We Are Alive: Reflections on Imagining America

Andrew Thompson, ’19, Gender and Women’s Studies, was a member of UMBC’s 19-member delegation at Imagining America’s 2016 national conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In a time of cynicism dressed as realism, when it feels like the world might be falling apart around us, I believe there is reason to be hopeful, optimistic, and idealistic. Socially, politically, and personally I’ve felt many defeats, but come back to the realization that this is our world to make. Consider the many victories, small and large that have been going on around us these last couple of years. There’s a lot left to do, but we should feel hopeful that we are the ones who can do it, and we can do whatever we want. – Taylor Rice, The Local Natives

andrew-thompsonI first read that quote back in July of this year. It resonated with me, beyond just being from someone I admire, because it captured so much of what I feel. I was hopeful, optimistic, idealistic, and resilient, but in contrast to Rice, I also felt powerless. What could I do to change the things in this world that I truly believe are hurting us?

I will proudly say that I’m a feminist, I support Black Lives Matter, that I’m “here and queer” yet still I see the same pains in our world nearly every day. I walk through the Baltimore Harbor area and watch police officers casually swing their batons like fashion accessories. Old classmates of mine back home overdose on heroin, yet our drug education classes never even whispered about opportunities to get clean needles or supervised injection sites. Two young Black men are shot with a BB-gun from a speeding pickup truck, called the n-word, and the shooter’s defense attorney thinks public service and watching Selma constitute an appropriate punishment for a hate crime.

It’s crushing.

Often I sit with anger, sadness, and confusion. It seems, and truly is, so much bigger than me. How can I possibly solve these injustices? Obviously not alone, but who would I even talk to? For a long time, the questions I’d ask myself would hang in the air and then eventually vanish, leaving me to return to my routine.

Attending Imagining America‘s 2016 national conference in Milwaukee last month helped me answer some of those questions, and affirmed who I am and what I believe in fighting for. Here I was hundreds of miles away from home, surrounded by hundreds of other people who wanted to change the world too. People who were like me, just beginning to figure out how to do it and what the world looked like to them. There were people who had done amazing things to move towards a world that was more just, people with successes and failures, people who believed that the world wasn’t over, that we all had work to do.

For nearly 4 days straight, I had the most remarkable conversations about what mattered to me most. I talked to PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) fellows, people who are using their Masters and PhD education to be civically involved and deeply connected to marginalized communities while actively empowering them. This was a new side of academia to me, one that wasn’t completely stuck in a bubble that floated from campus to office building and back again.

I also attended a bunch of sessions on topics ranging from ethical architecture that engages the community from planning to completion, using theatre as a means of activism, personal healing through discussion circles and safe spaces, to ways of enriching political discourse and having civil discussions about controversial issues. I took away a lot of concrete, useful techniques like problem mapping, discussion moderation, creating art with a positive impact in communities, and how critical it is to just simply listen.

Throughout the entire weekend, I soaked up so much more than I have in a long time. The conference was almost overwhelming at times, but I brought back so many new tools and learned so much about myself and my values that it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. What lingered with me most though, was a feeling of hope. The conference helped me see that I do have power to make our world better, that we are the ones who can do it, and we can do whatever we want.

I’m going to close out my reflection with a poem that I wrote the Friday night/Saturday morning of Imagining America. I think that it reflects my newfound hope in a very raw way that was captured at that very specific moment, so I hope you enjoy it!


My GPA is two-point-six-five

But I am very much alive

I stumble through my relationships

I burn through friendships

And sometimes I am blind

To those who truly love me

Every night I see it


And I begin to wonder


Why do I wear this rainbow pin?

Why does the ceiling spin?

Why won’t they let me in?

You tell me that I am safe here

Yet you hold my tongue and leer

You cut me into thirds

And mash me into words

So that I may be more digestible

For our masters

But I am very much alive

I hear he she, they, them

And these words are lost on me

But I am not lost

Because we share our community

And build ourselves to take us higher

I do not always know

How to speak what I feel

Or how to feel what I speak

But I do know

At three-oh-five

That I am alive

We are alive.

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