We are project people. To the refrain, “How do you do it all?” We respond, “How could we not?”
We are PAGE fellows. We are graduate students who pursue community engagement. We define community broadly. We study humanities, arts, social science. We are driven by humanistic inquiry. We are activists, scholars, organizers, artists. We are makers. We are parents, lovers, siblings, friends, allies, partners.
We want to make higher ed more equitable for all; we want to take what we can from a system we see is not working, and go on to other institutions; we want to incorporate care into our teaching and activism; we seek to explore activism through the arts; we want to organize and advance more democratic engagement with the arts and humanities; we believe in the joys of learning; we believe that knowledge comes in many forms; we are not convinced the academy is for us; we are sure that we want to teach.
We are project people. We know that there’s not one path to academic success. We know that we nourish our selves through multiple engagements. We wear many hats. We do a little of this and a little of that. We piece things together.
Maybe we will only be ‘ok’ academics. Maybe we won’t go on to even be academics. Maybe we give too much of ourselves to our communities and causes, feeling depleted in our own bodies and minds. Maybe we don’t have sufficient mentors on our campuses. Maybe we are reinventing the wheel. Maybe we feel lost. Maybe we feel tokenized on our campuses. Maybe we feel alone on our campuses. Maybe our departments have been gutted. Maybe our departments don’t support our work. Maybe we spend most of our time at other institutions. Maybe we aren’t sure what our next project will be. But we know that there will be a next project.
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I have returned from this year’s Imagining America conference, an annual convening that brings together artists and scholars in public life. Unlike any other academic conference I’ve ever been to, IA is about as non-hierarchical as a conference can get. There are site visits, performances, workshops, seminars, roundtables. The only time someone gets up in front of the room to “present” is one of the few keynotes of plenary talks. People are identified by their institutional affiliation, not by rank. Community organizers and leaders run sessions alongside academics and graduate students. Across the board, we are united in our belief that higher education can work more democratically. We can do this work better. Whether that is through more thoughtful and equitable community partnership, through interrogating our own practices, through trying to opening the doors to our institutions, to thinking through our pedagogical commitments… we believe that there is little space for us in higher ed and our current cultural institutions to do the work we believe in. And so we come together to find strength, share ideas, recognize we are not alone, and to organize. This year, we came together for a Call to Action, to share commitments and leave the conference with actionable items to put into place at our home institutions and communities.
Within IA, there is a group of graduate students fellows each year that contribute to the IA blog, lead sessions, and are seen as the folks who will carry these values and commitments forward as we navigate in/through/outside of the academy. I am incredibly honored to be one of the PAGE fellows for 2013-14. 15 of us arrived in Syracuse, New York to meet the board of directors of IA, meet our co-directors (9 incredible past PAGE fellows), and get to know one another.
In four short days, I feel I have gained a new family. I spoke more openly with some of the PAGE fellows and co-directors than I have with folks in Seattle I’ve known for years. I felt at home with these folks in a way that I often don’t in my home institution. Rather than being looked at like an alien when I discuss my multiple projects and commitments, people responded, “oh, cool! I do something like that, too!” Or, “I know exactly what you mean!” or, “wow, I can’t wait to share and learn with one another!” Or, “Huh. Have you thought about x, y and z?”
We dined together, we drank together, we cuddled together, we laughed together. We walked the streets of Syracuse, reflecting on our conversations throughout the day. We discussed race and gender politics in our lives and in our home institutions. We shared our multiple projects: from making sustainable vests to running our own nonprofits, from teaching arts to organizing labor movements, from editing journals to facilitating challenging conversations on our campuses, from parenting to community building, from making art to conserving art.
Soon, I will reflect with some more concise points about some of the lingering questions and takeaways from the conference. For now, I am so comforted and reassured in knowing that I have found kindred spirits who appreciate a back scratch and understand that “how are you doing?” doesn’t warrant a quick response of “fine” – it means we generally care and are curious about well being. That these are folks that have more than work-partner-eat-sleep, but who value whole self wellness and that part of that wellness is pursuing different projects and keeping our passions fresh. We want to make an impact and put our energy into things we care about NOW, and that through our organizing and community building, that energy will spread. It is contagious.
We are project people – how could we not?