Criticize Injustice, Not Resistance

Jasir Qiydaar, ’18, Media & Communication Studies, was a member of UMBC’s 19-member delegation to Imagining America’s 2016 national conference.

Jasir Qiydaar

Too often when marginalized communities resist oppressive systems, people criticize the act of resistance without addressing the issues these groups are speaking out against. In fact, the victims of injustice are often more heavily scrutinized than the sources of their oppression are.

Some accuse members of these groups of perpetuating or even creating the problems they’re fighting against. Others may claim their protests are being carried out in the wrong way or at the wrong time.

Recently, this ideology was present in the backlash against NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality against African-Americans. Kaepernick’s protest consisted of him kneeling during the national anthem before each football games, and many Americans were upset by the gesture. Some completely disregarded the existence of police brutality in America, and instead criticized him for the timing and method of his protest.  

These critiques are flawed since there should be no incorrect time or manner to stand up for human rights. Those who are being oppressed are under no obligation to minimize their protests to the most convenient and palatable form. The people who make these arguments are essentially privileging their comfortability over the well-being of others.

As an artist from Milwaukee’s TRUE Skool collective said at this year’s Imagining America conference, “Injustice breeds imbalance.” Behind any sociopolitical expression is a social problem that infringes on the rights of a certain population. Many tend to overlook that social movements are responses to issues that cause individuals great amounts of suffering.

These problems, like institutional racism and sexism, are systemic. They exist on a large scale, and they harm countless individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

The effects of these issues are validated by both lived experiences and empirical data. Therefore, it is counterproductive to dismiss them.

Additionally, at their core, social issues are the result of an abnormal lack of regard for human rights. It stands to reason that responses would be unconventional as well.

We should criticize systems of oppression as strongly as we criticize those who speak out against them. At all times, we should empathize with individuals whose human rights are infringed upon, not with the agents of their oppression.

Contact the author, Jasir Qiydaar, at

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.

Reflections on Imagining America: Change the Paradigm, Change the World

Andy Clark, ’19, Biological Sciences, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Andy ClarkThe bus to downtown Baltimore was due to leave the UMBC campus at 8:00 a.m., but I was not at the stop when it arrived. To make a long story short: I missed the bus twice and had to take the one at 10:00 AM, getting me to the door of the Walter Art Museum just in time for the my first discussion to start.

Not only was this my first experience with the tribulations involved in using Maryland transit, but this was also my first experience as a college undergrad at an academic off-campus event, though not my first-ever conference. Anyone who has ever been to more than one conference has probably felt that sense of dread that comes when seeing the word “lecture” on their itinerary, regardless of how interesting the topic may be. After about 45 minutes of being talked at, inevitably my feet start to tap my mind starts to wander.

Plot twist: Imagining America was not like this. I was pleasantly surprised by the format of the talks I attended, as most of them were discussion-based, and I was involved in the talks. I was not an observer but a participant, and this conference, I can say, was not just interesting, not just enlightening, it was fun. The novelty that comes with one’s first time being surrounded by people who are willing to discuss things that they enjoy, find interesting, and are passionate about…it is indescribable but nonetheless a feeling I am positive others have felt and can understand. Not only was I able to hear others share their innovative ideas, but I was able to share my interests and receive feedback on how to go forward with them. Just amazing!

My favorite experience of the conference was music-based: a seminar/performance called In Search of One Big Union: The Role of Folksongs in the U.S. Labor Movement. I am a music person. All types of music have the possibility to inspire and entrance me, whether with melodic symphonies or bellowing voices. I am simply enamoured of the power of music, with its ability to elicit strong feelings (good or bad), prompt the need to dance (again, good or bad), and give voice to feelings many have trouble expressing. Profound was the sense of serenity I felt during this session and it is absolutely wonderful that Imagining America provided a platform for such a performance to take place. (Shout out to Corey Dolgon for a fantastic set!)

Overall, I was pleased with my experience at Imagining America, especially because I was able to connect with people all over the nation whose interests align so well with mine. Sometimes, I feel like just one voice in seven billion, with ideas that do not correlate with those around me, but IA reaffirmed my beliefs, and provided overwhelming evidence that there are others who think as I do.

To change the world, we must shift the paradigm for ourselves and those around us. We cannot continue down our same path and hope for change: That is literally insane. I look forward to working with the other undergraduate Imagining UMBC Fellows to help implement our new ideas in ways that will be organic and sustainable. Even though the first day of the conference started off poorly for me, I appreciate that it turned out to be better than I could have imagined (and worth missing two buses and walking a mile in the rain uphill), and I am thankful to have been able to participate at all!

Change the paradigm. Change the world.

Contact the author, Andy Clark, at

Reflections on Imagining America: An Undergraduate Voice

Manisha Vepa, ’18, Economics and Global Studies, is Arts & Humanities Editor for the UMBC Review, and was a member of UMBC’s Imagining America conference planning committee.

IMG_0475-2For me, the recent Imagining America conference was the culmination of ten months of meetings, conversations, and logistics planning with other members of the UMBC community. Historically, IA had a low turnout of undergraduates, which was partly why I was invited to the planning committee. Throughout the ten months, I had worked to introduce an undergraduate voice and tried to start a conversation about undergraduates participating in the conference. Having this background, I imagined that there would be a slight shock when I introduced myself to other conference participants as a student, especially because I was leading a workshop and facilitating the closing plenary session. I steeled myself to answer a lot of questions about my credibility, and to prove that I actually have a voice.

However, I forgot that I was entering a space with a lot of artists, who are extremely good at going with the flow. Any time I introduced myself, I was immediately accepted into the space. No one jerked backwards in surprise or batted an eyelash and questioned my credentials. Instead, I was just another member at the table. For an organization without undergraduate representation, this was a progressive view. I was pleasantly surprised and surprisingly pleased by this adaptability.

From the opening plenary session onward, I felt that there was a frank tone to the conference. From the conversations between Dr. Hrabrowski and the other panelists, I could tell that any social issues would be tackled head on without the usual political correctness or academic stuffiness. And as I learned, the conversations would be real and intimate and intense wherever I went. I attended sessions with great conversations about engaging students and creating a sense of agency within a community. Although these conversations were directed primarily at faculty, I felt like I made significant contributions.

On the last day, I facilitated the closing plenary session. I led a reflection session in the UMBC Concert Hall, which was a surreal experience. I, a student, was on a stage challenging people much older than me to be more inclusive when they went home. Even as a student who has contributed to change initiatives before, I felt powerful recognizing that I was making a difference. And I was inspired to keep talking and sharing my voice so that I could keep making a difference.

The conference was a large leap and a great source of momentum. Working with the students I have met from outside of UMBC and within UMBC, I am ready to imagine a program for undergraduates to attend future IA meetings. I am also ready to build on the momentum from the conference and convert it into action here on campus. We’ve made progress, but still there is more imagining to be done.

Contact the author, Manisha Vepa, at

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

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,