Reflections on Imagining America: Beyond “Working On …”

Lee Boot, Research Associate Professor/Associate Director of UMBC’s Imaging Research Center, served on UMBC’s planning team for the 2015 Imagining America national conference. The conference’s title was “America Will Be! The Art and Power of Weaving our We.”

Lee BootA week after the conference ended, I’m still working to imagine a “we” that has real agency for addressing the challenges we face not only in higher education, or Baltimore City, but as a people.

On the one hand, I’m very encouraged. I see a rare and positive alignment of the many threads that affect our ability to act, and which otherwise, often complicate and confound our potential. Of course, I want to help seize this opportunity.

At the same time, the necessary culture change is only just beginning. There remains an entrenched sense of pessimism and powerlessness that has gone on far too long. One impediment to change that I can see is that too many purposes are served by individuals, organizations, and institutions simply “working on” longstanding challenges—or worse, merely appearing to. It lets us off the hook in a cultural environment where too many of us have forgotten how even to expect significant change any more.

By strong contrast, I feel that those who really engage with Imagining America’s mission are ready to move to the next step, which is not merely to imagine, but to imagineer—and then create a better future. We are ready to tackle the questions: What does engaged arts, humanities, social sciences, and design actually look like now, and how can it be more effective? What is doable? What mechanisms are involved in culture-based approaches to change? How do we assess the promise of a strategy, and it’s outcomes? Should we try?

Sometimes I feel, like the person in the photo (below), that we are walking, confidently, into a beautiful storm, but I don’t trust that feeling. I think the reality might be much less dramatic, and far more constructive.

Clouds in Baltimore (Lee Boot)

Contact the author, Lee Boot, at boot@umbc.edu.

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