Emory works to advance the public and civic purposes of the humanities through Imagining America

Written by Corey Goettsch, PhD Candidate in History and a graduate assistant in the Laney Graduate School. [Note: This blog post originally appeared on graduateschool.emory.edu on November 4, 2014. It is posted here with permission.]

Humanities scholars were once visible public figures. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, a historian, became president of the United States. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., famed author of The Age of Jackson and The Thousand Days, taught at Harvard before becoming a member of the John F. Kennedy Administration as a Special Assistant to the President. At Columbia University in the 1950s and 1960s, Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, and Lionel Trilling regularly stood in the public spotlight. But starting in the 1970s, humanities scholars became increasingly isolated at their universities. Ironically, as humanities scholars’ work became more inclusive and democratic in its content – covering workers, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community – it became more remote from public discourses.

Re-engaging the Humanities through Imagining America

As of late, however, there has been a movement to reengage the humanities with the world outside the academy and to use humanities scholars’ work in America’s diverse history and culture to help promote a more democratic society. A consortium with approximately100 universities and partner organizations as members, Imagining America is a leading player in this movement.

Featuring major participation and leadership by faculty and graduate students from Emory University, Imagining America is an organization that seeks to “create democratic spaces to foster and advance publicly engaged scholarship that draws on arts, humanities, and design.” Imagining America grew out of a White House Initiative from the late 1990s. It emerged in the context of a nascent “’informal movement’ amongst artists, humanists, designers, and other scholars in the cultural disciplines who passionately wanted to claim engagement” with the larger community as integral to their identities as scholars. The initial host campus was the University of Michigan until IA moved to Syracuse in 2007. The organization hosts yearly national conferences, including one that recently convened in Atlanta from October 9-11, 2014.

A Comprehensive Mission

Imagining America has a comprehensive mission with many goals. One is full participation: universities ought to partner with their communities to recruit underrepresented groups for participation in higher education and address challenges within those communities. Another is extension: humanities scholars should extend their work beyond the academy to become more publicly engaged and contribute to their community. Imagining America is pushing to make publicly-engaged academic work, not just traditional scholarly articles and monographs, included among the work that enables junior scholars to acquire tenure. Imagining America also advocates weaving public engagement into undergraduate and graduate education. Undergraduates should be trained in making informed decisions based on evidence and learn how to collaborate with others in their communities to push for meaningful change. For graduate students, Imagining America has run the Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) program since 2003, which is developing a framework for publicly-engaged graduate training and enabling graduate students who are interested in engaged scholarship to connect with peers and senior faculty. And finally, Imagining America is in the process of developing assessment models for engaged scholarship projects. Through what is called integrated assessment, universities are asked to team up with community stakeholders and use case studies to define what engaged assessment should be, looking beyond the semester and the university to see how collaborative projects are affecting the community as a whole.

Imagining America at Emory

Emory faculty and students are deeply involved in Imagining America and recently took part in the annual national conference hosted in Atlanta. Dr. Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is the chief faculty representative of Imagining America at Emory, and she is also the Director of Engaged Learning at Emory University’s Center for Community Partnerships. Through an innovative collaboration between the Laney Graduate School and the Center for Community Partnerships, there are also three Laney Graduate School-funded Imagining America fellows from LGS’ graduate student body. All three were also selected as Imagining America PAGE Fellows. Their successive year-long fellowships made it possible for Emory to break new ground as the principal host for the national Imagining America conference, working over the span of three years to cultivate Emory’s membership in the consortium, participate in several Imagining America workshops and other activities, help to organize and facilitate the local conference steering committee, and plan and implement the details of the 2014 conference.


Dr. Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, IA National Conference, October 2014 (Photo by Lee Wexler)


IA graduate fellows Sarita Alami and Dr. Shan Mukhtar, IA National Conference, October 2014 (Photo by Lee Wexler)

Sarita Alami, a doctoral candidate in History and Emory’s 2014-2015 Imagining America fellow, is currently completing her dissertation about newspapers that prison inmates edited and published, focusing on the ways in which “prisoners have used the printed word to become activists and shape their experience behind bars.” Meghan Tierney, a doctoral candidate in Art History and the first Imagining America fellow to be appointed for 2012-2013, studies the Ancient Americas, and her dissertation is about depictions of shamanic experiences in Nasca ceramics. Dr. Shan Mukhtar, a recent graduate of the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the 2013-2014 Imagining America fellow, specializes in Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies. Her dissertation, which she has begun revising into a book project, focuses on constructs of race in academia in the post-Civil Rights American South and looks at how “diversity was defined and implemented in a majority-minority university.”

Involvement with Imagining America has enriched the professional lives of these LGS graduate participants. Sarita Alami recently led a three-hour session at the annual Imagining America conference about community-based learning that “included faculty and administrators from 15 institutions, nonprofit CEOs, and a university provost.” This was not an experience she “could [have gotten] from a [traditional] graduate fellowship.” Her involvement in Imagining America has “put me in touch with hundreds of other people who are doing the same things.” According to Sarita, “the network I’ve built through Imagining America has reminded me that the academy can be a crucial, driving force for change in the world.” While at Emory, she has worked with such community-based programs as The Transforming Community Project and the Center for Community Partnerships and has taught place-based courses that have engaged with community organizations.

Meghan Tierney found that Imagining America opened up an avenue of academic work that was previously unknown to her, saying that “Public scholarship was not on my radar before I became involved in Imagining America, but now I see it as central to my career going forward [and has] … enlivened my experience at Emory and in academia in general.” Since starting as a fellow, she has worked with the Michael C. Carlos Museum to bring Nasca art objects to a wider public. The Carlos Museum hosts Nasca works, and she has given tours of the collections of the museum to local primary and secondary schools with large Latino populations, helping Atlanta’s diverse students connect with the Americas’ multicultural history in a very tangible way. Meghan also co-authored, with Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, an article about the Carlos Museum’s public engagement with the Atlanta Latino community in the inaugural edition of PUBLIC: A Journal of Imagining America.

Through her involvement with Imagining America, Dr. Shan Mukhtar endeavors to help change how diversity is understood at universities. The purpose of her engaged scholarship is not just to provide a critical perspective on how diversity has hitherto been defined in the university. She seeks “to intervene quite directly into existing diversity work and provide alternative ways of addressing ethno-racism, reforming the social, economic, and political inequities that persist among different racial and ethnic groups, and creating more substantive spaces for intercultural relationships.” Shan has found that Imagining America has opened avenues for her to do this: she was able to work on “higher education organizing workshops with staff, faculty, and fellow students based on IAF [Industrial Areas Foundation] labor organizing strategies and cultural organizing methods from the Civil Rights Era.”

Emory’s Vision Carried Forward

Imagining America and local initiatives at Emory like the Center for Community Partnerships and the Center for Ethics are tangible evidence of Emory University’s commitment to ethical inquiry and using research and teaching to meaningfully influence the community at large. Engaged scholarship is a natural outgrowth of Emory’s commitment to courageous leadership and positively transforming the world. LGS students like Sarita, Meghan, and Shan, through their own work as well as experiences with Imagining America, will carry forward their commitment to engaged scholarship, planting seeds of change wherever they go.

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.

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.

Organizing Disruption: Sonic Black Girlhood

Jessica RobinsonBy Jessica Robinson, a Doctoral student in Education Policy, Leadership, and Organizational Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Organizing and Activism.

As a current graduate student, I am charged with the opportunity to think and rethink knowledge. It is important that within my work it is clear that the issues we discuss, theorize and grapple with as scholars are directly connected to lived experiences. I was introduced to the idea of going to graduate school through a collective of people, Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), who were doing some very important work as scholars and community members. They had a passion to not just call out, critique, and work to dismantle oppression, but also to do these things in ways that did not recreate the same structures that allowed these inequalities to happen. It is through this collective that I was introduced to thinking about my interest in Black girlhood as an organizing construct for freedom.

In thinking about freedom in my work as an artist-scholar, I explore the use of music creation and performance to decolonize sonic deliveries of Black girlhood. Importantly, I engage Black girlhood as the organizing construct that allows for the creative production of these works- one that is contingent on my (our) own resources and ways of knowing (Brown, 2013). We do this work of recreating narratives, sounds, and futures through the things we know to be true through our collective research of self and others. For example, my current project is a retell of a popular song with a black girl main character. It is a rejection of the artist’s intention of the song and a reinventing of what the song could mean if told by a black girl who identifies with the main character. Through this and similar works, we explore the ways our productions can disrupt current practices of academic inquiry, knowledge production, thinking and social interaction. It is about us but it is not merely about identity. I am young, Black and girl in my own definitions but this is beyond identity. Black girlhood in practice invents and reinvents knowledge. Black girlhood as an organizing practice is deliberate in decolonizing the domination on what is known and how it is known for liberation. To decolonize Black girlhood through creation of sound is to unmark the bodies and minds of Black girls from what we think we know is best for them. It is to remap our desires for the research of Black girlhood onto works that innovate form and transform us-­‐ not merely reproduce current practices of domination and conquest. It is to rethink freedom and the possibilities of collective, humanity and living.

Reference: Brown, R.N. (2013). Hear Our Truths: The Creative Potential of Black girlhood. Urbana, IL; Illinois Press.

The Labor Organizer in the Museum

greenberg_photoBy Alyssa Greenberg, a Doctoral student in Art History at the University of Illinois in Chicago and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Organizing and Activism.

At a career mentorship session at an academic conference, the former Associate Director of a top-tier art museum noticed the line “Grievance Chair of the UIC Graduate Employees Organization” on my C.V. and arched an eyebrow.  She suggested that this particular credential might alarm a prospective employer, that I could be perceived as a potential rabble-rouser.

My experience as a graduate student union organizer is exactly why a prospective employer should want to hire me to join their workplace.  Last year, the Grievance Committee collaborated with graduate employees and management to problem-solve complex, sensitive issues such as overwork, loss of benefits, and intimidation.  As an organizer, I have successfully engaged with multiple communities on campus (believe me, the same approaches will not often resonate with both physics grads and studio art grads) in one-on-ones, group meetings, teeming auditoriums, and even at a rally in the quad on campus during a Chicago winter, bullhorn in hand.  I have participated in committees that have coordinated strategies, budgeting, activist actions, and social events.  I have drafted letters to allies.  I have spent hours on the phone with a passionate and committed Teaching Assistant, talking through how to minimize the impact of a potential graduate employees’ strike on her students.  Problem solving, community engagement, public speaking, strategic planning, persuasive writing, and teamwork–these very qualifications are sought after by many employers!

Greenberg_1I’m proud to participate in an organization that is such a vital force for social justice on our campus and that is run by its own members.  In particular, the Grievance Committee’s function is to enforce and uphold the strong contract with the University that our members and allies worked tirelessly to secure, the benefits of which include a minimum wage, access to affordable healthcare, tuition and fee waivers, protections against discrimination, and much more.  This union and this contract enable graduate study at UIC to be accessible to all, as opposed to only those who are privileged enough to pay out of pocket or are willing to commit to significant student loans.

So why, in the arts and humanities–fields that often explicitly announce their commitments to progressive values–does there remain a suspicion of unions, and what can be done to address it?  What can arts and humanities organizations learn from labor organizers?

My work aims to contribute to a shift in this perception, arguing that academic and cultural institutions should fill their ranks with organizers.  Tom Finkelpearl, the former director of the Queens Museum, famously hired an organizer to help the Museum engage with its community in the country’s most ethnically diverse county, which proved a successful model for strengthening communication and trust between community members and the Museum.  Organizers can help universities and cultural institutions to better uphold their social justice missions by helping to meet community needs and encouraging community engagement.  Organizers specialize in cultivating a vision for a better institution and are not invested in maintaining the status quo.  This vision can include ensuring that fair labor practices are enacted within the institution, and that all workers are activated as stakeholders.  Organizers know how to frame issues to cultivate buy-in, how to get things done, and how to bring individuals and communities together across lines of difference.  The theme Organizing. Culture. Change. suggests to me that there is a culture of organizing that can be adapted by academia and cultural institutions in order to enact their social justice missions.  And this process should be welcomed by all as a practice of social justice and a way to maintain institutional relevance, not written off as troublemaking.

Stories of Us

Enger A. MutetekeBy Enger Muteteke, a Master’s student in Social Responsibility and Sustainable Communities at Western Kentucky University and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Organizing and Activism.

I must tell my “story of self” before I tell my “story of us” and “story of now.” My “story of self” begins with the question, “Why am I called?” My parents never discouraged me from asking questions and viewing the world differently. My passion for social justice began when I was ten years old. I was riding in the car with my mother and she told me we needed to stop for gas. She saw a Shell gas station and was going to buy gas. I said to her, “Mom, we can’t buy gas from Shell. I saw on TV where Shell supports apartheid.” I remember the image of Africans being mistreated by white South Africans. My mother looked at me, surprised by what I knew, smiled and said, “Ok, we’ll find another gas station.” Right then, with that one response, I learned that it is alright to not like the world as it is. I learned that it is alright to make choices that help shape the world as it should be. I learned that, being part of a household of faith, it is expected for me to be the change I wish to see in the world.

As a minister, my “story of us” begins with the question, “Why are we called?” From a theological point of view each faith tradition (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hindu, etc.) holds faith stories that teach our hearts and minds lessons about who God desires for God’s creation to become. Every individual, family, and faith community, as God’s creation is called to be agents of change for a world as it should be – not as it actually is. This collective calling means that we must always be agents of faith, hope, and love – believing that the impossible is possible, hoping that the prophetic can be realized, and endeavoring to love everyone along the way. This also means sharing and listening to one another’s “stories of self,” and understanding them within the larger “story of us.”

My “story of now” begins with the question, “To what are we called to change in the world?” This question is a gargantuan one and cannot be answered with just my “story of self” or my “story of us.” My “story of now” is best told when all stories are shared, told, and courageously spoken to the world as it is, so that the world can become as it should be. All these stories – story of self, story of us, and story of now – can ground, focus, and inspire effective organizing by: 1) lending a real and practical voice to a certain issue or struggle, 2) breathing hope and vision into the change and all who are part of it, and 3) harnessing passion realizing that the challenges and conflicts present can be confronted and reconciled.

Visual Art and Transformative Scholarship: from Undergraduate Art Projects to Doctoral Dissertation

Stephanie Sparling WilliamsBy Stephanie Sparling Williams, a Doctoral student in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Engagement in Scholarship and Theory.

As a scholar/artist, I am drawn to work in the visual semiotics of people of African descent, especially women. My aim to explore and research how art, aesthetic theory, and issues of representation have historically contributed to social and political activism in African American women’s lives and their communities is what led me to the field of American Studies and Ethnicity. Examining and engaging in analysis of how art and expressive mediums can be mobilized for transformative uses today, is what has been exciting about this entire professional journey. By completing a doctoral degree in American Studies and Ethnicity, I will be able to pursue my goals of becoming a social justice researcher, activist-artist, author, and university/college professor.

As a Fine Art major, during my first year in undergraduate, a professor encouraged me to work through self-portraits and introspective energies. My first significant scholar/artist work in college evolved from these exercises, a triptych titled: Strange Fruit, which employed black and white silver gelatin, self portraits within large canvas paintings of three trees. The title and direction of the piece was directly influenced by the poem “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and performed by Billie Holliday. This visual exploration of my biracial roots led me to question issues of visual segregation and separated aesthetic spaces within classrooms and galleries. Within these spaces, my creative works became data necessary for the specific content analysis surrounding identity politics and the process of which those politics have been created regarding race and gender in various art scenes.

I also had the opportunity to write, direct, and produce a short stop-motion film piece titled, A Gentleman’s Genocide. This work explores notions of patriotism through the symbolic representation of the American, Confederate, and Nazi flags painted on the back of a Caucasian female. The soundtrack was an original spoken word piece that metaphorically discussed patriotism as seductress, while also providing a rewritten account of America’s legacy of violence and oppression. This work, like all my work is a combination of my Ethnic Studies consciousness, African American Studies understandings and mixed media methodologies at work and “play” to create a dialogue around significant representation issues. As an artist, I seek to challenge and maybe even offend, or at least confront the viewers’ “good sensibilities” regarding race, class, gender and sexuality and the dehumanizing ideologies that still live and are being acted upon in America today. As a researcher these artistic explorations become rich data on which to do further analysis and inquiry.

I am passionate about my dissertation research, which considers the duality of black women’s work—hypervisible and yet “alien”—within fine art museums and galleries. Within these museums black women’s bodies, specifically artists, service workers and museumgoers, become marked with a certain visibility, and yet their presence is simultaneously rendered strange in sites entrenched in the highly Eurocentric politics of aesthetics. My work links a particular historical museum/gallery legacy to alternative understandings of bodies of color within the field of vision, specifically through their labor around art and visual material. Because I am a both a black woman and an artist, the work I do is extremely personal.

Please visit:http://www.mixedmediamethodology.com for artist statement and images. Please visit:http://mixedmediamusings.wordpress.com for more thoughts and visual play.

Storytelling and Cultural Change: Resurrecting Voices through Archives and Community Engagement

Lydia FergusonBy Lydia Ferguson, a Doctoral student in English at Auburn University and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Engagement in Scholarship and Theory.

I have been drawn to stories and storytellers all my life; hence, my decision to study in the humanities—specifically, literature.  Since I began working on my doctorate three years ago, the histories that surrounded, permeated, and influenced the literature of America in the 19th-century equally enthralled me.  My tendency to focus on history and historical context emerged as a focus in my research, and I quickly realized that what I knew from the literary texts I had read barely scratched the surface of what I needed to know.  I became fascinated by voices that had been forcibly silenced in 19th-century America; most notably, those of African Americans and Native Americans, for whom the act of storytelling was often concomitantly entertainment, education, history, religion, and sacred tradition.  Both my research and civic-engagement projects are the result of this newly attuned curiosity regarding the storied lives of subjugated peoples who can no longer speak for themselves, and who were often prevented from doing so when they were alive.

In researching 19th-century texts about and authored by African Americans, I began to see a reoccurring pattern of what (or rather, who) was not present; in the majority of the texts, the focus is almost entirely on children, young adults, and the middle-aged.  I began to wonder where, how, and under what circumstances the elderly were being represented amidst narratives of slavery, escape, and freedom, and among the myriad popular novels of the 19th century.  Although aged slaves and/or former slaves would most certainly have peopled the settings described in many of these literary works, they are all but absent from the pages of literary history.  This realization prompted a bevy of questions to be asked, researched, and answered.  What could account for this narrowness of representation?  Was it a perceived lack of agency?  Were they considered of no consequence (and therefore invisible) once old age had exhausted their monetary value?  Or were the decades of trauma suffered by elderly slaves believed to be too painful to recount at length in a piece of literature?  All of these questions, inspired by a desire to know and share forgotten stories, and fueled by indignation at the injustices of slavery are the basis for my current research.  My hope is that this work will eventually reach and affect other scholars who long to know a previously overlooked part of the story, as uncovering such forgotten experiences can provide insight, not only into the past, but into our present and future as well.

Some of the most integral points in our lives are unlooked-for educational moments that occur when we immerse ourselves in the cultures we study. Yet, we often encounter complications when these cultures are separated from us by constraints such as geography or time. When studying various people, places, events, and works, students and teachers rarely have the resources to visit each, if any, historical landmarks pertaining to their subject matter, thus restricting both research and teaching to textbooks and/or a compilation of materials from various resources.  In 2012, I began collaborating with Dr. Sergio Figueiredo (Kennesaw State University) in the development of a Virtual Underground Railroad, through which students, teachers, and independent researchers could view the sites through which slaves passed on their way to freedom.  Since that time, we have broadened the scope of the Virtual Underground Railroad into The Virtual Education Project (VEP), a large-scale pedagogical undertaking directed at providing students and teachers with visual introductions to historical and contemporary landmarks relevant to the study of the humanities.  The connectivity and engagement promoted by this resource challenges traditional limitations of educational interaction and cultural exchange by asking the public to support local sites of interest and then share their experiences in exchange for mutual access to the sites of their (global) neighbors.

On Access

Lukas StormoGipsonBy Lukas StormoGipson, a Master’s student in Performance Studies at New York University and 2014–2015 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of public scholarship and community engagement, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 9-11 in Atlanta, GA. This post’s focus: Engagement in Scholarship and Theory.

There is something magical about the way critical theory sometimes ignites intense fires in my mind. The first time I stumbled through Heidegger I thought my eyes were going to fall out of my head, but my brain was on cloud nine for two reasons: I had successfully slogged through some of the most garbled jargon in my academic career up to that point; and I had just been introduced to a whole new paradigm of conceptualizing the world and what it means to simply be. The rest of the day I experienced a scholar’s high, and I loved having a new perspective in my toolbox of genealogies that I could rifle through whenever I had trouble with “the system.” But this is exactly where contemporary academia gets stuck – within its own system and configurations of “appropriate,” “intellectual” scholarship. However, due to extreme cross-pollination and the inherent interdisciplinarity of research in the humanities, these ideals are slowly being replaced or redefined. There is a push towards an understanding of critical theory that allows everyone to take part, put in their two cents. I would attribute much of this to technology and its slow process of social lateralization – the ivory tower just isn’t as lofty any more with information at everyone’s fingertips, quite literally. Contemporary scholarly research, more than just contributing to age-old canons of fetishized knowledge, should be a convenient bridge for crossing gaps and linking trains of thought that have never been in conversation or were previously thought counter-intuitive. In addition, the academy should be investing in scholars and ideas that bring critical thought into quotidian situations, allowing for anyone to engage with material that questions, (re)asserts, problematizes, celebrates, and/or recontextualizes their actions in their own, personal lives. The only way that these theories can ever be effectively deployed on a large social scale is if people understand the implications and their individual roles within them. What use is Foucault’s “Panopticism” if it can’t be easily explained and interpreted on a personal level? And comprehension first comes through methods of digestion – if the material creates agita, it will most likely not be fully absorbed, let alone appreciated. This is probably because of its jargon or lack of solid, relatable examples. Now is the time for scholarship to make theory fun, understandable, applicable, personal. The new generation of researchers don’t have to abandon academic writing or concepts, but we should be held responsible for discovering ways to make it more popular and interesting: Allowing people to engage with Judith Butler by showing how a film festival exemplifies her notions of the performative; Getting the general public interested in Deleuze by incorporating his theory into film critiques; Showing classrooms of incoming college freshmen how useful Marx is in interpreting late-capitalism through contemporary social media platforms. These are all ways in which I would like to deploy the heavy, heady knowledge I have gained throughout graduate school. It’s high time for everyone to experience the scholar’s high.”

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