs we are holding. Cars honk in solidarity.

I watch drivers, their eyes flick towards us curiously, then glance away as they accelerate past.

We’re just another example of the (you name it) liberal agenda, black agenda, terrorist agenda, communist agenda, degenerate agenda.

A woman drives by and screams, “I support our policemen!” and we are silent.

I want to ask her if she has a son.

I want to ask her if she’s afraid for his life when he walks down the street in the daylight.

I want to ask her if she’s ever looked at the world with eyes that aren’t cushioned in the comfort of white skin.

The woman beside me holds the sign as I shuffle my feet, blow on my hands.

Photographers step into traffic to get a stronger image, and when I blink at the flash I imagine the beef stew in the crockpot, my brother’s evasion, my facebook feed that explodes with black grief and white silence.

The hour ends and we smile. Shuffle around on the curb and hug friends and strangers.

‘Until next time’, we say. There’s truth in that. A man piles up the signs; one by one we hand them over.

‘See you later’, we say, knowing it will be too soon.

The People’s State of the Union in Central New York

Last week, the President delivered the annual State of the Union Address. Each year, this speech is meant to highlight important national issues from the past year and suggest priorities for the coming year. It’s a broadcast from one to many. But what if, once a year, we could all speak and listen to each other?

Imagining America in affiliation with the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture* invites you to play a role in creating the People’s State of the Union. Join us as we come together to tell our own stories using a simple method called “story circles,” filling in some of the things that didn’t make it into the official speech. Stories will be shared with a diverse group of poets to create the 2015 People’s State of the Union Address. This address will be delivered as a poem, live streamed and shared online via text and video. 

It’s been a challenging year. What stories do you think need to be told?

Where: Community Folk Art Center, 805 East Genesee Street, Syracuse, NY 13210

When: Thursday, January 29 (7:00-9:00pm)

RSPV: Email to sign-up, as space is limited.


*The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is not an official government agency, but a people- powered movement dedicated to cultivating empathy, equity, and social imagination.

Talking #BlackLivesMatter Offline and Outside of the Classrooms and Lecture Halls

By La Tanya S. Autry, PAGE Co-director

As a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Delaware, I’ve centered my studies on objects, images, and practices of memory, public space, race, and collective action. My dissertation The Crossroads of Commemoration: Lynching Landscapes in America analyzes how communities and individuals memorialize the history of lynching violence in the built environment through sculptural monuments, historical markers, and performances. The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men over the past several months continually remind me of the legacy of America’s lynching culture.

While protests against police brutality have spread across the country, I haven’t witnessed much public discussion on the topic outside of social media. The dearth in actual conversation has prompted me to reflect on my recent experiences and the troubling instances friends have shared with me regarding talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m re- examining my engagement methods as I look for ways to foster public dialogue. The main challenges I find entail finding productive modes for informal discussions with strangers, acquaintances, and colleagues as well as discovering respectful ways to disagree with loved ones who endorse apathetic or even racist perspectives.

Is it possible to have a productive talk about Ferguson at the proverbial water cooler?

Autry-books-image1Sometimes when I introduce my dissertation topic to people, they want me to address complex issues of race in just a couple of sentences. Frequently their question or statement contains an assumption. I typically answer that it’s impossible to unravel social patterns of inequality in less than one minute and, if I can sustain interest, I highlight the assumption. I point out that I’m open to talking about the subject with them when we can dedicate some time to exploring the network of issues. But those folks almost never take me up on the offer. I think most of them desire easy answers or simply want to hear their position confirmed. Sometimes I suspect that they harbor racist sentiments. Even though these situations are frustrating, I appreciate that at least these people are talking. These moments may be the first steps to participating in real conversations.

About a month ago this scenario played out in relation to the protests in Ferguson. As I stopped to greet an African-American co-worker who I passed in the hallway, he inquired about my education. After I mentioned my graduate studies, he seemed proud to hear that I, a black woman, am pursuing my doctoral work. Then he asked me to affirm his belief that African- American people are to blame for their marginalized position in the U.S. The loaded supposition stunned me. Just as I began to respond that the issue was very complicated, he interrupted and repeated his stance. Then I realized that he wasn’t interested in a dialogue or hearing about the interplay of various social factors that I surely wouldn’t have time to indicate in a couple of minutes. I decided to let the moment fizzle out. But I haven’t forgotten this incident. I plan to invite this person to campus and community events centered on topics of race.

I can’t provide the tidy, sound bite answers that some people seek. I know that most of these folks won’t meet me for coffee, come to my research presentations, read the essays I have suggested, or attend the events that I feel could be illuminating. But I can emphasize that racial issues are difficult and intertwined. I can highlight avenues to enlightened discussion and relieve myself of the unreasonable task of reducing racial history to a phrase uttered in less than one minute. If I find the circumstance particularly antagonistic, I simply can say, “I don’t agree.”

Although some of the lack of actual conversations probably stems from fear of talking about sensitive political issues in public, I believe apathy also dampens discourse on the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that folks who can’t comprehend the urgency of the moment may interpret the killings as unrelated, singular incidents. They may not recognize the larger structural character of racism and the nation’s history of racialized violence. But it’s unfeasible and undesirable to launch into a lecture during a passing interaction. I believe my recourse here is similar to the strategies I’m employing when confronted with impatience.

Autry-water cooler-b-image2Having loved ones who profess hostility to the movement can be far more disconcerting than an uncomfortable casual meeting with an acquaintance; yet these situations can arise just as easily. Even though I haven’t confronted this problem directly, I’ve been reflecting on it because some of my white colleagues have expressed the pain they feel when their family members espouse racist attitudes. Many find their relatives unwilling to listen. In turn, my friends opt for silence. Hearing of these occasions makes me wonder about the meaning of silence. Does the ensuing quiet indicate peace? Or is it a diseased mask? Does the silence erode the relationship and the individuals? Here I also consider the signs that some Black Lives Matter activists carry that argue “white silence = white consent.” While I appreciate the complexity and tense nature of this predicament, I wonder how far all of us have to go to fight racism. If we can’t tackle offensive remarks from our families, is it possible just to state that we disagree? Can that moment of opposition engender change and empower the dissenter?

Actual cross-cultural dialogic interchanges about racial power are important paths to the social restructuring that we all must do. My experiences suggest that I probably won’t have many enriching conversations about racial history and social inequities in our justice system at the water cooler or during my short bus ride to work. Yet I don’t want to ignore these informal, interpersonal instances. Dismantling systems of oppression involves working on both institutional and interpersonal levels. Those one or two minutes of encounter are more than just times to share information. They are also opportunities to cultivate empathy and identify interdependence. I’m reminded of Cornel West’s warning, “Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”*


*Cornel West, “Learning to Talk of Race,” Reading Rodney King: Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, New York: Routledge, 1993, 260.

Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter Movement: Practical Questions and Musings

By Enger Muteteke, PAGE 2014-2015 Fellow

I am a 36 year old African American woman who serves as Associate Pastor at a predominantly Caucasian congregation just outside of Baltimore City. While our church has had other Associate Pastors of color whom have served in ministry, I am the first African American female minister on staff. I have worked for almost fifteen years in local church and community ministry. Currently, I am pursuing my third Master’s degree in Social Responsibility and Sustainable Communities at Western Kentucky University. Below are questions that either I have had or persons have asked of me. My call and hope is to engage more fully in social justice ministry in community ministry and nonprofit organizations, teaching all how to do the work of reconciliation and sustaining such work across diverse communities. Practically, I have found that the key to sustainability in healing and reconciliation is continually creating sacred spaces of intentional listening, dialogue, and understanding.

As people of color, don’t we all have to feel the exact same way about the events of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the #blacklivesmatter movement?

No. I believe any time we feel compelled to think and act exactly like other people of color, we, essentially, nullify our own emotions and musings as diverse human beings. It is true that systemic and institutional racism still exist. It is true that law enforcement has, through legal means, been heavily militarized. It is true that white supremacy and privilege is, sadly, still the rule of the day. However, I have found myself wondering how communities of color and people of color are demonstrating that black and brown lives matter in the very places and spaces the Divine has placed them? How are we making a difference with and for one another? As Susan Taylor, editor-in-chief emerita of Essence magazine wrote in the “Black Lives Matter” issue: “Are we doing what’s needed to demonstrate that Black life matters? Are we caring well for the gift of our own children? Are we holding accountable our own national, community, fraternal, sororal and faith leaders, requiring that they set aside egos and work in operational unity to develop and deliver a Marshall Plan for our recovery from centuries of brutality and legislated disregard?” There is no “one way” to feel or think about Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter movement because the larger issues of race, class, and gender are so nuanced, and we are all made differently and have had different experiences. For this reason, denigrating other scholars, artists, activist, practitioners, and community organizers for raising awareness and educating others about the facts of Ferguson and the larger issues Ferguson represents – in multi-faceted ways and styles – simply truncates discussions of race and prejudice and tells ALL persons that there is only ONE way to think, feel, and participate in the #blacklivesmatter movement. This is simply not true.

How do you feel about Ferguson?

I feel saddened by the events that took place. But, more than sadness, I feel numb. This numbness, by no means, suggests that I am inactive or apathetic. On the contrary, this numbness is underscored by a general malaise and collective “sigh” at this country’s addiction to power and privilege. I hesitate to say white power and white privilege because that lets many rich and powerful people of color and leaders of color go free who are guilty of continually contributing to the system of white supremacy. One example is a man named Laurence Otis Graham. Mr. Graham is an affluent African American man who resides with his wife and three children in Chappaqua, New York. Admittedly, Mr. Graham and his wife aspired to graduate from top tier Ivy League schools, chose professions, and dressed their children certain ways in an effort to appear less ethnic. Graham writes, “I was certain that my Princeton and Harvard Law degrees and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly white neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of white upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks.” When his son was called a “nigger” by two young adult white males on his walk on home from school, Graham realized that racism and prejudice are still alive and well and, no matter your economic lot, people of color are still susceptible to such blatant attacks – as well as attacks of microaggression – daily. The only hope I carry is that the love and grace of the Divine quickens to change the hearts and minds of perpetrators of systems of oppression and violence.

I am tired of talking about race relations. Can’t we just stop talking about it and move on?

No. When we sidestep dialogues of race, class, and gender, engaging in these vital discussions only when tragedy and injustice occur, we become complicit in perpetuating behaviors of microaggression on a daily basis. In this way, we reject one another as human beings and all the complexity in which the Divine made us. A Caucasian college friend once said to me, “I don’t see you as black.” At the time, I did not have an appropriately nuanced and sarcastic response. However, reflecting on that experience, my response now would be, “Then, you do not see me.” In my work as a minister, the process of healing and reconciliation for all begins with creating spaces (free spaces, art spaces, media spaces, faith spaces, etc.) in which all feel safe to 2 respond to Ferguson, and the larger issues Ferguson represents, with questions, pictures and stories of protests, prayers of lament, silence, sighs, and, yes, even ambivalence and numbness. All of these responses are action and have to be held in tension, perhaps, impelling all to heal, learn and grow from one another.

“Silence is the voice of complicity” v “That’s not what we’re talking about right now”? Notes on intersectional quilting

By Jennifer Shook, PAGE Co-director

I hesitated about writing this blog post. I continue because my hesitation itself marks greater discomforts.

livesmattersignI have, probably just like you, dear readers, had many conversations “about Ferguson” with many people in the past months. Particularly, here in Iowa City, many of those conversations came to hinge on a particular display left on U Iowa’s downtown campus in the spot that the night before had hosted a solidarity protest for Eric Garner and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old shot in her home by a Detroit police officer whose mistrial was declared in October. Despite below-zero temperatures, a large crowd had come together from several starting points for the protest. Despite shared hopes for solidarity, many left the protest in discomfort with one another, disagreeing about chants or silence, about what signs should say, about who should speak. The next day, a visiting international artist installed, in what he called another statement of solidarity, a sculpture of a KKK robe with newspaper images of racial violence printed on it in tar. While he had previously worn the robe or exhibited it in galleries with explanatory signage, without such context Black students read the robe as a threat or warning against their public protesting. Meanwhile the university responded as if to hate speech, leading many to push back to protect open public expression. Tempers flared quickly on social media.

At a public forum convened by the UI School of Art and Art History, some attendees expressed relief that a diverse crowd finally came together in one room to talk. #BlackLivesMatter student organizers countered that they had been discussing for months, where had everyone else been? Some grey-haired activists reminded them that months are nothing to those who remember decades. Or centuries. Someone asked that we not forget the struggles of immigration rights. A young Black man pointed to a paler section of the audience and said “we can’t do all the work, what do YOU have to say?” A protest attendee explained that she was trying to follow the instruction “White people, step back, don’t take the spotlight.” A Native American Heritage Month faculty advisor thanked Native students for attending after their many events. I don’t think anyone mentioned the ongoing epidemic of sexual assaults on campus. I left feeling impressed by the passion but frustrated that it fueled speaking more than listening in a competing struggle to be the loudest and last word.

yesalllivesmatterbutMeanwhile, on Twitter and in university presidents’ emails, #AllLivesMatter has been criticized for drawing attention away from the structural analysis of systemic racism. Sometimes criticism hits any adaptation of hashtags for a new purpose—though, of course, that’s exactly how memes work. But, I kept wondering, what about those who want to say “All Lives Matter” to connect struggles, to look, say, at police violence against women or queer or trans people (often, of course, also Black, as in the case of 13 women in the sexual assault case against an Oklahoma City police officer). “All lives matter” creates more harm than good because it erases specificity of history and experience. As Judith Butler argues, “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. …it… links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.” So Black life can be simultaneously invisible and subject to hallucinatory pre-programmed images. That’s why Selma matters, regardless of its Oscar-worthiness. And regardless of the back-and-forth over Selma’s depictions of MLK and LBJ, systemic violence remains neither “colorblind” nor just a Black-and-White issue.

#MMIW protest in Ottawa, #Tyendinaga barricade, CBC News Aboriginal

#MMIW protest in Ottawa, #Tyendinaga barricade, CBC News Aboriginal

This paradox between invisible people and saturated stereotypes plagues other groups as well. On that night of the UI discussion, I admit I had divided attention. I tried to be present and listen openly, carefully, the kind of difficult listening that Paolo Freire counsels. But in my hometown the Oklahoma City Public School System was holding a public hearing on whether to change a high school mascot, the “Redskins.” Why do mascots matter? Because #NativeLivesMatter. Because Native people are the U.S. group statistically most likely to be killed by police. Because many have not heard of #MMIW, the movement to call attention to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, centered in Canada but relevant throughout the Americas. Cartoon images of drunken savages and sexualized “Indian princesses” contribute to this violence, and to the erasure of actual living Native peoples. Even movie star Misty Upham faded quickly from the news despite the recent coroner’s report making initial suicide rumors unlikely.

Yet as hashtags and signs proliferate, many wonder, how can we connect without hijacking? It’s about intersectionality, about listening instead of jumping to critique, about unghosting the work of earlier struggles. Which brings us back to Barbara Ransby’s words on Ella Baker, a civil rights leader unlikely to wind up at the Oscars, precisely because she embodied grassroots coalitions over charismatic leaders—what Ransby calls “political quilting.” A quilt celebrates rather than dissolves its varied pieces, finding instead ways they can connect.

Baker knew, too, that the work of quilting just and equal partnerships through active listening, the work of decolonizing, of making visible, structurally analyzing, and taking apart the systems of power that lead to police brutality and rampant sexual assault, this work will not happen in a place of comfort. And it won’t be over soon. But if we are really listening, we can continue to work in that discomfort together.

Introducing the PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon

Welcome to the PAGE2Ferguson Blog Salon!

“How do we respect and invite one another into our multiple modes of response?” As PAGE Fellows processed and discussed our role in the aftermath of the November grand jury’s ruling in Missouri, we engaged in many email and video conversations. The opening question was one of many that were prompted in the last few months, as a handful of members of Imagining America’s PAGE program grappled with how we best show our support for the growing movement against institutional racism, structural violence, and police brutality.

As Fellows, we have chosen not to remain publicly silent in response to the tragedies in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and the countless other cities which are home to continued police brutality, an unjust legal and policing system, structural violence and white supremacy. We support the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, its young leaders, and the numerous voices which have, and will continue to, lead through actions, words and art.

We feel compelled to make our engagement and processing of the current events public. We feel called to make visible the multiple ways we each analyze, grapple, hurt, empathize and understand the events as they unfold. We feel responsible to share our own voices and experiences, while also raising questions that prompt conversation and dialogue.

Our response won’t take the form of a single collective statement because we felt that a single document could not adequately encompass the complex, layered nature of our responses. Instead, we are working with the open and flexible format of a blog salon, inviting contributions in our most authentic voices: poems, songs, artistic pieces, essays, collaborative writing, transcripts of dialogues, performance recordings, and more. However, we are united in our intentions and goals for the salon: to stand as a community to make our simultaneous hope, outrage, frustration, mourning, processing, and solidarity both visible and public.

We have invited multiple perspectives from within the Imagining America community to contribute to the salon: PAGE Fellows and Co-Directors, who convene the salon; National Advisory Board members, who show support; and community partners, many of whom are part of the struggle on the ground and in the heart. This is a space to consider our involvement and experience of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.To consider the multiple experiences of those not adequately represented by #BlackLivesMatter, such as Brown, trans, or disabled allies. To consider how these movements have been received by White majorities. What is uncomfortable? What remains to be worked out? What frustrates you? Where can we make an intervention?

This salon is the launching point for continued dialogue and action – to show our commitment to this movement in which we fight for recognition of institutional racism, for the value of Black lives, for awareness of our intersectional identities that we each bring to movement building. Imagining America is what unites us, and we are proud to stand together, nurturing each others’ voices and experiences. Join us as we help one another learn from and process this moment.

We welcome reflections and dialogue from anyone within the Imagining America community. Please, consider leaving a comment on the posts.

New Book “Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities”

61tDrgBvjcLToday, Americans feel powerless to address mounting problems, from climate change to growing inequality and school reform. This sense of powerlessness is acute in higher education, where educators face what Paul Markham, in these pages, describes as an “avalanche” of cost cutting, profit-making colleges, distance learning, and demands that higher education be narrowly geared to the needs of today’s workplace. The Democracy’s Education symposium begins with an essay by Harry C. Boyte, “Reinventing Citizenship as Public Work,” which challenges educators to claim and exercise their often unacknowledged power in the face of such changes, helping to lead in the rethinking of education, the meaning of citizenship, the shape of work in the 21st century, and the challenges of addressing public problems.

Building on the activities of the American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition he coordinated of several hundred colleges and universities to strengthen higher education as a public good, organized on the invitation of the White House Office of Public Engagement to mark the 150th anniversary of land grant colleges and universities, Boyte argues that higher education is the anchoring institution of citizenship. It shapes the civic identities and career plans of students and influences the practices and frameworks of a myriad of professions. In recent decades conventional views and practices in higher education have come to take work off the map, locating citizenship largely in voting and in off-hours voluntarism and service projects. As citizen teachers, civic business owners, citizen clergy, citizen librarians, citizen nurses, even “civil” servants have been replaced by service providers, Americans have become a nation of consumers not producers of democracy. Boyte proposes that higher education, an upstream institution in society, needs to reinvent citizenship as public work, work with public qualities, and educate our students for citizen careers, for our own sake and for the sake of the larger democracy. His essay includes case studies on what this looks like.

As a mix of educators and civic leaders respond to the argument and advance their own views and experiences in making change, a powerful story of productive citizenship and educational innovation emerges.

LEW-0344Presidents and public officials describe their roles as public philosophers and architects of far ranging policy changes. Faculty, staff, and students tell of reworking curricula, student life, and alumni relations, opening space and creating opportunities for students to develop civic agency and concern for a commonwealth which they are helping to create, building new connections with “Citizen Alum.” Students recount their discoveries and experiences of becoming “real” and powerful agents of change, and describe their plans for careers filled with public purpose. Organizers and civic leaders from outside higher education weigh in with useful suggestions. . Internationally renowned scholars from South Africa and Japan contribute insights about the civic challenges and opportunities their societies are facing. Leading political and social theorists analyze the roots of academic detachment and political dysfunction and describe new frameworks of making democratic change such as “civic science” and “civic studies,” embodied in concepts like “a craftsperson ethos” from Northern Arizona University, which may help to generate citizen faculty. And Lisa Clarke, one of the nation’s outstanding high school social studies teachers, calls for a movement of “teacher citizens” to be architects of empowering education, as relevant to colleges and universities as to K-12 schools

Democracy’s Education shows the possibilities for democratic change and revitalization in the society as a whole, if colleges and universities reclaim their soul through a renewed relationship with the citizenry, in the phrase of Kettering Foundation president David Mathews.

To order this book, click here.

Something to Behold in West Baltimore

By Jamie Haft, Assistant Director of Imagining America

This is a story about how residents, artists, community organizers, university professors, and students responded to a massive urban renewal disaster in West Baltimore that displaced 19,000 African Americans for an expressway that was never completed. This story shows what a large-scale action for art and social justice can look like. How does a national organization come in for an event and significantly boost the capacity of the ongoing local struggle for justice?

In June 2011, three years of grassroots art-making and organizing was marked by a massive festival next to that 1.4-mile dead-end expressway dubbed by community members The Highway to Nowhere. Eleven thousand West Baltimoreans came together to celebrate their struggle and resilience with a star-studded line-up of musicians, singers, spoken-word artists, and dancers. ROOTSFest 2011 was co-produced by West Baltimore’s CultureWorks and the southern regional arts and activism nonprofit Alternate ROOTS. There were tents and stands for social justice and neighborhood organizations, food vendors, community drummers, and conversations with national activists including the Free Southern Theater’s John O’Neal and El Teatro Campesino’s Luis Valdez. The festival marked the 35th anniversary of ROOTS.

Recently, in October, those involved in the festival came together for a reunion at the historic Arch Social Club. The six-hour event had three acts: 1) a reading of a play; 2) story circles with community members and ROOTS leaders in response to the play; and 3) collective reflection and discussion of next actions. Tasty food, libations, and dance music crowned the event.

The Progression

After the 2011 festival, Ashley Milburn, Denise Johnson, Randolph Rowel, Bob Leonard, Dudley Cocke, and Jon Catherwood-Ginn began a critical dialogue about the festival’s successes and shortcomings. They emailed each other and audio recorded and transcribed their conversations, and presented their reflections at the 2012 Imagining America national conference in Minneapolis. Their reflections and critique became the basis for an 18,000-word essay that was authored collectively and edited by Catherwood-Ginn.

Moved by the essay’s testimonies, I proposed turning it into a play. West Baltimore leaders liked the idea, and ROOTS agreed to sponsor the event. To create the script, Dudley Cocke and I began by reading the essay aloud and considering: Who are the main characters in this multiyear organizing effort? What are the most dramatic moments? What turns of phrase and images resonate? We virtually convened project leaders for draft script readings and input, and the parts were cast with volunteers from the West Baltimore community.

The Performance and Dialogue

Drawn from the first-voice descriptions of the organizing and eventual festival, the characters in the play are: Artist, Organizer, Professor, Producer, and Community Woman and Community Man, who take on multiple roles from residents to government officials. Here’s the play script.

Sixty people came to witness community members performing their community story, to share their own experiences in the ensuing story circles, and, as a group, to consider new collective actions to advance justice in West Baltimore.

The Portability

The West Baltimore and ROOTS communities are sharing the play, multimedia, and essay ( to spark further reflection, organizing, and action. ROOTS is considering reprising the performance and dialogue as part of ROOTS Week, August 4-9, 2015, as a way for its membership to plan its 40th anniversary in 2016.  Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life is also considering using the play as part of its next national conference, October 1-4, 2015, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Educators are invited to use the play for teaching and learning about the practice of community cultural development. We’ve started a list of issues and questions for reflection. Other folks for their own purposes can adapt the three-act event model – a play created from reflections of stakeholders followed by story circles and then group analysis.

Let us know your thoughts here in the comments.

2014 Imagining America Presidents’ Forum Report

In a time when higher education is facing significant challenges, how can colleges and universities address the critical social and economic challenges of our time? What responsibility do higher education leaders have to perpetuate the great public, civic, and democratic legacy of American higher education?Presidents, provosts, and other national leaders are betting that part of the answer to these questions is embedded in publicly engaged scholarship and in the humanities, arts, and design. The Imagining America (IA) Presidents’ Council and Presidents’ Forum are designed as means for generating strategy and leadership on such questions that will bring Imagining America to a new stage of effectiveness and impact.

Planning the October 9, 2014 Forum in Atlanta: “What’s holding presidents, provosts, and other national leaders back from being bolder, and how can IA provide more support and leverage?” This question guided the design of the agenda for the 2014 Forum, co-chaired by Brian Murphy. Council Co-Chair Nancy Cantor challenged the Planning Team to think about how presidents can simultaneously make the case for social justice and for business. A case study of interdisciplinary publicly engaged scholarship that demonstrates how a college is contributing to the reduction of poverty in rural America was chosen because of its focus on finding a new economy for arts and humanities, and on advancing a paradigm for development driven by culture.

Brian Murphy, co-chair of the IA Presidents' Council and president of De Anza College, speaks to the Presidents' Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference in Atlanta Georgia.

Brian Murphy, co-chair of the IA Presidents’ Council and president of De Anza College, speaks to the Presidents’ Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference.

Forum Presentation: Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson of the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) at Lafayette College and Dudley Cocke of Appalshop, the arts and humanities institution in the central Appalachian coalfields, presented. By joining the expertise and knowledge of economists with that of artists, their project is developing an investment plan to simultaneously support the economic development of Appalshop and the Appalachian region. Faculty, students, and artists have been identifying and testing entrepreneurial strategies for wealth creation that tap the area’s singularly rich cultural traditions. For example, a for-profit business for software development is being incubated, and its strategic advantage is proving to be its orientation to the cultural strengths of its location.

The collaborators’ approach resonates with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, which points to the emergent intellectual coalescence around the principle of inclusive growth as a critical pillar for achieving sustainable economic development and social justice. By treating poverty as a problem that can only be solved by government and outside experts, Hutchinson and Cocke argue that the previous wars on poverty have not sufficiently supported the development of individual agency and a latent collective spirit of entrepreneurship. The Appalshop—EEGLP partnership represents an asset-based alternative that leverages the special ways in which cultural organizations create civic space and how culture, and its offspring art, shape individual and collective identity, bound or expand imagination, and ultimately contribute toward determining economic behavior.

Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater at Appalshop, presents on the Appalshop-EELGP collaboration to the Presidents' Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dudley Cocke, interim director of Appalshop and artistic director of Roadside Theater, presents on the Appalshop-EELGP collaboration to the Presidents’ Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference.

Forum Discussion: Responding to the presenters’ focus on the relationship between culture and economy, Forum participants challenged the idea that there is a tradeoff between “preparing for jobs” and “contributing to a sustainable democratic society.” The forthcoming volume edited by Harry Boyte, Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, includes strong case studies of higher education addressing immediate political imperatives while being resources for “the changing world of work.”

Responding to EEGLP’s use of asset mapping, David Scobey asked, “What if IA were to map the assets of our collective efforts to institutionalize publicly engaged scholarship in higher education? For example, one asset is the infrastructure that has been created by new centers, programs, and institutes that have been founded in the last 15 years, which cut across the immobilizing silos and bureaucracies.” George Sanchez added, “How might IA better understand the motivations of different populations who have a high sense of civic engagement, such as undocumented students, and involve them in our mission?”

Participants discussed possibilities for organizing culture change in research universities, including the ways the civic identities of faculty are developed. Opportunities noted included Civic Science as an avenue for scientists to work in deeper and more satisfying cultural contexts beyond delivering technocratic solutions. Building on this point, Boyte suggested IA look for ways to support college presidents as public philosophers who think deeply about the purpose of higher education and the meaning of democracy. Chancellor Bjong Wolf Yeigh recommended that IA design a research protocol to help stakeholders better understand the leadership qualities and characteristics of sitting college presidents, and how those qualities and characteristics are shaping their institutions.

The Appalshop—EEGLP presentation argued that the transformation of higher education and its arts, design, and humanities disciplines can be greatly enhanced by institution-to-institution partnerships between community-based organizations and colleges and universities. To what degree do IA and its membership believe in the power of partnering with cultural organizations as a core strategy? What would it take to increase the breadth and depth of such partnerships? 

Actions for Further Consideration:

  1. Produce a research report about the assets created to date by efforts in the last 10-20 years to institutionalize publicly engaged scholarship in higher education. Through a yearly update that would consider the gains and losses for institutionalizing civic engagement within the IA membership of 100 colleges and universities, the finding could become the basis for an annual State of the Field report.
  2. Develop an institution-to-institution partnership between IA and Appalshop to test the supposition that such higher education and community-based collaborations are poised to create new knowledge that is compelling in its democratic, populist orientation and consequently effective in solving persistent community problems both on and off campus.
  3. Convene presidents in a retreat setting to consider questions relevant to IA’s transition to a new institutional home in 2017: What are the most important achievements and values for IA to hold onto and cultivate as it seeks a new institutional home? Given the current circumstances in higher education and public life, what are the pressing roles and tasks for which IA is needed? Do these questions and their answers affect how you would advise IA to think about its move and the new institutional home or arrangement it might seek?

Get involved: IA and its Presidents’ Council depend on the vision and efforts of national leaders. Please contact IA Co-Director Tim Eatman at, and the report author, IA Assistant Director Jamie, with your thoughts and commitments for 2015.