An Open Letter to Student Protestors

By Imagining America | December 08, 2015

An open letter to the students who are protesting for racial justice in higher education,

During the season of Thanksgiving we, the national staff of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, want to express our profound gratitude to you–Black students, students of color, and your white allies–for the racial justice work you’re doing across this nation. Your leadership inspires and agitates us. By standing against structural racism in our institutions of higher learning, you are standing up for a vision of a new world.  And through your organizing, you are building the necessary power to bring such a world into being. We are grateful for your insight, your sincerity, your leadership, and your courage. With pride and passion, we declare our solidarity with you.

Imagining America (IA) is a national consortium of approximately 100 hundred colleges, universities, and community and cultural organizations from every region of the country. Our network includes artists, scholars, designers, organizers, community cultural leaders, students, and activists.  Through our leaders’ public engagement work, we demonstrate the central role that art, design, and the humanities can play in the democratic transformation of higher education and civic life.

In these heightened moments of history, the power of what we refer to as the cultural disciplines often doesn’t register in the transformative ways that it could. And yet the overdue justice so many long for will not be found without them.  An exclusive reliance on rational case-making and argumentation isn’t enough. The way toward a rich and culturally diverse society is through foregrounding art and culture, and by telling and listening to the many untold stories that give rise to our grievances. It is in these moments of history — in this very moment — where we must all be the midwives of a new world by relating to one another in the fullness of our own humanity. Humanity — in its emotion, its body, its poetry, its memories, its song, and its contradictions — is indispensably important. Only with the awakening of our full humanity can we break out of the managed rhythms and habits of our institutional culture to a space of imagination and bold action.

The demands you are articulating on dozens of campuses across this nation arise from the spaces of imagination and bold action that you are creating. They challenge us all to confront the limits of our democracy, and the notion of ourselves as a fair and just people. Still, our hope is that you will lead us all in taking up work that lies beyond demands and grievances, for these can easily be managed and co-opted. That work is to surface and attend to the grief beneath the grievances.

Grief, like art, can crack the seemingly impenetrable facade of the world as it is. It can open up spaces to imagine, together, a world that could yet be. Grief, experienced and expressed, should be always coupled with hope.  It is only when we experience grief fully that we will find the seed of what’s next: the green shoot of life offering promise of a new world.

Just as grief lies beneath our grievances, love and hope lies beneath our criticisms of the world as it is. In his important book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann calls grief the ultimate form of criticism. But he also urges us to develop a positive, energizing, and hopeful vision of the world we seek to build, even as we criticize and seek to dismantle structural racism and oppression in the world as it is. Absent this, criticism can easily become a nihilistic void, the energy of which will propel us toward cynicism, negation, and death. We only need look to Paris and Mali today to see this.

Unfortunately, as many IA leaders have learned, our institutions of higher learning often function in ways that deflect criticism and hold new emerging worlds back–whatever merit there may be in particular criticisms, and however compelling the new worlds may seem. To break through and beyond this state of affairs demands that we develop and pursue a kind of cultural organizing that affirms and draws on the full humanity of every one of us.  A kind of organizing that “creates spaces where hearts and minds meet spirits for deep, impactful, and sustained knowledge making and healing.”

Within the IA network, student voices are on the leading edge of creating these kinds of spaces through their public scholarship. For example, in the spring of 2015, IA’s Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) program addressed police brutality in a blog salon, #PAGE2Ferguson, that responded to the Black Lives Matter movement through compelling articles, poetry, and prose. For these stories and more, visit our website.

Today, as you carry forward the baton handed off from those who have come before you in a long history of organizing, we want to let you know that Imagining America is ready to join with you in solidarity and action. We invite you, and organizers around the country, to leverage our national network to advance your goals. One important way we support artists and cultural workers is by sharing stories on our national platform. We invite you to share your stories — through prose, video, audio, or images — about how you are initiating change on your campus and in your community to advance social justice through the arts, humanities, and design using the hashtag #ImagHope. Our stories are beacons that light the way from grief to hope, bridging us into the new worlds yet to be.


The staff of Imagining America