Imagining America's (IA) 2014 conference was the result of an extended, deliberative, and collaborative process among three primary partners: Imagining America staff; representatives from conference cohost Emory University; and Maria Avila, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, civic engagement practitioner and, previously, organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. The three-year process fully informed the design and direction of the conference, including its theme, Organizing. Culture. Change. Early on we understood that the 2014 conference should be an Atlanta conference, with regional IA member institutions coleading this effort, with the result that Emory partnered with Kennesaw State University, Auburn University, and Alternate ROOTS, a 37-year old cultural arts agency in the US South. Representatives from these institutions also participated.

The efforts of those of us who played significant roles in planning the conference were visible from the first moments of the opening session, when Carol Bebelle read her poem, "Weaving Our WE," and at that session's conclusion, a devised theater piece that provoked attendees to tell stories and dialogue together about the conference theme. We saw and felt it at the Progress Theater's The Burnin'. Both were moving performances that resonated powerfully with the conference's focus on the centrality of storytelling and public narratives within transformative movements. It existed in the energy that pervaded many of the conference sessions, in the connection to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and in Doug Shipman's engaging and thoughtful keynote address. Yet we have to imagine it was not always entirely (if at all) clear to attendees that what had preceded those three days was not the typical approach to planning a conference. Rather, it was an experiment—a scary, stressful, exciting, and ultimately invigorating, long-term, interinstitutional process of exploration and cocreation.

The conference was grounded in a process of broad-based and cultural organizing. By organizing, we mean building lasting power in an organization (or organized community), which gives it the ability to influence key decision-makers on any number of issues over time. The power lies with the people—in the depth of their public relationships, and in their collective commitment to act in their shared self-interest. By cultural organizing, we simply mean that art and cultural practice are central to the process of building and sustaining power. Much of our cultural organizing consisted of people sharing personal stories and institutional narratives related to the state of higher education. Imagining America's national conference is the consortium's most important annual event, a key element of its larger vision: a culture that supports and values (rather than penalizes) public scholarship, democratic practices, collective leadership, participation, and the essential contributions to democratic life made through the arts, humanities, and design.

The activities preceding the 2014 conference were meant not only to create, but also to sustain, spaces and opportunities for engaging in collective leadership. A further imperative was to effect change, not just imagine it. This account of the collaborative work leading up to the conference, we hope, does both. That is, we: a) seek to engage a much larger set of educators and community partners in reimagining higher education; and b) to that end, have enacted one of the strategies of community and cultural organizing: sharing our stories. This is what, in our view, Imagining America has been working toward in recent years. Here we tell our stories of involvement in this emerging movement, thus becoming part of "Weaving Our WE" as Bebelle called on us to do.

Our stories reflect our multiple identities. We are a Mexican immigrant, community organizer, and now professor (Maria Avila); a husband and father, active citizen of Syracuse, NY, scholar-practitioner of community-based theater, and IA's associate director (Kevin Bott); and a native Mississippian transplanted to Atlanta, Spanish professor and administrator of community engagement initiatives at the cohost university, Emory (Vialla Hartfield-Méndez). We invite you to find resonances and dissonances with your own story of higher education.


1. Narrative as Strategy

A basic organizing strategy for bringing together teams of colleagues was telling individual public narratives in safe settings, with the intention of establishing understanding of self- and collective interest. The focus on narrative is grounded in the arts and humanities, but also allows for inquiry across multiple disciplines. As an organizing strategy, personal and professional narratives can be shared in groups, as in story circles, or in one-on-one conversations. They help build alliances of leaders that can engage in creating long-term, sustainable change. The telling of one's own narrative, and listening to those of others, reveals opportunities as well as obstacles to creating change. Such narrative sharing was an integral part of the institutes and workshops leading up to the 2014 conference.

Maria Avila: As a young social work student in Northern Mexico, in the rural areas of Ciudad Juarez, the organizing seed got planted in me. Migrating to the US in 1981 interrupted the growth of this seed. It took several years to find my way back. In 1990, organizing around environmental issues in Albuquerque, NM, led to my first Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)1 organizing training. I worked with IAF for 10 years, until "burnout" led me to leave in 2000. I worried that I could not possibly find another job that would feel so fulfilling and meaningful, and where I could feel part of creating societal change. This was complicated, because I thought I was done with organizing. I looked to higher education as a place to hide, at least for a while. I could have never imagined that I would experience organizing in higher education as a calling. Over a decade of working in civic engagement with three higher education institutions,2 I use community organizing in courses I teach, my scholarly research, and institutional and national civic engagement projects. Surprisingly, I experience a sense of fulfillment similar to what I felt at IAF.

Kevin Bott: Maria's story reminds me of how I felt when I stopped pursuing acting at age 30. Looking back, I never could have imagined that one day I'd be situated within higher education, drawing from my training in theater to advance large democratic goals within and between communities and institutions. In grad school, when I began learning about grassroots and community-based theater practices, I was drawn to the work of El Teatro Campesino. Founded in 1965 as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers, Campesino played a crucial role during the grape boycotts of the late 1960s. The company drew upon popular Mexican theater traditions to educate and energize audiences and raise funds for striking farmworkers. As I was transitioning from traditional to socially focused theater, I wasn't looking closely at its organizing aspects. I initially incorporated the theatricality and populist nature of their approaches, which I thought were the most essential ingredients for effecting social change.

I incorporated these approaches in graduate school while developing a project with formerly incarcerated men about their challenges transitioning between prison and the free world. The culminating presentation—a performance of sorts—was, by all accounts, powerful, even personally transformative for the participants. But almost as soon as the event was over, I understood how unprepared I was to harness the events' energy and insights. While creating a powerful aesthetic experience, challenging perceptions and understandings about reentry, it was also fleeting. I was not prepared to follow through.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez: I am a child of the South, raised in Mississippi during the civil rights era, but with little personal awareness of that movement. Only when I read John Lewis's Walking with the Wind (1998) as an adult did I begin to understand the connotations of my birth city, Meridian, for civil rights leaders. I eventually found my way to the study of literature and culture in Spanish and a teaching career. As a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, I volunteered to engage with children of Latino migrant workers in apple orchards, but it took me a while as a professor to understand that my work as an educator has a civic imperative as well, and that the way we teach and learn with our students will make the difference in how they then cocreate our society. It was well into my second decade teaching that I offered a community-engaged learning course. Once I made that turn, I experienced what Maria calls "a calling." In time, I became director of engaged learning in the Center for Community Partnerships at Emory, leading the Preparing Engaged Scholars initiative. That is how I became acquainted with IA, Maria, and Kevin.


2. The Story of Us as Strategy

Marshall Ganz proposes that individual narratives often resonate with each other and can be understood as part of larger, collective narratives. His construct, public narrative, is a form of storytelling that frames one's story of self into a common story of us. Braided together strategically, they point to the urgency of collective action around a particular issue—the story of now. "Understood as a leadership art," Ganz explains,

[public narrative] is . . . an invaluable resource to stem the tides of apathy, alienation, cynicism, and defeatism. Stories, strategically told, can powerfully rouse a sense of urgency; hope; anger; solidarity; and the belief that individuals, acting in concert, can make a difference. (2011, 288–289)
Led initially by Maria, the IA staff took up Ganz's proposal and began to practice moving from individual stories to stories of "us" and "now."

Maria Avila: How difficult it is to locate beginnings with certainty. Did the story begin when I met Harry Boyte in the early 2000s, and found in him a friend and mentor, someone to think with about the relevance of community organizing in higher education? Did it begin in 2008, when Scott Peters guided me in the writing of my first publication about my organizing work in academia, which then led to him becoming a thinking partner? Let's say that this story started when I was approached by Scott Peters and Tim Eatman at Imagining America's conference in October 2012 in New York City, requesting my help to create and facilitate a community-organizing institute in summer 2013. This request was followed by many conversations through which we cocreated the goals, content, recruitment strategies, and logistics of the institute. We also made decisions about what roles we each would play in the facilitation of the institute.

We discussed how we could place this institute in the context of what was then only a vision and idea about whether and how community organizing could aid IA in engaging with its member institutions in conversations to create culture change in higher education. We approached this as a pilot project in order to assess interest in using community-organizing practices in higher education. We pushed ourselves to define our self-interest: what parts of higher education culture we were interested in changing, and why it mattered to us. We shared personal and professional narratives with one another, which helped explain our values and our social and political commitments, and how we connected these to our work. This grounded me, as sharing one's narrative with others often does. It also gave me the courage to take a risk in this experiment that IA's codirectors, Tim and Scott, had faith enough to ask me to do. Tim, Scott, and I thus shared our public narratives and began our story of us.

Kevin Bott: When Imagining America gave me the professional opportunity, in 2011, to develop a community-based theater project in Syracuse, where IA is headquartered, I founded The D.R.E.A.(M.)3 Freedom Revival (DFR), an attempt to employ popular form and powerful aesthetics to create new democratic spaces, with an eye toward lasting social impact. But rather than realizing my desire to move beyond the ephemeral moment of performance, the project has concretized just how difficult such an aspiration is to achieve. The performances, followed by formal and informal discussions about the topics the shows address, seem to create good will, pride of place, and a stronger sense of "community." But are we making change?

Over the summer following the DFR's first season, Tim Eatman and Scott Peters were hired as IA's co-directors. Together, they began focusing on the IA National Advisory Board's inclination to move the consortium from organization building to movement building. Scott proposed that we seriously explore broad-based organizing, in the tradition of civil rights leader Ella Baker, as a vehicle for the kinds of cultural and political transformations IA was pointing to. Thus began an odyssey during which we have traveled together (to Los Angeles for IA's first organizing institute, to New Jersey for a three-day IAF training, to Cambridge for a one-day workshop with Marshall Ganz, and to Atlanta for the second IA organizing institute) and thought together about the many challenges of organizing toward a vision of higher education fully grounded in democratic values, cultures, and practices.

Maria agreed to join our team and lead the staff in the planning and execution of the inaugural organizing institute in LA. We experimented together, not sure what to expect, but excited by the participant feedback. Clearly, people in academia were both hungry for culture change and tired of endless activity disconnected from meaningful action. But the weekend lacked IA's signature focus on arts, humanities, and design. There was much debriefing and thinking to be done about another organizing institute, but we left LA knowing that IA needed to incorporate cultural practices and organizing principles into whatever was next.

Maria Avila: The focus of the LA institute was four broad-based organizing practices: one-on-one meeting, building collective leadership, power analysis, and reflection. One-on-one meetings are ways of building public relationships and are, for many organizers, the cornerstone of their practice. They are strategic conversations intended to identify individuals' self-interest and build public relationships with community leaders. As these relationships develop, individuals begin to see themselves as leaders, and feel responsible for advancing the community's or organization's self-interests, and acting accordingly. This is collective leadership. Power analysis is a practice of leaders working together to identify ways power is already distributed around a particular issue—who are the stakeholders? Who holds power? Who doesn't? Who could? Who are potential allies? Who (or what) is a potential obstacle? Mapping—part of power analysis wherein participants create conceptual maps of known or potential challenges and opportunities within a campaign—serves a number of purposes, and is a key strategy in any change campaign. Reflection, as we write below, is an essential part of any inquiry, and sharpens understanding, deepens relationships, and inevitably leads to next steps.

An intentional strategy of the LA organizing institute was requiring academic participants to include community partners in their teams. My own institution at the time, the University of Southern California, had a team of two faculty/administrators, myself as a postdoctoral fellow, and three community partners. Several of the 14 participating institutions included at least one community partner. This was an important step in our evolving movement to create culture change in higher education, especially because we are seeking to create a culture that values and rewards public engagement. Including the voices of those with whom we partner must be part of our strategies for collective action.

This institute began the process of identifying campus and off-campus leadership teams that wanted to be part of the movement to change practical and cultural norms within higher education that impede its democratic mission.3 A group of faculty from the University of Oregon shared their institute experience with a senior level administrator, resulting in a discussion on the campus, with mostly faculty and administrators, about what a culture that supports public scholarship might look like there. The Emory team shared what they learned at the institute on their campus. Vialla facilitated a follow-up workshop sponsored by the Center for Community Partnerships. This in turn sparked conversations about connecting the workshop with the planning of IA's 2014 annual conference, which Emory had by then agreed to host.

The spring workshop in Atlanta was critical in helping us to understand how to begin shaping it. This time, we focused on broad-based organizing (as used at the LA institute) and cultural organizing, which seeks to achieve the same goals, but which, as Dudley Cocke says, "means putting culture, including its concentrated expression—art— at the center of a social and political organizing strategy" (quoted in Kuttner). IA asked me to help plan and facilitate this institute, and through it continue the planning of the conference.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez: I had been at Emory since 1992, and was there when IA was established and Emory became a member, yet had not heard of it until I became director of engaged learning in 2009. That says something about how little visibility the consortium membership had on campus, because I had been quite involved in community partnerships and service-learning, and I was in a humanities field. It turns out that the membership had "lived" in a Center for the Study of Public Scholarship that had disappeared with budget cuts. Very little had been done since with regard to IA on campus.4

The more I learned about IA, the more determined I became to find a meaningful way to integrate the consortium membership into the life of the university. Though I did not know then what to call this impulse, it was the first step toward organizing culture change. Through nurturing alliances between the Center for Community Partnerships, the Laney Graduate School, and the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, we revived the IA conversation on campus. Beginning with a site visit by then-IA director Jan Cohen-Cruz that coincided with a seminar at Emory on public scholarship, and continuing with enthusiastic and concrete support from dean of the Laney Graduate School Lisa Tedesco, executive director of the Center for Community Partnerships Michael Rich, and then-director Steve Everett and associate director Donna Troka of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, we created a way for IA to have a tripartite "home" in these three places, with the Center for Community Partnerships taking the lead.

Several important steps followed: attendance at IA national conferences by Emory staff, faculty, and administrators; an Academic Learning Community focused on IA; Emory's participation in the research-in-action initiative Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education (this included my introduction to the idea of institutional power mapping or creating a visual representation of spheres of influence at an institution, one of the principal strategies that emerged from the IA institutes); and most importantly, commitment from the graduate school to support a 12-month IA graduate fellowship in the Center for Community Partnerships. This commitment made it possible for Emory to contemplate hosting the 2014 IA national conference. A pivotal moment was when two of our graduate students, Meghan Tierney and Shan Mukhtar, both PAGE fellows and both Imagining America graduate fellows in the Center for Community Partnerships, attended IA's 2013 LA organizing institute in California and returned to Emory with creative ideas about how the organizing strategies explored in the institute might find a place at their home institution.


3. Working through Challenges

Over the years, even as Imagining America invoked the language of transforming the culture of higher education, it was clear that higher education was already transforming, rapidly and in ways that were disruptive and unsettling to those working and learning within it. Often called corporatization, in many ways higher education has, over the past four-plus decades, come to resemble business and to adopt that sector's "best practices." Like business, it is asked to justify itself in terms of exchange value. Metrics, ratings, and rankings are used by an ever-growing administrative class to streamline services and maximize savings (if not "profit"). Economic reasons are used to justify such things as the creation of a precarious and insecure labor class, and for cutting "underperforming" courses and units. The leadership structure is hierarchical and governance is not meaningfully shared. Overall, the idea of education comes to be seen as a private good rather than a public good. Occurring over decades, the result of powerful global economic and political forces,5 many experience these changes as though they are happening to or on them. The Imagining America staff engaged Maria and then an Emory cohort in the organizing because it seemed clear that only coherent, long-term, strategic work could actualize the consortium's transformative vision of higher ed.

Kevin Bott: All of us felt a bit unsure as we began. What Maria was bringing to the table was challenging enough. But integrating various cultural practices—poetry, physical and embodied work, devised performance, storytelling, even games—into the broad-based approach was to walk totally into the unknown. I felt, not for the first time, how my lifelong orientation as an artist was challenged by my enculturation within higher education. Not only was I being asked by my colleagues to explain and defend the way artistic and theatrical approaches would contribute to organizing in higher education, I was second-guessing the process myself.

Ultimately, the challenges were productive and forced me to recognize pieces of myself that had been lost over the decade I spent attaining graduate degrees. For example, that there are many ways to tell a story. That the body is a site of memory and experience, and that embodied practice can access knowledge and understanding in ways intellectual exercises, or even straight storytelling, cannot. That a poem or a metaphor can reveal aspects of a question that a rational statement cannot. One aspect of the culture we're seeking to change is the fetishizing of the rational at the expense of other ways of knowing. As uncomfortable as it might be, I felt it important to try and disrupt this fetishization with approaches that would likely be experienced uncomfortably by many—even some on our own team, including, to a certain extent, me.

Maria Avila: Kevin is right. I myself felt more than a little unsure about being part of an experiment to combine the type of organizing I knew with cultural organizing. I questioned whether cultural organizing could lead to long-term, sustainable culture change. I was pushing Kevin to define cultural organizing, in part because of my organizing agitational role, but also because I was uncomfortable with the concept. I was not sure aesthetics could lead to creating change, or that academics would be willing to get out of their heads and into their bodies. While familiar with the value that popular education and theater can play in bringing awareness on social issues affecting communities, these practices were not included or named in my IAF training.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez: As we approached the summer 2014 cultural organizing institute, preparation for the conference was going well, and Imagining America had been met with enthusiasm in various places on campus. However, about a month before the institute was to begin, decisions at Emory were made regarding major structural changes in the university's approach to community engagement. These decisions came as a surprise to most of the people who had been involved in this work, including me. These changes might be read as setbacks for our work, and I experienced them as imposed, not emerging from engagement with the Emory community. After these announcements, even getting myself to the IA institute being held at Emory was challenging. As the chair of the local steering committee and Emory's principal representative for the 2014 conference, I was in unknown territory at my own institution, and uncertain about how to represent that institution.

The institute proved to be the best support I could have had at that moment. So many Emory colleagues were working with me on the Emory team; we were all creating something new together, which provided a great deal of freedom; and colleagues from other universities and colleges shared their own related experiences and fears. The story of us was a powerful tool from which I drew strength to continue engaging. The institute came at a crucial moment for a number of us at Emory. We were able to examine, in a critical but constructive way, the changes that had been set in motion; see them in light of similar changes across the landscape of higher education; and recognize ways in which we could still move forward.


4. Action and Reflection as Strategy

An important aspect of our broad-based organizing approach was the slow, patient, intentional, and strategic encouragement of collective action, followed by a cycle of inquiry and narrative, played out in multiple ways. In the workshops and institutes, we created spaces where our individual and collective narratives about higher education could be understood and shared. Through this process, we also created collective agency and a hope and vision of what higher education could be. But a cycle of inquiry is incomplete without reflection. A key component in successful partnerships of any sort, but especially in the university-community dynamic, this stage is nevertheless often overlooked, even by very practiced facilitators. In the broad-based organizing context, where sustainable movement over time toward change is the goal, reflection is a strategy, a way to identify next steps. Writing this article represents our first deep, reflective dive together; this final section reflects the notion of active reflection as strategy.

Maria Avila: I end my part of this story by summarizing how I describe and practice community organizing. First, community organizing starts with an idea or vision. Second, it requires faith in ourselves and others, and in the vision or idea's potential to become a reality. Third, it requires the courage to take risks, and the patience to do this in solidarity with others. Fourth, it requires an openness to accept and deal with conflict as part of community, institutional, or societal change. Fifth, it requires acknowledgment and understanding of power dynamics that help or hinder the change we are seeking. All of these elements were present at various points in the journey described here. Most important was intentionally and strategically finding the right people with whom to embark on a long-term partnership for thinking, learning, taking action, and reflecting together. This process is powerful, effective, and meaningful, and can nourish our minds and our souls. As I begin my new(est) opportunity to reinvent myself and my organizing work in higher education—now as a tenure-track faculty member at California State University, Dominguez Hills's graduate program of social work—I bring along the valuable lessons learned from this collaboration.

Kevin Bott: We left the institute feeling that we had taken a huge step forward. Scott Peters, who had gone into the institute with trepidation and uncertainty about participating in cultural organizing work, said that he felt "we had struck gold." One longtime IA partner and former member of the National Advisory Board said she had "been waiting ten years" for IA to engage arts and humanities in such bold, relational ways. As planners and facilitators, we felt we had succeeded in developing a more nuanced story of us. Much of what we discovered together led to the development of ideas that found their way into the conference opening, including Bebelle's "Weaving Our WE," intended to provoke conference attendees and to define the dynamic of the gathering itself. The thirty institute attendees reported leaving the weekend energized, supported, and hopeful. In the post-workshop evaluations, psychology professor Robyn Fivush expressed her initial reservations entering the institute, but how she left with a different take:

I came here as probably one of the most resistant participants you could imagine. I am not a touchy-feely person. . . . I learned so much from engaging in these exercises, and it reminded me that there's so many different ways to know and to learn, and different ways to understand other people. That's what I'm going to take away from this, and hopefully hold onto for a while: that there are many, many ways to tell a story.
Our successes have only underscored how difficult the work is that we've outlined for ourselves. As satisfying as the institute was, and as exciting as the past year and a half has been, I am challenged to support impact beyond the activities of the institute and the conference. Ella Baker described organizing as "slow spade work" requiring a great amount of time to conduct one-to-one meetings and nurture and develop relationships. As I engage in this first round of deep reflection about the process surrounding Atlanta, I am literally on the tarmac, sitting in a plane, about to travel to Baltimore, site of the 2015 conference, for my first planning meeting. How can we continue to take organizing seriously? How can we build capacity? What's required, if anything, in terms of organizational structure? Can I use and share the tools and approaches we've described here to link the conferences to one another strategically and work toward achieving impact beyond the individual events themselves, in service to our long-term strategic goals? Or am I simply on another wheel of activity? These are the questions I'm confronted with as I continue to challenge myself to walk the talk of organizing, and as I push myself to be a bold, creative, strategic risk taker in service to a larger ideal of a transformed higher education.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez: Looking back, I see that from the initial proposal that "some day" Emory might host the conference, to the actual IA 2014 national conference in Atlanta, there were three years of preparatory activity that were really community organizing. I share several important kinds of action, in the hope that these may be useful to colleagues at other institutions who are already doing this kind of work or who are contemplating possibilities on their campuses. A thread throughout this list is collaboration with as many partners as one can find.

  1. Institutional power mapping helps name the game. I have introduced this strategy into ongoing conversations at Emory on several occasions over the last two years, and have found that simply mapping out spheres of influence creates a certain amount of freedom for members of a campus community to embrace their own influence that they might not have previously recognized.
  2. Be in conversations beyond your campus and collaborate with other nearby institutions and community partners in order to have strength through a diversity of voices and resources. In addition to the collaboration with the IA staff and with Maria at the national level, the steering committee to host the conference had Emory faculty, staff, students, administrators, and many different disciplines participating, as well as community partners including Alternate ROOTS, and cohorts from Kennesaw State and Auburn Universities. This rather large group of people became the core for activities that I have come to understand as "organizing."
  3. Practice public scholarship. Meghan Tierney and I submitted a coauthored article about university museums and community engagement that was published in the inaugural issue of Public: A Journal of Imagining America. This was important because it required us to have conversations with staff members and administrators across the hierarchical spectrum at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, as well as with community partners and various others about their relationships with the museum; that is, versions of the "one-on-one" conversations of the IA workshops.
  4. Balance external structures with local culture. When we invited Maria and IA's leadership to Emory for a series of events in February 2014, we were thwarted by two inches of snow and ice that crippled Atlanta and we had to figure out an April time that worked. I learned a lesson from the organizing playbook: you come back and try again. The concurrent lesson was to be attuned to local culture. At Emory, there is a widely encouraged practice of involving as many entities as you can in your big event by going to them for funding and other support. This practice dovetailed nicely with the organizing strategies that Maria and IA were exploring. We had to tell our story and find resonance with the program, department, fund, center, etc., from whom we were requesting sponsorship or space.
  5. Push the boundaries of pedagogy and involve students. Professor of religion Bobbi Patterson and I co-taught a new graduate course on Partnering Communities and Universities in the spring 2014 semester, and fully involved the students in the IA conversation. We incorporated Marshall Ganz's "Public Narrative, Collection Action, and Power," and many of the students participated in the April workshop where the Ganz piece figured largely. We had a conference call with Public editor Jan Cohen-Cruz, and several students wrote drafts of potential submissions to Public as their final projects.
  6. Find the avenues that are open, even as previous ones close. At Emory, we are still in the process of understanding what the 2014 conference theme "Organizing. Culture. Change." means for our campus and the rest of higher education. The work with IA and Maria over the last two years6 has helped me find my way through these changes and continue to seek out new allies. For example, the work of the Commission on the Liberal Arts has moved to the implementation stage and includes a plan to create an Emory Story Project. This idea had emerged before the conference organizing process, but the IA institutes (among other influences) are informing its structure and goals. For example, a first step was an event with Salman Rushdie, featuring a conversation with him about his liberal arts education, and then story circles in which students, faculty, and alumni shared their individual public narratives of moments of self-definition within the context of a liberal arts education. We designed this project with several objectives, the first of which was to create more of a sense of community within the university, through shared narratives about ourselves and the liberal arts, then to see where these stories lead us. Kevin and Maria were wonderful thought partners with Sarita Alami (our current IA graduate fellow) and myself as we created the framework of the story circles and trained student facilitators.

As I have recounted the Emory/IA story of the last two years, a clearer picture has emerged for me of organizing culture change in higher education. It means understanding one's local context, telling and listening intently to individual public narratives, being courageous in coming together to represent those stories and create new stories of "us," looking for linkages among disparate parts of the campus and with community partners, forging strong alliances with colleagues in other institutions of higher education, and actively pursuing the corresponding change.

Bott, Avila, Hartfield-Méndez: As we hope we have made clear in our individual concluding statements above, we each learned a great deal about organizing as a framework for effecting culture change within higher education. We want to note how much the process of reflecting and writing together helped us to see, understand, and articulate what we learned. We're convinced that absent this process we would have missed crucial aspects of our collaboration and lost important lessons. We encourage and invite others to find time and space with your project partners to think and write together, and to share what you learn with the IA consortium and with others seeking to transform the academy. Working and writing collaboratively, sharing our stories of self, being willing to take risks that challenge accepted ways of knowing and deepen our relationships to one another, and engaging in deep reflection together not only strengthens our ability to capture what happens. These are the vehicles for enacting the very change we wish to see.



1 The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is the international broad-based organizing network started by the late Saul D. Alinsky in 1940 in Chicago.

2 Occidental College, director of the Center for Community Based Learning; Maynooth University in Ireland, doctoral civic engagement researcher; University of Southern California, Andrew Mellow Postdoctoral Fellow.

3 These norms include teaching and research disconnected from place and from external publics; relationships that tend to be short-term and transactional; leadership structures that are individual and hierarchical; power structures that are increasingly opaque and exclusive; and work that consists of "endless stream[s] of activities that are not intentionally and strategically connected, or are only strategic in an individual résumé or career building way" (Peters and Avila 2014, 134).

4 Two notable exceptions were a connection to IA through professor of music Kristin Wendland, who knew about the organization through its alliance with the College Music Society; and anthropology professor Debra Vidali, whose own work through the Re-Generation Initiative uses ethnographic interviews to devise theater about pressing current issues.

5 One of the best histories of the wholesale retreat from the idea of higher education as a broad public good central to a thriving democracy is Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class.

6 Previously, we have stated that the organizing work at Emory University was a three-year process. The first year was catalyzed by Emory's IA membership, but was undertaken by students and staff at Emory alone. The "last two years" named here, refers to the two years of Emory's organizing work, which was undertaken in partnership with Maria Avila and Imagining America.


Work Cited

Ganz, Marshall. 2011. "Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power." In Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, edited by Sina Odugbemi and Taeka Lee, pp. 273–289. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Kuttner, Paul. 2014. "What Is Cultural Organizing?" (blog). Accessed December 20, 2014.

Lewis, John, with Michael D'Orso. 1998. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Newfield, Christopher. 2008. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peters, Scott J., and Maria Avila. 2014. "Organizing Culture Change through Community-Based Research." In Higher Education and Community-Based Research: Creating a Global Vision, edited by Ronaldo Munck, Lorraine McIlrath, Budd Hall, and Rajesh Tandon, pp. 133–147. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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