Erica Kohl-Arenas

Mina Para Matlon

Erin Syoen

Jose Gutierrez

Matthew Foster

Christina Preston


Faculty Director

Erica Kohl-Arenas is the Faculty Director of IA and Associate Professor in American Studies at UC Davis. She is a public scholar with interests in cultural organizing, social movements, private philanthropy, and the politics of brokering institutional change. Based upon her years of experience as a community development practitioner and ethnographic and qualitative researcher, Erica’s scholarship has focused primarily on the relationship between grassroots social movements and the politics of institutionalization and funding. This work is captured in her book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016) and in a diversity of publications including Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Social Movement Studies, Journal of Poverty, Geography Compass, Public: A Journal of Imagining America, and public scholarship platforms including HistPhil and Transformation (at Open Democracy).

As a community development practitioner and applied researcher, she has worked with farmworker and immigrant organizations in California’s Central Valley, in the coal-mining towns of Appalachia, in California urban public schools, and, internationally, in southern Africa, Scotland and Wales. Over the past decade Kohl-Arenas organized a number of university-community partnerships with cultural institutions, humanities initiatives, and nonprofit organizations, including projects with the Tamejavi Cultural Organizing Project of the Pan Valley Institute (AFSC), Humanities Action Lab, Groundswell Murals (NYC), and the Center for Court Innovation’s Red Hook Community Justice Center and Midtown Community Court. For this work, Kohl-Arenas was the inaugural recipient of The New School’s Achievements in Social Justice Teaching Award (2014), and received The New School Distinguished University Teaching Award (2016) as faculty of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, an­d Urban Policy at The New School in New York City, where she was awarded tenure in May 2017.

Erica currently serves as a Co-PI on two major research initiatives: the IA Leading and Learning Initiative about the politics of brokering institutional change in higher education in support of public and activist scholarship, and a second collaborative research project as a Robert Wood Johnson Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Fellow about the role of arts and agriculture in building self-determined futures for rural Black communities in the South, in partnership with Mina Matlon, Carlton Turner, and the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production.

Based on an early mentoring relationship with Myles Horton, Helen Lewis, and the Highlander Center, all of Kohl-Arenas’ work is inspired by the principles of popular education and liberatory pedagogy.

Contact Erica at

Follow Erica on Twitter @ericakohl


Managing Director

Mina Para Matlon is an arts organizer, researcher, attorney, artist, and cultural equity advocate. Inspired by the spatial and temporal bridge building work of traditional knowledge bearers, Matlon’s research interests lie in the intersecting areas between arts and community development, with her practice particularly focused on supporting local and Indigenous communities who seek to protect and leverage their cultural assets. Since 2017, she has served as the managing director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA), a national consortium of scholars, artists, designers, humanists, and organizers who imagine, study and enact a more just and liberatory ‘America’ and world. Prior to joining IA, she served as the director of research for Dance/USA and was the co-founder of the Canadian-U.S. advocacy collective Plural, in which capacity she served as principal co-investigator and lead author of Figuring the Plural, a landmark study examining the characteristics, needs, and support structures of Canadian and U.S. ethnocultural arts organizations. Her previous work has spanned both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, including positions within higher education, corporate law, domestic and international legal aid and policy organizations, and small to large arts, media, and cultural institutions.

Matlon has trained in dance, theater, photography, and the fiber arts and holds degrees from Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been appointed to the boards and advisory committees of arts organizations based in New York, Illinois, Oregon, and California and has served as a grant panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. Matlon currently serves on the board of directors for California Humanities, the advisory board of Pepatian, a South Bronx-based multidisciplinary arts organization, the leadership team of the UC Davis African American Faculty and Staff Association, and the editorial board of the American Journal for Arts Management. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Fellow. 

Contact Mina at


Operations Manager

Erin Syoen has served as the Operations Manager for Imagining America since 2017, with a focus on event management and business operations. After spending nearly a decade in retail as a Visual and Merchandising Manager, Erin understands the importance of using creativity, planning, and attention to detail to execute a successful project or event. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Apparel Merchandising and Design from Illinois State University and certificate in Event & Meeting Management Fundamentals from the Event Leadership Institute. Erin is a west coast transplant (originally from the Midwest) and a cat-lover.

Jose Gutierrez

Communications Director

Jose Gutierrez is a graphic and interaction designer as well as a visual artist born and raised in Mexico City and based in Davis, California. He began his professional career as a graphic designer in international companies in the areas of Advertising, Editorial, and Branding in Mexico City. Years later, he established his own advertising agency in Cancun, Mexico.

Due to personal and professional decisions, in 2012, he became a one-man company living and working as a digital nomad in Russia, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and, California. During these years, Jose accumulated knowledge and experience in various fields of design, and the creative field. Recently he completed studies in interaction design and dedicated more of his time to his artist practice. He has been an entrepreneur, employee and employer, educator and cultural explorer.

Jose joined Imagining America in 2020, he works toward contributing to the values of the organization through his cultural background and interpersonal skills, as well as his international experience and mindset.

Matthew Foster

Financial Analyst Matthew Foster brings over 20 years of accounting experience to Imagining America. Most recently he served as a Budget Analyst for the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he provided support to the IT division for a large portfolio of projects and was the primary point of contact between IT and UCH Capital Finance. He is known for his ability to review and streamline operational procedures, and to work with team members to improve efficiencies wherever possible.

Originally from the east coast, Matt has been a resident of California for 29 years. He is an avid cyclist and skier, and enjoys camping with his family, home improvement projects, and spending time outdoors as much as he can.

Christina Preston

Christina Preston is a research associate for Imagining America’s Leading and Learning Initiative. She graduated with a master’s of science in community and regional development from UC Davis in 2016. She also holds a bachelor’s of arts in anthropology from Sacramento State University. In addition, she has received professional training in conflict resolution from UC Davis and training in oral history from UC Berkeley.

Preston has spent the last three years conducting oral histories within an isolated mining and ranching community in the Northern Nevada desert. Prior to graduating from UC Davis, Preston served as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Coordinator for Sacramento State University. In this role, she consulted with California Native nations to identify and facilitate the repatriation of ancestral remains, sacred objects, and funerary items from the University’s archaeological collections.

Preston’s work and interests center around public history, stakeholder analysis, participatory action research, museum studies, community storytelling, and program development. Preston has received numerous awards and recognition for community service and non-profit development through her work in the Sacramento Valley.

Preston also co-owns and manages a music studio with her partner in Pasadena, California.