Budget cuts, mounting deficits, and debts most typically exacerbate inequalities and invite divisiveness as those with the most to gain are encouraged to focus on pressing forward, while those labeled most vulnerable are left to grapple with their survival. In the face of this polarizing climate of numbing crisis and nefarious competition, the 2012 Imagining America National Conference was framed as an inquiry: What might bring together higher education–which comprises so many types of institutions–and culturally generative communities–which refer to myriad forms of affinity and identity–to recognize difficult histories, articulate shared predicaments and possibilities, and move toward a more welcoming future? Could they partner on equal terms toward a mutually beneficial vision of society? The financial and organizational terrain that spans highly diverse circumstances of specific campuses and communities is certainly uneven. But there are riches in knowledge, critical understanding, and value frameworks that belie imposed austerity and must be taken as the underlying endowment and point of departure for vibrant partnerships and sustainable collaborations.
The insistence that austerity and scarcity define the limits of present possibility for so many has become commonplace. This destructive premise results in an idea of the future where individually measured economic gain displaces consideration of what would count as mutually enriching social life. Pursuit of private interests displaces attention to public purposes. As a consequence, it is increasingly difficult to justify support of education, culture, and communities as public virtues with distinctive institutional foundations. Instead, we are left with a model of investment for personal gain. But building momentum for change on the basis of what has been lost also presents a quandary of its own. While it may be tempting to appeal to prior notions of public life and values of culture and community, a simple return to the past, if such a thing were even possible, would not bring us to a more equitable future.
The past, like the present, is contested. The public was full of exclusions of those whose gender, race, sexuality, citizenship, or property status preempted full participation in civic affairs and social benefits. Similarly, culture and community could be invoked to justify the dominance of a particular experience, values, and forms of knowledge in the service of a civilizing mission. Yet the struggle over who might be recognized as enjoying the rights of inclusion and entitlement has been going on for centuries. The refusal to accept the terms of colonial impositions and the insistence on the value of cultural differences have been part of a process of community formation that has gone on even longer.
Still, culture and community today are especially confounding terms because they can attach to any aggregate of identities or experiences–both those that are beneficiaries of various colonial legacies and those embodied in various decolonizing social movements (those committed to breaking the bonds of sexism, homophobia, racism, and exploitation of humans and nature alike). A better grasp of what has divided campus and community and what might bring them together on more equitable terms lies in a critical understanding of the trajectories of knowledge and institutional foundation, especially nonprofit organizations and the socially creative values borne by various conceptions of culture and community. What follows then is a brief reflection on some dilemmas facing higher education, nonprofit organizations, and culture and community before considering a few ways in which Imagining America might address these challenges through its own efforts.
Of the many ideas to emerge after the Second World War regarding the character of the United States, perhaps the most consequential for higher education was the notion that ours was a knowledge society based on acquisition and dissemination of credentialized expertise (Machlup 1962; Bell 1973; Castells 1996). Expanding access to higher education to those beyond the privileged sectors of society could be cast as part of the national interest. Education could be conceived as a public good, that is, a value not readily supplied through the market. Government support could be justified for both supply in the form of new campus construction and demand as manifested in taxpayer-funded student aid (Newfield 2011). Of course, the gap between the inclusive language of a public good and the actual exclusions of who and what kinds of knowledge got to be included in higher education was not lost on those mobilizing for social justice and civil rights. Yet this reluctance to recognize the excluded was part of a professionalizing knowledge said to be disinterested, a pursuit for itself, where educational institutions claimed an autonomy or separation from the demands of the civil strife outside their doors.
Many academic disciplines embodied a partition between inner-directed, pure knowledge, which academics themselves would govern, and applied knowledge that served a social or external purpose. Granted, this separation of public and private knowledge was already convoluted in a Cold War setting in which secret weapons research, strategies for controlling a burgeoning empire, or industrial research and development–safely nestled in their campus laboratories–could be at once sanctioned as part of the national interest and kept from public scrutiny (Simpson 1998). Still, the notions of peer review and autonomy became watchwords of a growing professional managerial class, which ranged from tenured judges and faculty, to partnerships among lawyers and actuaries, to the doctors and screenwriters whose professional associations governed who was able to work in their respective fields. The strength of these professional bodies, the power and influence of their members, provided the basis for the claim that the United States was a meritocratic society. The smartest and most talented would have the opportunity to succeed by expanding the knowledge base of a rational and enlightened social order (Jencks and Reisman 1968; Touraine  1997).
By the bluntest measure of occupational category, the professional managerial class has grown precipitously from around 11 percent in 1960 to nearly 40 percent of the workforce 50 years later, making it by far the largest job type (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013). Higher education's own expansion has followed suit, with less than half of high school graduates enrolling in college in 1960 to more than three-quarters attending in 2010 when matriculated students topped twenty million (up from 4 million). By 1976, after more than two decades of civil rights struggles, 82.6 percent of college students were white and 15 percent were students of color. By 2010, those numbers had changed to 60 percent white and 36 percent students of color.
Growth, however, is not the same as equity. Faculty of color, at 18 percent, are half their corresponding percentage of the student body; students of color earn proportionately fewer degrees than their white counterparts, and graduate on average with higher debt loads. The largest growth in higher education institutions is among for-profit or proprietary schools, which now number more than 3,000. Two-year proprietary campuses have a majority of minority students, who also incur the greatest debt, the highest default rates, and the lowest likelihood of completion (National Center for Education Statistics 2012). At more than a trillion dollars, student debt has exceeded consumer debt, and stringent bankruptcy regulations have resulted in 6 million students in default (Collinge 2010; Project on Student Debt 2013). What once stood as an engine of mobility is now a machinery of debt.
Mounting student debt is both a sign of and a precipitate for the shift in the promise and purpose of higher education wherein what was once considered a public good is now treated as a private good. For students, this means viewing education as an investment that would yield a return that could justify indebtedness. For the institutions, a similar change has taken place whereby full participation in the knowledge society means viewing education as an industrial product or intellectual property that would be managed as a return on investment whose ultimate measure would be a position in college rankings.
This change has been under way for the past 30 years, and perhaps the signal policy marker was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which permitted campuses to keep the revenue from patents they filed on research funded by federal grants. This appeared at once a solution to reductions in government contributions and a way to expand necessary infrastructure or at least to drive construction for relevant research facilities. In the decades since Bayh-Dole, higher education has increased its patents sevenfold but remains only 5 percent of the total patents filed. Accordingly, universities lost the rationale of education for itself, which distinguished them from other institutions and confronted challenges of how to justify further public funding (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004).
The story of lost autonomy for institutions could be told for the professional managerial class as well. Industrialization of knowledge industries, like manufacturing before it, transforms the workforce from independent craft producers to dependent toilers subject to the supervisory controls of others. It was not supposed to be this way. In the 1960s, the rise of a self-interested caste of experts concerned with technocratic rule was derided as the emergence of "the new mandarins" (Chomsky 1969). In the 1970s, the relations between knowledge and power received a full hearing from many quarters as concerns were raised that the powers of the professional managerial class would be lorded over the working class (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1977). But in certain key aspects, by the 1980s, many of the mental workers were starting to resemble the manual workers they might have once disdained.
Granted, some of these employees are very well paid, but their occupations have seen their powers of self-governance, shared institutional authority, and autonomy seriously eroded. In simple terms, managerialism took over professionalism. For the professoriate, tenure shifted from the rule to the exception among faculty, as the majority of teaching was done by an increasingly contingent and precarious workforce. Concomitantly, doctors traded private practice for managed care, and attorneys lost stability of employment. Expertise would be valued less for its specialized command of a particular area of knowledge than for its translation into measures of performance outcome by which all kinds of professional practice could be compared. Demonstrable outputs overwhelmed internally crafted professional codes as the new managerial masters demanded deliverables but were indifferent to the independent critical faculties of the knowledge itself. The professional managerial class would lose its administrative pride of place and would find itself under new management (Martin 2011).
There has long been a popular mistrust of experts. Yet the knowledge society seems to have yielded a series of knowledge failures. Witness the financial crisis, the environmental crisis, or the impasse in political processes. These bespeak a larger dilemma for those who could once count on their credentials to ensure legitimate authority. Experts were assigned the task of managing risks in a climate where those who effectively took the greatest speculative positions reaped the most significant gains. The net effect, however, was to make the world a more dangerous place. Consequences were shifted downward onto those laypersons who would be asked to pay–financially (the bailout), environmentally (the Gulf oil spill), and politically (the fiscal cliff)–for the crisis that ensued when the risks got out of control and could no longer be effectively managed.
Those subjected to these risks who could not bear them were termed populations "at risk." The phrase was popularized in a 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," commissioned by the Reagan administration and meant to rationalize the elimination of the Department of Education to open the door to religious and private schooling. Today, the Department of Education, a stalwart survivor, encourages the managerial turn toward high-stakes testing and productivity measures, enshrined in such policies as "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," which frequently treat teachers and their professional organizations as an impediment to progress. Colleges' singular pursuit of elevated rankings and ratings share these logics of outcome assessments that, as tools wielded frequently by technically minded administrators, catch faculty autonomy in their crosshairs.
Meanwhile, burgeoning student debt serves to sort the risk capable from the at risk. Academic decisions and what kinds of learning outcomes will be valued are circumscribed when education is treated strictly as an investment. The burdens of repayment and uncertainty of outcome are taken to be an individual responsibility rather than a publicly considered and supported social commitment. Paradoxically, when knowledge is converted to a private good, measurable like any other on a calculus of risk and return, it becomes all the more difficult to distinguish what distinctive good higher education is for.
For those in the nonprofit sector, this conflation of public and private goods may sound hauntingly familiar. As with higher education, nonprofits have experienced institutional growth and expanded professionalization, which might have promised greater autonomy and stability. Yet they too are being increasingly subject to measures of outcome and performance by market criteria that may undercut the justification of their nonprofit status, a trend evident in the rise of for-profit hospitals and proprietary colleges. With their roots in private philanthropy and volunteerism, the expansion of nonprofits has gone hand in hand with a move away from defined social benefits or government entitlements, emphasizing tax exemption for both organizations and individuals. The 1969 Tax Reform Act extended eligibility for qualified tax exemptions from the wealthy to those with lower income, while the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 cut taxes and subsidies to nonprofits while further expanding exemptions. This allows individual contributions to be framed as an investment while undercutting the sensibility that government can provide for the social needs of the population.
Nonprofits have often been caught in the sentiment that governments deny individual choice and create dependence, and their reliance on tax exemption has made them at least structurally complicit, with the impetus to cut the size of government through reducing tax revenues. Hence, nonprofits are expected to shoulder a burden of providing public services they are incapable of undertaking at a sufficient scale while needing for their own survival, irrespective of their own mission, to attend to the logic of diminished public revenues that are part of the climate of generalized scarcity and austerity. They are expected to deliver public goods through private means that can weaken the basis for articulating what those public needs might be (Brilliant 2000; Zunz 2012; Hall 1992).
The result is a double bind. Providing for the public good is presented by those in government as a matter of private discretion or decision, while the public sector is stripped of funding to deliver more to those most in need. From Reagan and the formation of the Democratic Leadership Conference in the early 1980s, to George H. W. Bush's "thousand points of light," Bill Clinton's "reinventing government" in the 1990s, George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," and present-day budgetary impasses, elected officials have joined the chorus of voices who are suspicious of the notion that government can provide for the public good. The inglorious consequence has been to narrow the space of policy differentiation to a disagreement over how far up the very top of the income distribution to extend tax cuts and exemptions while exacerbating the political chasm. The public spectacle is of politicians who lack the expertise to govern their own affairs. Meanwhile, monies that might have gone into the public coffers are redirected to those who already have most of it, rendering social welfare a private decision. Nonprofits–whether battling these changes or embracing them–are left to negotiate this slippery terrain. The tax exemption that has increasingly become their lifeblood exsanguinates the social economy.
Under the populist guise of increased participation in voluntary giving, economic growth and social equity are dissociated. For higher education, the emphasis on risk taking and investing was a path to translate public into private goods, which augured a conception of citizenship based on defined contributions rather than on defined benefits. This language comes from pension plans that fueled expansion of the financial markets in the 1980s but also came to shape the understanding of the proper relation between government and people. Rather than protecting all through nets of social security, risks and consequent rewards would be shifted to individuals on the basis of their personal capacities to invest (Hacker 2008). The benefits of government would devolve from emphasizing entitlement programs for those most in need to relief from sharing revenue contributions from the most affluent. Defined benefit programs bear the connotation of creating dependency on government handouts, while defined contributions allow the government to mimic the market by operating through an invisible hand.
In 1979, the poorest fifth of the population received 54 percent of government benefits. By 2007, that proportion had declined to 36 percent. Now the most generous government policies take the form of tax exemptions and "foregone revenue," or tax breaks, distributed to the wealthiest households. During the same period, the marginal tax rates on the wealthiest have declined from 70 percent to 33 percent, whereas for the top fifth of earners, after-tax income nearly doubled (from just over $100,000 to just under $200,000 in constant inflation-controlled dollars), while net income for the wealthiest 1 percent has quadrupled to more than $1.3 million (Congressional Budget Office 2013). In 2011, the total value of tax exemptions was $1 trillion–70 percent of which goes to the top fifth of earners (with households earning $100,000 or above claiming nearly 80% of the charitable contributions). Those making a million dollars a year receive nearly half a million dollars in tax breaks.
Further, while food stamps and unemployment checks (around $80 billion and $100 billion, respectively) are clearly identified as government programs, tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the well off, such as deductions on mortgage interest and health care costs (at more than $500 billion each), are much larger. Although tax exemptions are a government benefit, they tend not to be seen as such. Yet their extension places redistributive policies for housing, education, and culture in jeopardy because the poor (to say nothing of undocumented workers who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits) are now marked as undeserving (Mettler 2011). To make matters worse, as wages decline for those at the middle of the income distribution, tax cuts become a way for the government to compensate for the punitive effects of the market.
There are now more than a million nonprofit organizations, 36,000 of them in the arts (up from 21,000 in the mid-1990s). At just under $300 billion, nonprofits comprise around 2 percent of the gross domestic product–quite modest by comparison with total government spending, which is around 40 percent of annual expenditures. Nonprofits today are at roughly the percentage share of the economy that went to government in 1900 but are certainly not in a position to garner the resources that current government does. Two-thirds of nonprofits' revenue comes from individual contributions of rich and poor households alike. The poor tend to contribute a large share of their income, while the rich typically donate a substantially larger amount (but nowhere near the value of their total tax exemptions). Religious institutions, at over $100 billion, receive the largest share, with education at $41 billion, and arts, culture, and humanities at $13 billion. As a whole, educational and cultural institutions have been able to make some gains in fund-raising despite hard times (Salamon 2012).
But their success is very unevenly distributed. Two percent of the arts and cultural organizations receive over half the funding, while around 10 percent goes to poor and people of color communities (Sidford 2011). The corollary in higher education is reflected in endowments. Here, inequality is greater still. By 2011, these portfolios were making gains of nearly 20 percent after substantial losses after 2007 (although growth has flattened in the past year). Of the total value of $408 billion in such funds, three-quarters of that is concentrated in just 100 schools (out of more than 7,000 institutions of higher learning) and the wealthiest five schools hold more than $100 billion in their accounts (National Association of College and University Business Officers 2012).
Such success is said to be a mark of independently achieved excellence, which trumps considerations of equity. The fact that money has become such a ready measure of institutional performance suggests that the nonprofit sector, initially conceived as a realm apart from public and private, government and market, has only hastened the interweaving of what was once thought of as separate spheres. The threats to survival would increasingly have to be faced by each organization according to its individual fiscal capacities rather than the potency of its social engagements. Successful investments would cover for generalized disinvestment, marking failure as a personal tragedy and obscuring the ways in which all manner of nonprofit–cultural, community based, and educational–confront a shared predicament.
The squeeze of investment and disinvestment, the great sorting machinery of risk and reward, and the confusion and conflation of public and private have certainly left many poorer. But there are forms of credit and debt legible in certain traditions, practices, and trajectories of culture and community that are not reducible to a financial calculus. These forms of knowledge yield value that can be drawn on to point toward a different future. The growth of nonprofits and higher education is not only a function of professionalization and institutionalization but also a response to widespread movements for social justice and societal change. Key to these movements was an expansive and animating force of culture that shifted it into the public realm and reoriented visions of what social life could be. Community came to embody an orienting location that served as a renewable resource to ground the assertion of distinctive values and voices.
Yet culture and community are also slippery in meaning and can prove elusive as a basis for orienting political decisions–an expression of their contested pasts and presents. Conceptually, community is used in so many ways that it is often more confusing than clarifying. It can refer to any agglomeration of people linked by practical affiliation, identification, or location, so it can apply equally to businesses, dentists, break dancers, residents of a neighborhood, women, Latinas, or the world. Accordingly, each person is part of many communities, and the term muddles social distinctions of power and privilege both within and among these groupings. In the social sciences, community consisted of the face-to-face interactions that were contrasted with the abstract and impersonal relations of large-scale society.
Modernization entailed the move from community to society, a process of increasing complexity and differentiation referred to as "development." In simple terms, primitives were to grow up or develop to become moderns, a presumption that all people would submissively imitate the path of self-proclaimed advanced societies without interrogating where that road led and what it would cost in human and in cultural terms to traverse it (Rostow 1962). Of course, people did not submit passively. They held onto their ways of life, even as they were violently incorporated into the modern world. This presumed recidivism to a more conservative, enclosed human nature was referred to as "culture lag" (Ogburn 1922). Community, in this sense, could pose a problem for the unquestioned course of development, for it came to stand for the cultural integrity that people construct in the face of the onslaught of colonial conquest, capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization.
The meaning of community to emerge from civil rights and other social movements conceived of it as a common cultural endowment of those subordinated through these dominating social processes to resist their baleful effects and assert differing values and orientations. Indeed, what is now referred to in a more politically engaged sense as community is deeply implicated in these histories of collective cultural creativity. Community in its activist and grassroots expressions bore the aspirations to expand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of knowledge and sense-making. With complex and varied antecedents, the intellectual and political movements of decolonization articulated in the 1950s and 1960s made their own global linkages that marked a break from the imperialistic assignment of the cultural to the realm of the private (Fanon 2005; Ngũgĩ 1986; Jameson 1984).
Each of these decolonizations in its own way ruptured the enclosure of some fixed and traditional ideal of culture–whether attached to nature/the environment/the rural, race/gender/sexuality, or colonized/developing/third world–and unleashed various emancipatory social movements. Culture is no longer confined to some conception of domesticity and social reproduction, or human and geographical nature, but now moves across the divide of public and private, which was used to sort what could count as political and what could not. The cultural was not simply a subject of these various social movements but was an agent as well–indeed, culture signaled different ways of knowing, a shift in the form, content, expression, and context of what could be valued as knowledge, and as which bodies and kinds of creativity could be seen, heard, and felt in the world. Culture in this regard was not strictly conservative of tradition or compensatory for the disruptions of modern society, but mobilizing. It compelled action; it figured possibility and mapped connection.
Culture and community attached to decolonizing movements sought to make public, active, and political what had once been relegated to the private, silenced, and invisible. The trick for those who law and institutions of power were designed to serve was to extend the categories of participation while containing the contestation over what it meant to participate. Differences of race, class, gender, and citizenship status could presumably be made formally equal or equivalent without disturbing perquisites of property, patriarchy, or normality–though this turned out to be impossible if the power of these movements continued to expand. Rather, assaults and efforts to assimilate, dissipate, or redirect these political energies opened on many fronts. Some, like the culture wars, were plainly ideological. Others, like nonprofitization, were institutional. Perhaps most comprehensively, the cultural front was not so much excluded as partially appropriated and incorporated into the burgeoning knowledge economy.
The consequent forms of labor were called the creative class; the emergent forms of capital were dubbed cultural industries; even the dwellers of cities were subject to urban branding and cultural development strategies. The partiality of the appropriation was toward those creatives who might willingly or unwittingly abet gentrification and those industries that could cross-market culture to various demographic niches (Florida 2002). Still, many were left behind, from grassroots exponents of cultural practices, to organizations and institutions that had emerged from movements and helped anchor various communities, to those improvising, inventing, and disseminating emergent forms of political mobilization and cultural expression whether digitally with social media or in the streets in vividly theatrical and graphically rich assemblies and occupations. Certainly, decolonizing movements throughout history have met stiff headwinds, and that continues to be the case. Some of the banners for equity, participation, and difference lie in tatters; still, traces of the old and new forms remain intact and clearly worry those at the helm of law and order.
Imagining America is well positioned to reimagine a knowledge society. It is dedicated to reinventing and reinvigorating the democratic purposes of higher education. It is committed to elaborating what could be meant by sustainable, mutually beneficial, and equitable partnerships between campus and community. It looks backward and forward at the places where arts, design, and humanities articulate with decolonizing cultural movements to reengage and redefine the process once uncritically defined as development. Of course, this crossroads was not carved out by some celestial bulldozer but is already a construction of the changes taking place in higher education.
The prior arrangements based on professional autonomy, credentialized expertise, education as an end-in-itself, selective and exclusionary as it was, have now been usurped by managerialism, lifelong learning, and debt-bearing investments. The nonprofit model winds up eviscerating the basis of public goods it once relied on. Decolonizing cultural movements must deal with the partial appropriations of a gentrifying creative class and commodifying cultural industries. Government, as it is increasingly reconceived, has become a vehicle and advocate for the depletion of public life. It is therefore difficult to ask government to restore the public realm without also changing what government might be.
These are some of the structural features that have linked our fates and futures. Rather than seeking to restore lost autonomy, it is important to explore what can be made of this new array of interconnections and interdependencies. Of course, higher education, nonprofits, community organizations, and cultural movements are not one–each must be pluralized, opened up, and understood in terms of its own differentiations and power dynamics to see where opportunities for partnerships, alliances, and collaborations lie. Traditional disciplinary knowledge oriented toward credentialing and intellectual property is not adequately inclusive and expansive to justify rising student debt and construction-driven growth.
Partnerships, based on the methods found in community-engaged equitable partnerships, ground the purposes of education not simply in employment and property but also in what we would most want to value in our world; how we might tackle profound and comprehensive social problems; where we would turn to get a sense of conviviality–where who "we" are must be the object of vigorous scrutiny and organizing. A new sensibility would need to begin with the critical understanding of how we value who we are, how we recognize what we have to offer one another, and how we can achieve a future that is mutually enriching of social life and not simply economic growth. Community knowledge is essential for this revaluation of what the future can be, for it enhances the terms, conditions, and possibilities for participation.
For every matriculated student, there are five in continuing and adult education. Where prospects of upward mobility that had driven the expansion of the professional managerial class are now diminished, more return to school to retool their careers, rendering higher education a medium of lateral mobility and reinvention. Yet collaborative partnerships as part of the very fiber of arts and humanities expand the optic for considering what education is for as a social and not simply an individual gain. Community knowledge becomes a crucial social endowment that moves beyond the binary of public and private. The critical, collaborative, and creative capacities of community knowledge and cultural practices provide methods by which a complex and comprehensive collectivity can be forged, its differences engaged, its aspirations made legible, tactile, and audible.
Certainly, there are an abundance of partnerships that move beyond the passivity of service learning, the deficit and problem-based conception of poor communities, and the mantle of disinterest that shrouds conventional disciplinary knowledge. Imagining America can research, document, analyze, critique, advocate, and disseminate effective approaches to these partnerships, not simply of what works or doesn't but of what problems can be solved, of what needs to be gleaned, and of what view of society results. To the extent that Imagining America helps to convene an alternative network of knowledge makers, a different ethos for how expertise is deployed in the service of social needs, and what purposes education serves, it will already be part of a transformation within higher education that can only add to its ranks and influence.
But if this critical understanding does not also help make the community-based organizations and practitioners sustainable, then even the most robust commitments to the values of engagement and diversity may exhaust the available resources that communities must nurture for their own survival. Internships, field trips, and projects cannot treat community as a field to be harvested to feed well-rounded citizenship, but rather as responding to an invitation to attend to a responsively defined and generative contribution. Sustainability raises a whole arc of issues: How can revenue streams from tuition, bonds, loans, or other securitized assets enhance community resources? How to get beyond the conundrum of the revenue and measurement burdens in the profit–nonprofit complex? How to restructure credit and debt so that they benefit labor, culture, and communities rather than deplete them?
Sustainability entails asking what infrastructure seeks to build. Once we recognize that there is plenty of money to finance construction, we might ask how to redirect the world of bonds and securities toward the needs of a social infrastructure. This wealth can reclaim what has been lost in the environmental, financial, and political knowledge failures that are the symptoms of a disconnection between our capacities and our more generously conceived aspirations. With a total budget of more than $6 trillion, current government capacity is enormous, if only it can be more justly rethought and reallocated. We must orient ourselves to the abundance rather than to the scarcity in our midst. Indeed, there has never been more wealth, but also more expertise, more forms of knowledge, more educational capacity, more community organization–all told, a much richer palette from which to craft policies, professions, and institutions. But this vast productive machinery needs to be retooled.
Higher education has sought to position itself in places like New York City to take a lead as the engine of urban economic development. But the question of what kind of city is being developed through such schemes barely gets posed while billions in tax exemptions are issued and the value of education is subject to narrowing measures of outcome and success. The challenge of how to live through equality and diversity brings to Imagining America a policy challenge and mandate that can occupy our attentions for some time to come. A small organization can still have big ideas and set a large agenda if it can find a way to value knowledge differently. In this, the experience of how to engage diverse community partners effectively and reflectively may prove to be the most foundational resource of the organization and lead to a rethinking of what could count as a mutually enriching social life.
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