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Q & A with Imagining America’s New Faculty Director Erica Kohl-Arenas

Erica Kohl-Arenas

Although Imagining America (IA) will officially move to UC Davis – its new host institution – on July 1st, IA has already been at work on the UC Davis campus. This fall UC Davis will host IA’s 17th Annual National Conference from October 12th to 14th. The conference will bring together artists, designers, scholars, community members and community organizations to tackle issues that matter to the local region as well as exploring the national discourse around public scholarship.

Launched in 1999 at a White House conference on the democratic role of arts and humanities, IA is dedicated to fostering community partnerships, public scholarship and social equity in higher education through the arts, humanities and design. IA, a consortium of over 100 colleges, universities, and cultural organizations, was first based at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, before moving to Syracuse University in 2007.

Leading IA’s transition to UC Davis, Erica Kohl-Arenas joins the UC Davis faculty as the consortium’s faculty director as well as an associate professor in the Department of American Studies. Kohl-Arenas’ role as faculty director brings her back to a region and campus that have already felt the impact of her community-engaged work. After completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Reed College, she received a master’s degree in community development at UC Davis before earning a doctorate in social and cultural studies in education at UC Berkeley in 2010.

Named philanthropy critic of the year by Inside Philanthropy in 2016, Kohl-Arenas’ recent book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, “analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley.” She has also done research and community-engagement work in urban public schools, immigrant nonprofit organizations, and coal mining and ‘crofting’ towns in Appalachia, Scotland, and Wales.

In this Q & A, Kohl-Arenas shares her goals for Imagining America, reflects on the current importance of public scholarship and discusses the impact of the partnership between Imagining America and UC Davis.

Q: What are your goals for Imagining America in 2017?

Erica Kohl-Arenas: This will be a big year for Imagining America. My top three goals are broad and will take more than a year. First, it is simultaneously a transitional moment for the institution as it moves to its first West Coast home and a moment of crisis and reckoning in the nation at large.

My first goal is a critical assessment of the key role that IA can play in this political moment in history. This will involve an analysis of the mission, key initiatives, messages, and most crucially the strength of this inspiring network of cultural organizers, artists, scholars, students, leaders and community-based creative practitioners across over 100 universities and cultural institutions. While this will be an unfolding process that will engage a wide array of people and organizations, I already know that IA has an important role to play.

The methodologies of creative cultural expression, narrative history, engaged humanities, public scholarship, and liberatory community based design craft and weave together critical yet hopeful spaces for people to come together – confronting feelings of isolation, fear, marginalization, division and precariousness that this political moment has amplified. There are so many amazing projects and people with long histories of campus community building, engaged public scholarship, and creative healing work in the IA network, at UC Davis, and in the Central Valley. Now is the moment to bring it all together and elevate the work to the national stage.

My second and third goals are really to build upon, connect, support, and elevate this work regionally in the Central Valley and nationally in a way that builds dialogue beyond the oftentimes isolating and binary stories we find in the media and twitter sphere.

Q: Community-engaged scholarship has been an enlivening and contested topic in the academy. Why do you think that public scholarship is important now?

EKA: Community engaged and public scholarship is more important now than ever. While I fully understand the critique of academic scholarship as elitist, inaccessible, and complicit in reproducing systems of inequality in knowledge production, I have met and engaged with so many people, projects, and organizations in academic institutions that are asking the very hardest, most complicated, and often risky questions of our time. This is not new.

Public scholars have always played an important role in conducting research, often alongside movement organizations and allies, on the most seemingly intractable issues. For example, the Highlander Research and Education Center (TN), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the California Farmworker Movement and many more civil rights organizations of the 1960s had research wings and long standing relationships with public scholars.

In Davis, for example, for over 5 decades both Isao Fujimoto and Don Villarejo have served as public scholars and action researchers alongside farmworker organizing projects across the region. This research is of course important in terms of strategy, and through the pedagogies of the arts, design, and humanities public scholarship also helps us craft public narratives, stories and ideas that move people beyond what is conceived of as possible.

In recent history, think about all of the public stories and messages that brought a deeper analysis of racialized inequality and the current imperative for creative grassroots social change: I think of the ideas cultural renewal and community ownership passionately told by the late Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit, the media messaging of Occupy Wall Street, and the network of grassroots scholars and activists shaping the Movement for Black Lives.

Within and beyond the academy, the shaping of public ideas is central to any kind of lasting social change. Of course, I have personally learned that university based scholars have the privilege to pose questions that others are not always able to ask in public. In the case of my own research on the relationship between philanthropy and social movements, I have learned that while most nonprofit professionals understand their problematic relationships with private foundations much more deeply than any critical philanthropy scholar, few feel comfortable publically questioning funders whose dollars they rely upon. When presented as public scholarship they can join the conversation with less (although there is always some) personal risk.

Q: How will having the IA conference at UC Davis help shape the event? Conversely, how do you think IA will impact the campus?

EKA: I am so excited about the IA conference at UC Davis this October! Holding the conference in Davis and in the Central Valley will shape so much of the three-day event. Led by doctoral candidate Stephanie Maroney (and co-chaired by Brett Snyder and Susan Kaiser), an amazing group of scholars and students from across the humanities, arts, design, and social sciences, and community members from outside of UC Davis, have been working hard to plan to the conference. In weekly meetings, community outreach sessions, and working groups this team is curating what will be a thoughtful engagement with the mission and values of Imagining America within the regional context.

For example, the conference theme ‘Community, Arts, Land and Learning’ was crafted to speak to UC Davis’ history as a land grant university and to our complex relationship to land –from indigenous knowledge, wisdom, histories and struggles, to the various ways agricultural cultivation has shaped the region. Bringing art, narrative, creative design, theater, music, and engaged public scholarship to this theme is a way to highlight what I call the Gramscian ethic of Imagining America: a space where we can together embrace a pessimism of the intellect while nourishing our optimism of spirit and will. Or as one of my new mentors, Tim Eatman, outgoing Co-Director of Imagining America would say, IA is best at creating spaces where the spirit meets the heart and mind.

There are so many people at UC Davis and across the region already doing this important work –  from undergraduate student organizing initiatives to regional campus-community partnerships to places like the Davis Humanities Institute. I am excited to be a part of it and to help bring people together in a way that is both meaningful and hopeful in a deeply challenging yet emboldening moment in history.

–Jennifer Tinonga-Valle, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

IA Committee List

Kriti Garg kgarg@ucdavis.edu staff program coordinator at Cross Cultural Center
Nicki King njking@ucdavis.edu faculty Chair, African and African American Studies
Gina Werfel gswerfel@ucdavis.edu faculty Art
Meziah Ruby Cristobal mracristobal@ucdavis.edu undergraduate Design, Design for America
Bernadette Austin braustin@ucdavis.edu staff Center for Regional Change
Jonathan London jklondon@ucdavis.edu faculty Center for Regional Change
Molly McCarthy molmccarthy@ucdavis.edu staff Associate Director of Davis Humanities Institute
Sandy Holman sandy@cultureco-op.com comm member Culture Co-Op
Janice Kelley outdoorjan@att.net comm member communications
Sabrina Lee srllee@ucdavis.edu undergraduate CRD & Film Studies
Stephanie Maroney srmaroney@ucdavis.edu graduate Co-organizer of conference, CST
Brett Snyder blsnyder@ucdavis.edu faculty Co-organizer of conference, Design
Susan Kaiser sbkaiser@ucdavis.edu faculty Co-organizer of conference, GSW/textiles & design
Milmon Harrison mfharrison@ucdavis.edu faculty AAS
Soterios Johnson sojohnson@ucdavis.edu staff HArCS Partnerships
Robyn Rodriguez rrodriguez@ucdavis.edu faculty Asian American Studies
Drucella Miranda damiranda@ucdavis.edu staff TANA
Sarah Hart sarahashfordhart@gmail.com graduate Performance Studies
Beth Rose MIddleton brmiddleton@ucdavis.edu faculty Native American Studies
Gayle Yamada gky92@sbcglobal.net community member
Natalia Deeb-Sossa ndeebsossa@ucdavis.edu faculty Chicana/o Studies
Kathleen B Jones kathy@kathleenbjones.com faculty DHI, visiting professor emerita SDSU
Alena Marie almarie@ucdavis.edu graduate student CRD
Carolyn Penny clpenny@ucdavis.edu staff Campus Dialogue and Deliberation
Jiayi Young jdyoung@ucdavis.edu faculty Department of Design
jesikah maria ross jmross@ucdavis.edu comm member Capitol Public Radio
Glenda Drew gadrew@ucdavis.edu faculty Design
Rachel Hartsough rhartsough@cityofdavis.org comm member City of Davis Arts and Culture

This page was last updated: June 21, 2017



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