Takeaways and commitments from Imagining America 2013

My previous post was rather emotive, reflective. Pausing to think through what united the PAGE fellows this year, and where I found resonance.

While I usually scribble notes furiously at conferences, this is the first time I can remember going through and actually reading them. On top of that, I actually synthesized all of my scribbles into one word document. Wow! What a revolutionary way to approach conferences: learn from them like I would my own studies or courses!

Jen Shook, a PAGE Co-Director, captured the weekend beautifully on Storify.  Here, I am going to exercise some self-imposed brevity and highlight 5 key takeaways from the conference that I think would be helpful for my own research and home institution, the University of Washington. The conference this year was A Call to Action, and throughout all sessions the emphasis was on making commitments, be they big or small, that we could each enact once the conference concluded. In that spirit, I will also share the top 5 commitments I heard at this conference, whether they be mine, a friend’s or IA’s as a whole.


1) Let’s challenge the idea of “a real job”. This idea presumes a linearity from degree to career, and it privileges institutions that are deemed “prestigious”. Many of us, whether we are graduate students, activists, or scholars, will not take a linear path. We are in webs and networks that pursue greater equity, representation and democratic engagement with higher education and cultural institutions. What matters is the level of engagement, not if your job has a title, or if it is the one that got circulated on your discipline’s most prestigious listserve.

2) We all deserve accountability and intention in our mentorship relationships. Whether we are the mentor or mentee, we need to check in with ourselves and establish boundaries. What are my needs, what are my expectations, and how can I communicate these effectively to make sure that both parties can be accountable? Perhaps our mentorship relationships might look better if we do them in the style of a mentoring community, so that needs are being met by multiple people, rather than in a one-to-one relationship.

3) Making change in our institutions, especially universities, can learn a lot from community organizing. At the University of Richmond, members from their civic engagement and diversity offices shared how they are trying to mobilize theories of Full Participation on their campuses. In this example, it was clear that principles of community organizing are clear. It is necessary to make ample time, and to start small. Start with the relationships and connections you already have. Who on campus and in the community share these values, are already doing this work? Perhaps the commitments are practiced in different ways, with different language. But the point is to find allies and find common interests. Also, it is key to recognize differential levels of investment. An administrative office worker who cherishes job security above all else might be less receptive to radicalizing an office environment for fear they might not be able to “cut it”, and then risk losing their jobs. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the values, it just means leaving additional time for empathy, listening, and follow through. Any of this work, these movements, these alliances, also require us to let go of self and recognize the contributions of others, especially when these come in forms of knowledge not usually found in Universities.

4) Our scholarship is in a double-bind. The type of work we want to do (engaged, public, humanistic, etc) is being threatened by institutional and political economic trends that undermine the resources for this type of work. This makes it all the harder to complete the work, to do it in a timely manner, and to share its value with others. The double-bind is that this makes it all the more vital that we fight to make this work possible. In theory, engaged work does not exist in a bubble. It emerges from multiple ways of knowing, and spreads through networks and communities (including institutions of higher ed). Engaged scholarship resonates with people, and (hopefully) inspires the joys of learning. In a time when diminished resources, de-funding, and hiring freezes, we need to continue to fight to make space for this work. It both highlights the disparities and inequalities within our current moment, and offers alternatives to those that feel alienated from capital ‘H’ higher education.

5) We are not alone. While we might feel alone at our home institutions, there are folks all over the country that share our commitments. One of my favorite moments from the conference was a panel on Sunday morning that shared the work that graduate students are doing in Central NY to organize around engaged scholarship. Challenging the ways that Syracuse and Cornell Universities claim to support publicly engaged work, (but then never match that support with resources), graduate students are being strategic: writing reports and recommendations, sharing resources, looking for allies. We may not all have the time to organize regional networks, but it is a great reminder that there are precedents out there and there are likeminded individuals and communities.


I commit to educate my undergraduates about the structures of graduate student labor at the University of Washington. I am a teaching assistant for the Geography of Global Inequality – many of the lessons of neoliberalization and privatization, unequal access to education, legacies of racism, and the internationalization of higher ed can all be fed through the lens of Labor and the University — as a member of this community, I commit to do my part to share this knowledge and experience with students who are rarely given this insight.

Some of the PAGE Fellows committed to taking better care of themselves. Quoting Audre Lorde, Blair Smith shared, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This self-care will look different for everyone, but it involves many micro-commitments: giving yourself permission to say ‘no’ to new projects and activities; taking the time to check in about your needs; making space, time and possibly money to practice self-care so that these are not played out as all-too-easy excuses; communicating our needs to others.

John Armstrong, one of the PAGE co-directors, committed to making sure his mentors (of which there are many in the University and community partnerships!) know each other. He pointed out that though they all have deep impact on his life and work, some of them might have no idea who each other are. And while they might think they don’t like each other, perhaps they actually have some shared values and could learn from one another. I love this idea: make sure the people in your life know how they fit into your life! Convey their value, their connectedness. Make sure they know that they matter, and that they count, and that they are also part of a larger web.

The PAGE fellows and co-directors committed to making sure we continued this conversation, by seeking funding for a mini-summit in Chicago summer 2014, positioned around some work that our own Harish Patel  is doing with the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois Chicago (directed by the amazing Barbara Ransby!). We just had far too much fun and camaraderie to wait a whole year to be reunited.

And now, to #5 of the top 5 commitments to come out of IA. I really wanted to highlight one that Imagining America made, as an organization…
But, you know? I cannot think of any.
This is not necessarily me being facetious (though it is a bit of that). At a conference that is as wonderfully non-hierarchical and interactive as IA, it is incredibly difficult to maintain cohesion. Truly, I have zero idea what happened at any of the sessions I didn’t go to, unless I had a friend share their takeaways and summaries. Though people were live-tweeting and note taking, aside from 2 plenaries (one of which I missed because I was on a plane, the other I missed because I was just too darn tired),  there was no recognition of what the commitments and calls to action were for the organization as a whole. I heard themes and trends, but especially in response to the 5 takeaways above, I wonder how IA sees itself as an organization set to respond to these ideas.

So there you go, folks. 4 days wrapped up in 10 neat concise points. Hardly doing it justice, but hey. In the spirit of self-care, I am giving myself permission to share this and then say, “ok. that is enough.” I will say, I am already looking forward to next year’s IA in Atlanta!


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