Conference Welcome Letter from Erica Kohl-Arenas

By Imagining America | October 10, 2017

Dear conference participants,

On behalf of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA) and our host, University of California, Davis, I welcome you to IA’s 17th national conference. Our conference theme this year, C.A.L.L. [Communities. Arts. Lands. Learning.], marks IA’s move to its first West Coast home: UC Davis, a public land-grant university with a mission to serve the public good of all Californians. Founded in the region of the indigenous Patwin lands, 20 miles from the state capitol of Sacramento in the northernmost part of California’s Central Valley, UC Davis has a long history of campus-community organizing. Home to one of the first Native American Studies programs and the founding Asian American Studies program in the United States, and host of enumerable creative, cultural, public scholarship, environmental justice, participatory design, and community development partnerships across the region, UC Davis is a fitting home for IA. The rich history of cultural organizing and critical dialogue across the Central Valley region also make it a perfect place to intervene on this historical moment of intense political division, in which fundamental issues of equity and inclusion are at stake.

It is an honor and a privilege to host this conference in my first few months as Faculty Director of Imagining America. Though I am new to this role I am not completely new to the Central Valley. Much of my research and practice has focused on how social movement leaders and their philanthropic allies have struggled to address enduring patterns of poverty and inequality across the region. Simultaneously home to some of the most profitable agricultural producers in the world and poorest Congressional Districts in the United States, often described as representing a ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the Central Valley contains many of the tensions and contradictions broadcast nationally in this difficult political moment. Not unlike Appalachia, Detroit, or other struggling (post) industrial places across the country, people are engaged in debates about belonging, insecurity and precariousness, and equitable access to housing, education, land, water, and livelihoods. Also, not unlike Appalachia and Detroit, the Central Valley is home to generations of inspiring cultural workers, teachers, students, scholars, and community media producers determined to break through intense polarization and engage in the hard work of bringing diverse groups of people together to imagine, believe in, and create a better future.

Not only am I familiar with some of the tensions and unique gifts of the Central Valley, I am also an ‘Aggie’ (UC Davis’ agricultural mascot and moniker). I return to Davis, as IA’s fifth national Faculty Director, almost 20 years after graduating with a Master’s of Science in Community and Regional Development. In a way, it feels like coming home. My faculty advisors are now Deans, and accomplished authors and leaders. Graduate student peers are now running campus centers, nonprofits, and regional organizing initiatives. In other ways, a whole new world has opened up. This is the world of Imagining America at UC Davis. I would like to tell you a story about an inspiring collection of people who came together to shape the C.A.L.L. and make this conference happen.

In the immediate wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, IA staff gathered together with UC Davis faculty, students, and community partners to discuss what it would look like to launch a national conference, concurrent with the establishment of IA’s new headquarters on campus. Not a small undertaking. Numb from the election, graduate student conference coordinator Stephanie Maroney recalls how the newly convened conference steering committee was challenged to see beyond the recent election and their own fears of what was to come. They discussed the movements that would be impacted by a new political era, from the undocumented student movement, to the historic struggle for ethnic studies on campus, to the Movement for Black Lives. They raised burning issues to address, ranging from gun violence, to free speech, to the water crisis in California, to homelessness, environmental justice, LGBTQI and youth activism, and worked to find a unifying frame for the 2017 conference.

In January of 2017 IA staff came to campus and facilitated a series of story circles with the planning committee, students, and other community members, using the national prompt of IA partner U.S. Department of Art and Culture (USDAC) to “dare to imagine” a different future. Stephanie and a handful of conference steering committee members describe the process of slowing down and listening to one another as therapeutic and cathartic, letting light in through the darkness of the political moment. They discussed their own work, the power of art in action, and of food, farming and farmworker justice. They shared healing practices, the power of bold counter narratives, and the strength of place-based learning that breaks down urban-rural and university-community divides. From this conversation, which unfolded over the course of the spring semester, the theme of Communities, Arts, Lands, and Learning was born — the result of which we are about to experience together.

Something else was also born. A community. According to steering committee member and longtime regional cultural organizer jesikah maria ross, the group felt like a long awaited coming together of people working towards similar hopes and dreams finally in the same room. For Milmon Harrison, committee member and Associate Professor of African American Studies, working with the group inspired hope. He describes how forging a life in higher education that pushes the boundaries of traditional teaching and scholarship can be difficult and lonely work. Through IA he met many new people doing innovative and risk taking community engaged work on campus. Milmon shared that, “This group has a ‘there’s no place like home’ feeling,” and confessed, “I have never worked in a community like this before.” Others described how this experience of belonging also came from a commitment to disagree and to ask difficult questions. Brett Snyder, Associate Professor of Design and steering committee co-chair (alongside Susan Kaiser, Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies), thanked his fellow committee member Natalia Deeb-Sossa, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, for insisting that they always ask, “who is not in the room who should be?” at the start of each meeting. Member Sandy Holman, Director of the Culture Co-Op, agreed, recognizing the IA staff for listening to difficult critiques from undergraduate students while always welcoming them back to the table.

Being on campus for only a few short months, I already share this feeling, and it extends to the national IA leadership and membership. It is an honor to work in service of this community. I already know that the spirit of creative community building, a bold commitment to critical dialogue across difference, and the bravery to imagine a different world is multiplied across our national network, as you will see represented in the rich menu of conference panels, workshops, poster sessions, site visits, and performances.

In the tradition of the fearless leaders who have come before me, Timothy K. Eatman and Scott Peters, I close this letter with some additional thanks and a list of exciting updates from the IA network. This conference would not be possible without the generous support of the UC Davis Office of the Chancellor and Provost, the UC Davis and IA staff, the IA National Advisory Board, all of the departments who have sponsored students, and the generous support of numerous community and university partners and allies. And of course, the conference steering committee. I thank you all. Let us now go forth and learn with the diverse network of leaders, teachers, students, artists, designers, humanities scholars, cultural workers, and organizers committed to bridging the divide between communities and universities and between academic and public knowledge. We are (re) Imagining America.

Further thanks and congratulations are extended below:

  • Thank you to Timothy K. Eatman and Scott Peters for their leadership of Imagining America over the last five years as Faculty Co-Directors. We celebrate Eatman’s new position as the inaugural Dean of the Honors Living-Learning Community and Associate Professor of Urban Education in the College of Arts & Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark. Peters will continue his role as Professor in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University.
  • As artifact of stories and insights from their tenure, Eatman and Peters have produced a publication called “What is the Work of Imagining?” This book emerged as a way to mark the transition from Syracuse University to a new partnership with the UC Davis, and as a tool for informing IA’s work in the years to come.
  • We are grateful for the leadership of Bruce Burgett, former IA National Advisory Board (NAB) member from 2008 to 2017, and NAB Chair. Burgett is Professor and Dean, School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell.
  • Congratulations and welcome to IA’s new NAB Chair and Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lisa Lee, and IA’s NAB Vice Chair, Interim Executive Director of Community Folk Art Center and Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education in the School of Education at Syracuse University, Kal Alston.
  • Vicki Ruiz has completed her service to the IA NAB; Ruiz is a Distinguished Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies, History School of Humanities at University of California, Irvine.
  • In a new book, “Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing,” IA NAB member Maria Avila offers a narrative of her personal and professional journey and of how she has gone about co-creating spaces where democracy can be enacted and individual, institutional, and community transformation can occur.
  • IA welcomes ten graduate students with a demonstrated commitment to publicly engaged scholarship and the cultural disciplines to our Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) fellows program. The PAGE fellows began their engagement by producing a blog salon around critical issues of social change and engaged scholarship in September.
  • Congratulations to the 2017-18 cohort of Joy of Giving Something fellows. The goal of the IA/JGS Fellows Program is to elevate photography and digital media as a pathway for students to pursue their careers and make a difference in their communities.
  • We extend thanks to outgoing IA staff members Karen Boland, Jamie Haft, Lee Houser, Heather Ryerson, and Holly Zahn. The local IA staff at UC Davis is now complete! We welcome Mina Para Matlon as Managing Director, Stacy Shwartz Olagundoye as Director of Membership Development and Partner Relations, Erin Syoen as Operations Manager, Jeremy Truong as Communications Assistant, Stephanie Maroney as the Graduate Student Conference Coordinator, and Lisa Carvajal as Accounting and Financial Services.
  • If you see any of these individuals make sure to thank, congratulate, or welcome them in person. Enjoy the conference!


Erica Kohl-Arenas, PhD
Faculty Director, Imagining America
Associate Professor, American Studies
University of California, Davis