Reflections on Imagining America: Empathy for Baltimore (and Beyond)

Jasir Qiydaar, ’18, Media & Communication Studies, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Jasir QiydaarAttending the Imagining America National Conference was an excellent experience. Doing so allowed me to connect with like-minded individuals who came from a variety of backgrounds about social issues. Through my interactions with other conference attendees I was able to learn about others’ life experiences and tell them about my own. Ultimately, the common thread in all these conversations was empathy. Even though we couldn’t completely relate to every aspect of each other’s lives, we made efforts to truly understand each other.

Here at UMBC the pursuit of academic achievement often distracts members of our community from practicing empathy. This was especially clear to me in April and May when the civil unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray was happening in Baltimore. I witnessed numerous people make light of the situation or dismiss those involved as “thugs”. This was disappointing to me because as a resident of Baltimore City, I am aware of the underlying issues that led to this unrest. Because I have this personal experience, I knew the assumptions made by certain members of the community were completely false.

I also came to the conclusion that just as there were underlying causes for the unrest in Baltimore, there is a hidden cause for the lack of empathy present at UMBC. A lack of personal exposure to other cultures and backgrounds before attending UMBC creates an environment in which those groups are often looked at as the “other”. As a result, stereotypes dictate the ideas held about these underrepresented groups and they are often reduced to being seen as a set of characteristics rather than being seen as people.

I believe that as members of this institution, we all should realistically evaluate how stereotypes and biases shape how we treat others. After this self-reflection, we should take steps to change any negative behaviors that may result from our preconceived ideas. By doing this we can become more empathetic to those who aren’t like us and become better global citizens.

Contact the author, Jasir Qiydaar, at

Reflections on Imagining America: What Do We Mean by ‘Democracy’?

Rachel Backert, ’17, Media & Communication Studies, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Rachel Backert 2What does Imagining America want, really? The Imagining America website says “The members of Imagining America advance a vision of the world in which publicly engaged artists, designers, scholars, and culture workers play critical roles in enacting the promise and ideals of a democratic society.” I certainly heard directors, presenters, and attendees alike energetically reference “democratic engagement” during the conference. I’d love to give them that for Christmas, but no one gave me specifics on “democracy.” I don’t know exactly what to search for on Amazon.

Perhaps we made the collective assumption that conference attendance implied an understanding of democracy. Okay. But can we assume that all attendees discovered the one true Platonic ideal of democracy despite our diverse locations, ages, educations, and individual experiences?

I think not, given the process for turning abstract concepts into usable definitions: First, dig widely and deeply through texts to locate and extract potential lodes of wisdom. Then toss them in the blast furnace of conversation. If the text had too many impurities to be usable, it’ll become a useless heap of slag—you have to dig elsewhere. But if it had a nugget of wisdom, a heated discussion will melt off any impurities and produce a refined definition. Hammer this essence into a tool you can comfortably wield in writing, discussion, and action—your mind may ache, but it’ll become stronger. If your tool doesn’t survive contact with the enemy, repair it at the forge or make a new one. Of course, you’ll find that others use different tools for the same task; tools reflect different origins, materials, processes, and shapes based on their makers’ home, training, colleagues, and experience.

Maybe my metaphor is overwrought, but I hope you sense that defining democracy is a grueling and personal struggle that can’t be ignored even in a gathering of intellectuals. We can’t all simply read the specs on Amazon. We need to craft democracy both individually and together. Let’s all hammer out democracy’s promises, requirements, participants, methods, advantages, and shortcomings.

Contact the author, Rachel Backert, at

Reflections on Imagining America: “I, Too, Wanted to Sing Praise …”

Shawntay Stocks is a Baltimore educator and doctoral student in UMBC’s Language, Literacy and Culture program.

Shawntay Stocks

I, too, Wanted to Sing Praise to America

I wanted to sing the praises of America

Celebrate the beauty of her

Yet, my heart laid heavy with grievance

And I could not just celebrate and dance

My critical mind challenged her glories

And required I share a different story

One that called her to stand up to her ideals

Because right now equal justice is not real

Justice does not stand tall for all

For some, it is invisible and on the run

And we chase it down so that we can be unbound

Breaking free of marginalization and chains

So that all have access to equity and future gain

Our America still has a lot of growing to do

And many of the poets exposed it too

We weaved our words and worlds on that Friday night

to drum beats and uplifting cadence illuminating our plight

Vowing to continue the fight

Towards justice and equal civil rights!

Contact the author, Shawntay Stocks, at

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

BreakingGround Grants Available for 2015-2016

Beverly Bickel is a clinical associate professor of language, literacy and culture at UMBC. Sara Leidner is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Student Organizations and Involvement.

Bev Bickel 3Sara Leidner 2UMBC faculty, staff and students can apply for BreakingGround grants of up to $2,000 to support courses and projects that develop civic agency: the capacity to initiate and make meaningful contributions to social change. Thanks to support from Provost Philip Rous, a total of $35,000 is available for 2015-2016.

Since BreakingGround’s launch in August 2012, members of the UMBC community have developed or redesigned 33 courses and created 18 innovative community projects with BreakingGround grant support. Read about those courses and projects here:

Jill Wrigley--Food forest installationSpring 2015 courses and projects
Fall 2014 courses and projects
Spring 2014 courses and projects
Fall 2013 courses and projects
Spring 2013 courses and projects
Fall 2012 courses and projects

The application form is available online. However, you do not need to have a fully developed concept to get started. The two of us would love to talk with you and connect you with others involved with BreakingGround to help flesh out your ideas. Contact us: Beverly to talk about grants to support courses, and Sara to talk about grants to support other civic agency-building projects. We look forward to hearing from you.

Contact the authors: Beverly Bickel at, and Sara Leidner at

What Does it Mean to “Win”? Lessons from the Kinetic Sculpture Project

Steven McAlpine is assistant director of Interdisciplinary Studies at UMBC.

Steven McAlpineOn Sunday June 14th 2015 (the “hottest day in Baltimore’s Kinetic history,” according to the Baltimore kinetic web site), the UMBC Kinetic Sculpture Racing (KSR) team completed a challenging fifteen mile race through Baltimore with their entry, the Kraken Upcycle. The course included a plunge into the harbor by the Canton waterfront, a mud pit, and a sand trap. Although the Upcycle experienced a mechanical failure (a chain fell off and jammed between two chain rings during the sand portion of the race) and finished somewhere in the middle of the pack of thirty entries, we were ranked first overall and were awarded the coveted “Grand Mediocre East Coast Championship” trophy, which qualifies the Kraken Upcycle to enter the national competition in Humboldt, California in 2016.

So we weren’t the fastest human powered sculpture – we were not first across the finish line. And we had to jettison one of our four “pilots” after one sprocket failed (one of our gallant pit crew gave the pilot his bicycle and ran the rest of the race). So… what did we actually “win”?

Here is how the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race web site defines the Grand Mediocre award: “The award is determined by Mysterious Mathematical Means which include a point scoring system based on artistic merit, engineering prowess, and blinding speed of the Sculpture. The Sculpture with the highest average score in art, engineering, and speed is the Grand Champion.”

Before we post a home page UMBC banner proclaiming that “We’re Mediocre!” it is important to note that the Oxford dictionary defines “mediocre” as “Of only moderate quality; not very good: a mediocre actor.” However, the last sentence of the Baltimore Kinetic description equates “mediocre” with “average” in the sense that winning is not about only the fastest speed, or only flawless engineering, or only the most beautiful work of art. Winning the award is about balancing (averaging) the work of artists, engineers, and athletes. Winning is about collaboration between different (and sometimes conflicting) perspectives.

UMBC Kinetic Sculpture Team, January 2015

UMBC Kinetic Sculpture Team, January 2015

There is a profound lesson for me here in the value of interdisciplinary applied learning experiences such as the kinetic sculpture project. In order to research, design, and build a kinetic sculpture, undergraduates who had typically grappled with problems in teams with other students in the same discipline or field had to consider insights from domains of expertise such as Mechanical Engineering, Visual Art, Geography and Environmental Systems, Media and Communication Studies, Mathematics, and concentrations within Interdisciplinary Studies such as “Afterschool Education through the Performing Arts” and “Sustainable Design.”

As KSR team member Stephen Moore (a Fulbright scholar and double major in Computer Engineering and Mathematics) described the process, “Every time we engineers get stuck on something, one of the art students comes in and says, ‘Oh we should design it like this.’ It’s a whole new perspective on how to solve the problem and it’s been amazing.” Stephen’s comment highlights the fact that there was never one “right” answer in our development process, nor was there one dominant point of view or discipline. For this reason, our design and build process needed to be flexible and at times improvisational.

In a recent post on the American Democracy Project web site, my UMBC colleague David Hoffman observed that “Improvisation is the essence of democracy. Participants in shared work to solve problems and build community – including students – should have the opportunity to imagine and grow together, and to choose or make paths not visible at the outset.” He calls this quality of civic learning “organic.” To build on his description metaphorically, what we did in the Kinetic Sculpture Project was to create our own “ecosystem” of expertise – including community partners such as Arbutus Middle School’s kinetic sculpture team, the Baltimore Foundery, Bouchat Industries, and UMBC Racing. Ecosystems “win” by achieving balance rather than dominance; in fact dominant influences such as an invasive species usually are detrimental to the system.

The Kraken Upcycle

The Kraken Upcycle

As in healthy ecosystems, an organic learning process is resilient and adaptive. For example, the Kraken Upcycle was the fifth design that students developed; previous designs included a bicycle powered boat made out of bamboo; a boat constructed of 1500 plastic bottles; a floating trash heap, and a submarine. When our consulting engineer, Mike Guarraia (a STEM educator at Arbutus Middle School) critiqued an early design – predicting that under the weight of the sculpture and flotation, our bicycle wheels would warp (or “taco” as he called it) on the first turn – the team had to go back to the drawing board, ultimately coming up with a more stable mechanical base (the quadricycle) and a more potent symbol of the problem of plastics accumulating in the oceans – the new monster of the seas or “Kraken.”

As new ideas emerged, team members showed a remarkable ability to let go of cherished ideas of their own regarding the “winning” design as they realized that their ideas became raw material for the next iteration (or as William McDonough observed about ecosystems in his book Cradle to Cradle, “waste equals food”).

On race day amid thirty teams and cheering spectators in downtown Baltimore, the team had to persist despite the heat over a distance that we had never before attempted with the Upcycle, had to improvise a strategy to deal with a mechanical breakdown, and had to describe the meaning of the Kraken and the importance of upcycling to race judges. The team had to work well together, which meant clearly communicating what was needed in any given moment (drinking water, for example), being flexible about our overall strategy, and maintaining excitement and motivation over the course of the day-long race.

Looking back over nine months of effort by the team, four themes emerged that contributed to the success of the project: embracing the expertise of the local community, respecting the unique perspectives and ideas of team members, making surprising connections between environmental research and artistic design, and solving unexpected problems in innovative ways. Over two semesters of collaboration, the KSR Team won (in the sense of “earned”) a sense of agency to respond to social and environmental problems in innovative, integrative, practical ways that required hands on work and face to face conversations. The team demonstrated a quality that David Hoffman calls “generative” in which a partnership can “… leverage even more powerful possibilities for collective action.” The ability as a group to exchange ideas and to distill those ideas into a meaningful symbol that communicates to a wider audience – this is a powerful way for students to become agents of change.

Team with Trophy

Team with Trophy

Contact the author, Steven McAlpine, at

Call for Participation in the Imagining America Conference (VIDEO)

What follows is an invitation to the UMBC community developed by UMBC’s Imagining America conference planning team (members listed below).

In October, UMBC will host the 2015 national conference of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, where scholars, artists, designers, cultural workers and community activists will gather to advance the public and civic purposes of arts, humanities, and design. Imagining America (IA) serves as a source for information and ideas in support of engaged undergraduate and graduate pedagogies, public scholarship, and university-change initiatives helpful to administrators, faculty, staff, and students who are seeking to strengthen or initiate campus examination of and involvement with real-world issues.

UMBC had been selected as the host of the 2015 national conference six months before the nation turned its attention to Baltimore in April. This selection was based on the potential for what other institutions of higher education and communities can learn from UMBC faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and alumni who continue to innovate, creating ways to meet societal challenges using scholarly, artistic, social, and entrepreneurial resources. In the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprising, these activities are even more relevant and timely.

UMBC’s IA planning team, consisting of staff, faculty, alumni, and graduate and undergraduate students, has led an extensive conference organizing process to: 1) help establish new efforts to support community and cultural initiatives with higher education research and engagement; and 2) develop and enhance collaborations among Baltimore’s institutions of higher education, particularly other IA university partners MICA, Morgan State University, and Towson University, and with cultural organizations and grassroots leaders.

President Freeman Hrabowski III will lead the opening plenary, “An Honest Conversation,” with Rebecca Hoffberger, Founder and Director of the American Visionary Arts Museum and Joseph Jones, Founder and President of the Center for Urban Families. More than 40 UMBC faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and alumni are presenting their work October 1-3 throughout the city at conference sessions, seminars, and site-specific workshops. There are still opportunities to get involved as a presenter by applying to participate in the conference seminars. Additional conference highlights include a September 30 pre-conference workshop on assessment of community engagement, an opening reception October 1 at 7:00 PM at the Baltimore Museum of Art where Phi Beta Kappa will present Imagining America with its 2015 Key of Excellence award, a Friday evening event called ¡Express Yourself! A Spoken Word & Drumming JAMM, and UMBC Dresher Center faculty microtalks and other sessions throughout Saturday in the Performing Arts and Humanities Building. For more information, please see UMBC will host Imagining America’s 2015 National Conference, Themes in Baltimore’s Story, and Addressing Social Inequalities in Fall Courses.

Please consider attending and encouraging others to explore the various conference sessions and workshops as UMBC hosts Imagining America from September 30-October 3, 2015. The conference schedule is available and registration is now open. Student registration costs are $75 (one day), $100 (two days) and $175 (three days).

Before September 7, faculty and staff registration fees are: $175 (one day), $300 (two days) and $350 (three days). The UMBC Planning Committee is working on fundraising to reduce the cost of registration, so be in touch with questions or ideas.

Thanks for thinking about how this work of public engagement might be useful to you and others. Post-conference UMBC community organizing is already underway to sustain and grow this work and our connections beyond the conference, into the future. If you want to talk through any ideas, please feel free to contact any of these conference Planning Committee members:

Romy Hübler, IA Fellow (

Bev Bickel, Language, Literacy and Culture (

Lee Boot, Imaging Research Center (

David Hoffman, Student Life (

Kathy O’Dell, Visual Arts (

Kimberly Moffitt, American Studies (

Kate Drabinski, Gender and Women’s Studies (

Viviana MacManus, Gender and Women’s Studies (

Tim Nohe, Visual Arts and CIRCA (

Rachel Brubaker, Dresher Center (

Steve Bradley, Visual Arts (

Preminda Jacob, Visual Arts (

Joby Taylor, Shriver Center (

Tom Moore, OIA (

Charlotte Keniston, OSI Fellow (

Tahira Mahdi, Psychology (

William Klotz, Education (  

Julianna Brightman, Interdisciplinary Studies (

Kelly Robier, Political Science and MCS (

Manisha Vepa, Economics (

Addressing Social Inequalities in Fall Courses

Scott Casper is the Dean of UMBC’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. What follows is a message he shared with faculty members on behalf of the Imagining America conference planning team to encourage syllabi integration of writing, teaching, emerging research, and gatherings to address underlying social inequalities that have become more visible as a result of Freddie Gray’s death.

Scott-CasperAs most of you probably know, UMBC is hosting the 2015 National Imagining America (IA) conference from September 30 through October 3. We are partnering with MICA, Morgan and Towson along with many cultural institutions, community leaders, and artists in Baltimore. The conference sessions will take place in the Mt. Vernon area, at UMBC, and at MICA.

This conference may be a great opportunity for you and your undergraduate and graduate students to meet and work with faculty, staff, students, and cultural workers from around the country and from Baltimore to address pressing social issues through the arts, humanities, and design fields.

Since the activities surrounding Freddie Gray’s death, there has been a surge of new writing, teaching, emerging research, and gatherings to address underlying social inequalities that have become more visible to many outside of West Baltimore and other communities that have experienced historic multi-dimensional disinvestment. It has simultaneously become more apparent to many that stories, creativity, art, place-making, and social designs can be powerful responses to “man’s inhumanity to man.” We believe that the timing of the IA conference in Baltimore affords us with tremendous opportunities to harness the creative energy responding to recent events, while continuing to discuss their historical, economic, social, and policy roots in order to engage students and one another in crucial learning, creating, storytelling and research.

We’d like to offer a few possibilities for integrating this work and discussions into your Fall courses:

  • Faculty, staff, and student reflections about Freddie Gray’s death and protests can be found on the BreakingGround blog.
  • The conference program (available in June or July), consisting of a variety of session formats and site-specific workshops, may provide ideas for syllabi topics.
  • The IA Journal Public and its most recent issue with articles about last year’s conference discussions could be useful background for faculty and students.

There will be many Baltimore-based organizations, initiatives and cultural leaders at the conference and sponsoring site-specific workshops, so it will be a rich environment for students who might want to do internships before, during or after the conference.

Please consider attending and encouraging your students to explore the various conference sessions and workshops. There will be a call for student volunteers for the conference in late August.

Thanks for thinking about how this work of public engagement might be useful to you and your students. If you want to talk through any ideas please feel free to contact any of these conference planning committee members:

Romy Hübler, IA Fellow (
Bev Bickel, Language, Literacy and Culture (
Lee Boot, Imaging Research Center (
David Hoffman, Student Life (
Kathy O’Dell, Visual Arts (
Kimberly Moffitt, American Studies (
Kate Drabinski, Gender and Women’s Studies (
Viviana MacManus, Gender and Women’s Studies (
Tim Nohe, Visual Arts and CIRCA (
Steve Bradley, Visual Arts (
Preminda Jacob, Visual Arts (
Joby Taylor, Shriver Center (
Tom Moore, OIA (
Charlotte Keniston, OSI Fellow (
Tahira Mahdi, Psychology (
William Klotz, Education (
Julianna Brightman, Interdisciplinary Studies (
Kelly Robier, Political Science and MCS (
Manisha Vepa, Economics (

Best wishes,

An Agentic Approach to Democratic Engagement in Higher Education

Craig Berger is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Campus and Civic Engagement

Craig Berger--SquareSocial science measures our choices and interactions, but it also subtly constrains our assumptions about what’s possible for ourselves and our communities. As Peter Levine explained in a recent blog post, invoking Hannah Arendt’s writings on revolution and the human condition, this happens in two ways.

First, by focusing retrospectively on explaining who has acted and why, social science makes history seem determined and scripted. We imagine historical figures (and, by extension, ourselves) as going through the motions, simply doing what was already destined to occur. Arendt argues that in our de-emphasizing the doubts, anxieties, and messiness of the real people connected with these events, we erase freedom and bury any empowerment and humanity those moments hold. That we view society as a fixed, permanent world that is unable to be influenced (short of a revolution) is the most harmful consequence of simplifying our past. Arendt believes that the way we study the past keeps us from adopting a more liberating perspective on our world, one that allows us to see our environments as accessible and moldable.

Additionally, social science often points to massive societal structures and systems (e.g., capitalism) that determine our everyday life and will shape our lives indefinitely, until other massive structures and systems replace them. Imagine how different it would be to examine our circumstances with what Levine calls the “agentic” perspective, which views our world as moldable and sees institutions in our lives (government, corporations, organizations, education) as fluid, able to be transformed without replacing the entire system (after all, as Levine notes, these institutions are products of human agency themselves).

The deterministic social science orientation is ubiquitous in higher education. Even universities committed to preparing students for democratic engagement often subtly communicate a sense of our past and physical/cultural surroundings as static and untouchable, whether by unintentionally or unthinkingly excluding students from campus planning conversations or neglecting to share the stories behind the naming of noteworthy campus landmarks or the events that birthed campus traditions. Experiencing our past and our physical/cultural surroundings as fixed leads us to view ourselves as consumers and robots controlled by macrolevel dynamics and structures.

How would higher education look if it adopted an agentic approach to its work? How might students’ experiences change, and what might it be like to work in this new environment? Here are some things colleges and universities taking an agentic approach to education would do:

  • Integrate responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement across the institution: Universities would diffuse the responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement work across every divisional and departmental boundary rather than marginalize it by assigning the work to a particular center, institute, or office. Each discipline, and the institution’s activities, symbols, and cultural practices would reflect its commitment to democratic engagement and learning. All learning would be civic learning; all engagement would be democratic engagement.
  • Diminish functional divides among students, staff, faculty, and administrators: Members of the university community would view each other as genuine partners with different experiences and perspectives, capable of engaging in innovative, transformative work. Students would view faculty, staff, and administrators as real people with their own unique experiences, passions, and struggles. Faculty, staff, and administrators would experience students as uniquely talented adults with unlimited potential whose education should encompass working with others in an unscripted fashion to improve their campus and community. Universities would redefine “shared governance,” with as much of the business as possible being shared by members of the campus community who commit to each other as well as to the work of co-creating the university.
  • Transform leadership education and development: Universities would challenge students to free their imaginations and re-conceptualize institutions as human-created and open to change. Instead of adopting the mainstream social science view of the world (viewing public problems as byproducts of root causes and systems, and that the latter that must be vanquished to make any meaningful progress) as we often do in service-learning work and alternative break service trips, students would learn how to work with campus and community stakeholders to determine which aspects of the problem could be transformed and embark on relationship-building and strategic planning in pursuit of that change. This approach would emphasize continually improving environments and cultures, thereby creating new opportunities and frontiers for positive change.
  • Reconceptualize assessment: The quantity and the nature of assessment would change. Students would experience learning with others and, as a part of this learning environment, would feel free to blaze trails of inquiry that do not exist at the outset. Assessment efforts–and ultimately, professional and academic accountability–would be more flexible, accommodating and encouraging civic creativity. Staff and faculty would constantly examine how learning outcomes are presented to students (if at all) to avoid contaminating and/or reducing the power of the learning experience, and to preserve students’ agency.

If universities are genuinely committed to preparing students for democratic engagement, they must examine what messages their cultural practices and campus traditions transmit to students and other members of the university community regarding their agency. Taking an agentic approach to our work in higher education would encourage students to view themselves as co-creators of the campus and authors of their own experiences.

What do you think? What other changes can you imagine consistent with the agentic approach, and are they worth pursuing?

Contact the author, Craig Berger, at