By Imagining America Associate Director Kevin Bott, this post is part one of two.
In just a few weeks, Imagining America will announce the Call for Participation for the 2014 national conference to be held in Atlanta, Ga, October 8–11. But, even as we look ahead to the fall, let’s simultaneously toggle back and forth with where we’ve been, to take account of what we’ve been attempting to do through our annual event as a means of understanding where we’re trying to go.
At the end of the document, The End of the Beginning: Report on the First Two Years (2001), IA boldly concludes, “Imagining America is a Movement.” Well, those were heady days, what with the dawn of a new century and before 9/11, the housing bubble, and all that followed. But while IA never was a movement unto itself, I think it’s quite safe to say that the consortium exploded out of a concentration of spirit—at once dissatisfied and hopeful—from which movements are born. And that spirit continues to infuse the consortium today.
But what would IA look like if we were to take the idea of movement-building seriously? What would IA look like if the network went beyond analysis and discussion and moved boldly into the world of transactional power in order to attempt to transform the culture and politics of higher education? We know historically that people-led movements require financial support and advisors, but they also require leaders who do what the Civil Rights leader Ella Baker referred to as the patient “spade work” of organizing. So what would it mean if we viewed IA’s work as organizing culture change? How would the structure of IA change? How would the mission change? How would the relationships within the consortium change?
For the IA staff, these questions, which IA has been circling for the past several years, came into sharp relief recently when we attended a 5-day training led by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the organizing network founded in 1940 by Saul Alinsky. It was a challenging and provocative retreat for us, forcing us to superimpose the language and tactics of what IAF calls “power organizing” onto the uniquely complicated map of higher education. It was an imprecise mapping to say the least. One afternoon, teams were asked to present a problem they were dealing with in their community and to perform a power analysis of the various entities involved. After one group talked about the dismal living conditions and high crime impacting their community, and another talked about the unfair practices being carried out in their town by a multinational bank, the IA team got up and began talking about the role of higher education in democratic life. I feared our presentation would be received as an abstract, non-urgent “problem” of the Ivory Tower.
Much to my surprise, after some initial confusion, the group of about 35 people became quite engaged in our “problem.” And while the solutions offered by the others mostly served to underscore the differences between organizing in communities and in an institution like higher ed., it was clear that people cared about it. People “got” the connection between a vibrant democracy and an accessible, democratically engaged educational system. I was again reminded that the story of American higher education—the promise of it, as yet unfulfilled—is one that strikes people. It’s a story people want to see themselves in, which I’d say is a good sign if we truly want to take movement-building seriously.
The national conference has always been a site for experimentation with regard to what it means to be part of a movement. But the focus of that movement has shifted over the years. The early focus (2000–2007) on what was happening within higher education (namely building the network, challenging the faculty reward system, and making space for engaged graduate perspectives) expanded during what I think of as IA’s second chapter (2007–2011) to focus on the role of the community partner within the network. Throughout this second stage, consortium members were clear that they wanted the conference to do something. People wanted the IA conference to advance theory and practice about engagement. If this thing was supposed to be about building a movement, well, people wanted to feel like we were moving!
And so in 2012, just as IA was entering its third chapter, the conference in New York City finally asked a question that had not yet been asked: could those of us working for democracy and equity within higher education, and those at the grassroots working for the same, conclude that our “fates and futures” were intertwined and that the achievement of our goals lay in action emerging from the recognition of our shared self-interest? Or were even the “best practices” in the engagement field instances of appropriation and colonization?
The unfulfilled goal of the NYC conference was to name and analyze the historical moment, imagine possible futures using our collective creativity, and, finally, to articulate actions and directions for the consortium to take. This unrealized aspiration led directly to the 2013 conference in Syracuse, the theme of which, “A Call to Action,” doubled down on NYC’s desire for an action-oriented outcome.
So what happened? What action emerged?
Well, as the staff learned at the recent IAF retreat, action—in the organizing sense of the word—means a display of collective power intended to provoke a reaction from those representing the interests of the status quo. In that sense, no action emerged. Instead, we provoked scores of calls for activity, many of them the same kinds of activities the status quo very much supports: special journal topics, forums on particular issues, alterations in how the conference is run, etc.
But an action? A display of collective power meant to provoke? No, the conference was not properly organized to elicit that. But as a staff, we left the recent IAF training prepared to make the case that if this consortium is sincere about transforming higher education, we need to seriously consider transforming ourselves. We need to move from a network content to nibble at the fringes of change, far from the centers of power, to a network willing to make real claims to power and to push higher ed. “to serve a larger purpose.”
The goals that motivated IA at its inception, as named in The End of the Beginning, no longer capture the broader vision, nor the many dimensions, of the consortium and its members’ work. That document no longer reflects the urgency of the membership—an urgency that mirrors what is being felt among us all, in our cities, in the country, and on the planet: the crumbling of mediating institutions; the concentration of wealth and power among the few and the concomitant destabilizing effects of that concentration on democracy; the sense of living within a culture that is increasingly violent and seemingly unrepentant in its detachment from the suffering of others; the terrifying understanding that our natural world is being destroyed before our very eyes; and the too common feeling of paralysis as we witness and experience it all.
But what that early report continues to capture is the consortium’s urgent, restless, dissatisfied optimism, an energy that provides the sense of vibrancy and community that so many report experiencing at each annual meeting. Imagining America attracts a lot of brilliant, dynamic, passionate, creative, sincere people who come together to make things happen in the world. To move, through imagination and action, from the world as it is toward the world as it should be.
In the second part of this piece, I’ll write about the very specific and intentional ways we want to invite the consortium to start moving toward action, and the ways we see the singular powers of arts, humanities, and design contributing something unique and powerful to existing organizing theories and practices.