Foundation Watch

De-Imagining America

...because our college campuses aren’t far enough to the left



(PDF here)

Imagining America is a creature of radical foundations and the Clinton administration. Both activist group and grant-maker, the Syracuse University-based organization aspires to spread the ideology of “community organizing” to the nation’s colleges and universities.

Fifteen years ago the Clinton administration joined with left-wing foundations in an effort to fundamentally transform the way Americans think about their country. Since then, more than 100 institutions of higher learning have signed onto this campaign to rewrite American history and indoctrinate future generations. The goal, in effect, is to turn academics and students into left-wing community organizers.

The group, Imagining America, is headquartered at Syracuse University, a private school in upstate New York that, like most colleges, receives millions of tax dollars a year. Imagining America was virtually unknown until Glenn Beck threw some light on it in a broadcast last fall. Beck described Imagining America and an offshoot group that calls itself “The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture” (USDAC) as an “effort to rewrite our history and catalyze a new culture for America.” This “department” isn’t actually part of the U.S. government but describes itself as “the nation’s newest people-powered department, founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change.”

USDAC was launched at Imagining America’s conference in Syracuse in October 2013. It appears to be an ad hoc, volunteer-based organization, centered in New York City. It seeks to enlist “Citizen Artists” and “Cultural Agents” to spout Marxist drivel through performance art, similar to what Adbusters magazine does through what it calls its “culture jamming” efforts. This kind of whimsical “protest” seems none too serious, but sometimes it quickly transforms into grimmer fare. Recall that Adbusters was best known for spoofs of corporate advertising—before it sponsored the Wall Street event that spawned the violent Occupy Wall Street movement. (See Foundation Watch, January 2012.)

USDAC “Deputy Secretary” Norman Beckett gave a speech recently in which he rolled out the usual litany of leftist complaints:

“This is an era of broken systems—from healthcare to energy to education to the way our entire economy is structured. We inhabit a planet on the verge. The problems are complex, the solutions uncertain, but there is one truth we can hold onto: if we are going to keep our society and planet healthy, all people must be empowered to imagine and enact alternatives for a better world. In order to do this, to cultivate effective co-creators of new systems better aligned with equity and sustainability – we must deepen our investment in the tools and tactics that grow empathy, imagination, and the capacity to collaborate. We must encourage creative risks. We must nourish the artist in us all.”

It is unclear how serious an effort USDAC actually may be. Beckett concluded his remarks by urging supporters to “play.”

“Friends, we have a ways to go to get there. But what we imagine together we can create together. Of the world’s many crises, a creativity crisis is not among them. Indeed, creativity is one of the world’s greatest renewable resources. We have it in abundant supply. As Citizen Artists with the USDAC I invite you to harness that creativity in all of your changemaking work. In tackling the world’s most dire problems we need seriousness of intent, of course, but we also need serious play.”

Beck was not impressed by Imagining America and USDAC. He warned that the people who are active in both groups “will be teaching and influencing your children” through “art and music and film and history books.”

America’s neo-Marxist radicals figured out a long time ago how to have their cake and eat it, too. U.S. taxpayers have been funding subversive left-wing groups like the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation since the LBJ administration. They advance their objectives, erode civil society, and send you the bill.

The Left already dominates the main organs of culture and knowledge-creation in American society—the media, the arts community including Hollywood, and academia—and now it seeks to further diminish whatever remains of civil society, rewriting U.S. history along the lines of Communist Party USA member Howard Zinn’s bestselling book-length fable, A People’s History of the United States.

Creation Story
Imagining America grew out of executive action.

President Bill Clinton created the White House Millennium Council by Executive Order 13072 on Feb. 2, 1998. One of the council’s tasks was to “produce informational and resource materials to educate the American people concerning our Nation’s past and to inspire thought concerning the future.” This taxpayer-supported, culture war-waging council was headed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Imagining America was founded at a 1999 White House Conference initiated by the White House Millennium Council, the University of Michigan, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Conference participants became the basis for what was to become the group’s “consortium” of 100-plus colleges and universities.

It just so happens that John Podesta was President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff at the time of the conference. As DiscoverTheNetworks has reported, Podesta helped to suppress numerous federal investigations into Clinton’s wrongdoings and helped short-circuit the Clinton impeachment proceedings by cutting backroom deals. He also pushed Clinton to circumvent the Constitution and Congress by signing executive orders and directives, initiating White House-sponsored litigation, targeting corporations, and employing other underhanded, extra-constitutional tactics. Podesta also helped to prolong the cliffhanger election in 2000, secretly working behind the scenes with Al Gore’s legal team even as the Clinton White House publicly declared its neutrality.

In 2003 Podesta co-founded the Center for American Progress, a powerful “action tank” and government-in-waiting when Democrats are out of power. (For more on the Center, see previous profiles in the February 2011 and May 2007 issues of Organization Trends.)

He headed the organization for eight years. Since Jan. 1 of this year Podesta has been back at the White House, serving as a special advisor to President Obama. He was previously co-chairman of the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008. Imagining America has his fingerprints all over it.

Imagining America was initially hosted by the University of Michigan. In 2007 Syracuse University took over as temporary home of IA. Syracuse is scheduled to remain as IA’s institutional host through 2017.

Radical Objectives
Imagining America or IA (its full name is Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life) resembles many radical groups in the way it couches its goals in soothing, innocuous-sounding prose.

“Imagining America,” according to its current mission statement, “advances knowledge and creativity through publicly engaged scholarship that draws on humanities, arts, and design. We catalyze change in campus practices, structures, and policies that enables publicly engaged artists and scholars to thrive and contribute to community action and revitalization.”

According to IA, publicly engaged scholarship “is defined by partnerships of university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, creative activity, and public knowledge; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address and help solve critical social problems; and contribute to the public good.”

Publicly engaged scholarship, also called simply public scholarship, means politicized scholarship. It is not about the free pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In other words, going to college is not about the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and truth. It’s about righting the perceived wrongs of the past and changing society in furtherance of so-called social justice.

In the hands of leftist crusaders, many of the above words in IA’s mission statement don’t mean what you might think they mean. For example, when these people use the word democracy or democratic, they mock democracy as the idea is understood by most Americans. They believe in what the Left calls economic democracy, also known as socialism. The prospect of reordering society with the help of other capitalism-hating agitators helps them get out of bed in the morning. They want to rip apart America and then stitch her back together to fit their own design.

Radicals have twisted the meaning of the word beyond all recognition so that to them democracy is something approaching the Marxist concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” And it’s only true democracy if they prevail. If they lose, it’s not democracy: the capitalists stole the election or took advantage of the people, who suffer from a mass “false consciousness.”

To cut through the billowy clouds of word smog generated by leftist academics, it is necessary to examine what the ideas embraced by Imagining America truly amount to. Take the case of socialist theorist and community organizer Harry Boyte, who is director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College in Minneapolis (Augsburg is a member of IA’s consortium of colleges.)

In a video intended for public consumption that promotes Imagining America’s national conference this October in Atlanta, Boyte urged the fusion of higher education and left-wing activism, a.k.a. “community organizing.”

“I want to lift up organizing as a supplement. It’s different than action. In fact, organizing is not mobilizing. It’s not people out in the streets in a protest mode. It’s the patient, slow development of relationships that build power…. This is actually an extraordinary pioneering step for Imagining America to be bringing in organizing methods to which people in higher education, and connected to the world, can make our work more public.”

Academic Scott J. Peters, co-director of Imagining America, said his group is tasked with “producing knowledge and theory and writings but the most substantial part of that work is actually building relationships, organizing opportunities for people to understand what they’re facing, to come together to share their values and experiences, and then to try to make the changes that will help advance their values and their ideals. That work is organizing work.”

“There’s a tension that organizers are always working and that’s the tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be,” said Peters, paraphrasing Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, the vade mecum of the organizing world.

“Well, the ‘story of now’ is a story that helps us see and feel that tension,” Peters said in a reference to what community organizing theorist Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government calls the “public narrative” framework. “We can see that the world as it is, ‘the story of now,’ is not the same thing as the world we’d like it to be, so therefore we’re called to act.”

Peters is also part of the leadership team for a dubious research project that received $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project is called “Food Dignity: Action Research on Engaging Food Insecure Communities and Universities in Building Sustainable Community Food Systems.”

When you’re a Marxist, America is always in crisis. Kevin Bott, an associate director at IA, said the group “is at a particularly interesting and ripe moment to assert arts, humanities, and design thinking as a way to get [at] the heart of the crisis that we all find ourselves in locally, nationally, and globally, politically, socially, economically.” Bott was also the Green Party’s unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Syracuse last year.

George J. Sanchez, vice dean for diversity at the University of Southern California, declared that IA examines “huge issues for the country and I think, again, we have to imagine a different America.”

Jesikah Maria Ross, a California-based community organizer who is creative director at Praxis Projects, said IA “is really looking at, how do we bring together faculty, students from different disciplines with community organizations to kind of co-create something whether it’s an artistic production or engaged scholarship in a publication. How do we do something together for mutual benefit that moves community organizing and community change forwards?”

Fresh from the politically correct indoctrination camp, Ryan Metzler, a student in Occidental College’s Media Arts & Culture Program, parrots the things that Imagining America wants to hear, complete with appropriately tortured postmodern diction, neo-Marxist buzzwords, and trendy academic gibberish. In a testimonial on the IA website he writes:

My work is informed by the belief that media makers have a responsibility to collaborate with and integrate marginalized communities into documentary films and other media projects in order to transform problematic representations…. Media makers must take responsibility as a democratic community to break stereotypes by giving voices to men and women who lack the technological resources…. We as a society cannot forget the history of media practices. As a society we cannot practice such an influential art without all groups having a voice.

This is the language of relativism and multiculturalism, both of which are tools the Left uses to weaken and transform America. The first obligation of media “makers,” as the student calls documentarians and journalists, is to push so-called social justice and allow disadvantaged groups a veto over their work, he claims. After years of PC brainwashing, truth is apparently not important to him.

Not surprisingly, Imagining America requires fellows in its Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) program to read the Marxist journal Monthly Review, and works by communists like W.E.B. DuBois.

Among the course offerings for which Syracuse University faculty members have received IA grants are “Jazz and Human Rights as Cultural Democracy” and “Queering Syracuse.” A grant was also given for a course called “Masks, Movement, and Giant Puppets,” which sounds as if could be taught by anti-American radical Medea Benjamin of Code Pink (see Organization Trends, December 2006).

Foundation Involvement
Foundations are deeply involved in Imagining America’s work. On its website, IA lists three philanthropies as its “affiliates.” They are the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (2012 assets: $1.8 billion), Nathan Cummings Foundation (2011 assets: $403 million), and Teagle Foundation (2012 assets: $141 million).

The Kauffman Foundation underwrites IA’s Engagement Fellows program. The Cummings Foundation funded IA’s 2007-2008 Curriculum Project research, “which informed its current Assessing the Practices of Public Scholarship initiative.” The Teagle Foundation’s mission is to be “an influential national voice and a catalyst for change in higher education to improve undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences.”

Other listed affiliates are the American Association of Colleges and Universities and two of its projects—American Democracy Project and Bringing Theory to Practice. American Democracy Project is “a multi-campus initiative focused on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for our democracy.” The American Association of State Colleges and Universities created the project in 2003 in partnership with the New York Times. According to IA, Bringing Theory to Practice claims to encourage colleges and universities “to reassert their core purposes in educational institutions.”

The Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School is an affiliate. It facilitates “innovation and collaboration among researchers, practitioners and change leaders striving to reduce structural inequality and advance full participation, primarily in the arenas of educational, employment, and justice arenas” (sic).

Other affiliates are Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, Modern Language Association of America, National Collaborative For the Study of University Engagement, National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, National Service Learning Clearinghouse, and New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

Legal Status
Figuring out the legal status and internal organizational structure of Imagining America is no easy task.

When the University of Delaware received a $2,000 “Critical Exchange Grant” from Imagining America, the school described IA as “a national nonprofit organization that encourages the incorporation of civic responsibility into art education at the university level.” But this researcher could find no evidence that Imagining America is a legally incorporated nonprofit entity. A public database search in Nexis revealed what appeared to be an old, probably lapsed business listing of some kind in its name in Michigan, but nothing else.

It is difficult to imagine running an enterprise as large and active as Imagining America appears to be without incorporating it somewhere. If Imagining America is merely an unincorporated project of Syracuse University there could be problems in terms of commingling of funds and it could generate major accounting headaches.

But that’s exactly what Imagining America is, according to Erin Martin Kane, Syracuse University’s associate vice president for public relations, who responded to some of my organizational questions by email.

After rehashing IA’s creation story, she explained that IA “is an academic unit of SU that’s funded and supported by the more than 100 member institutions, including SU, other colleges and universities, and civic organizations. IA does not solicit, or accept donations from individuals.”

Kane did not respond to follow-up questions about how large IA’s annual budget was, how many employees it has, and if it produces annual or regular reports. That IA is an “academic unit” of SU, as Kane indicated, appears to be true. The SU comptroller’s office lists Imagining America as “department 20018” of the university.

Even so, Imagining America’s finances are very difficult to track, perhaps deliberately so. It charges taxpayer-funded educational institutions up to $5,000 annually in membership dues, which means that taxpayers fund IA indirectly. Grants to IA from foundations and membership dues from these tax-exempt universities and colleges that are part of the IA consortium should presumably appear in tax returns somewhere. But very little appears in the comprehensive FoundationSearch database, which contains data extracted from the compulsory annual IRS filings of foundations and other nonprofit organizations.

The database shows only a handful of grants from foundations that benefitted the group. The Rockefeller Foundation has been onboard with IA since at least 2001. That year it gave $150,000 to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation “to support ‘Imagining America’ public scholarship grants program.” The next year it gave $25,000 to the University of Michigan “toward the costs of a conference of the Imagining America public scholarship program entitled ‘The Engaged University, the Engaged Community, & the Daily Practice of Democracy.’” The New York Council for the Humanities, a taxpayer-funded nonprofit, gave Imagining America $18,000 in 2010. The New York-based Teagle Foundation gave IA $150,000 in 2012.

And there the paper trail of grants specifically designated for Imagining America ends.

High-profile left-wing philanthropies have given money to the University of Michigan and Syracuse University that may have ended up supporting Imagining America projects. Radical financier George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (formerly known as Open Society Institute) has given grants to the University of Michigan ($6,020 since 2000) and Syracuse University ($203,880 since 1999). The Soros-associated Tides Foundation has given grants to the University of Michigan ($35,000 since 2005).

Syracuse University has received funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation ($185,000 since 2001), a frequent funder of Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizing projects, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, ($638,800 since 2000), and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation ($392,600 since 2009). (The Nathan Cummings Foundation was profiled in the December 2013 Foundation Watch.)

“Politics is downstream from culture,” the late media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart liked to say frequently when explaining how the deck has been stacked against conservatives for decades. At Breitbart’s website, screenwriter and producer Lawrence Meyers elaborated:

Culture influences politics, and in ways the Left has understood for a long time. The Right has sat idly by, as they did with higher education, and let an ideological movement take over one of the most important aspects of American society.

Because conservatives have largely ignored the culture, they have ceded vitally important territory to those who want to fundamentally transform America. Absent conservative input, the messaging embedded in American culture reinforces left-wing narratives, according to Meyers, author of Inside the TV Writer’s Room: Practical Advice for Succeeding in Television. He writes:

Think about movies and TV. Corporations are evil—using unwitting poor Africans for pharmaceutical testing (Constant Gardener) or dumping toxic chemicals into nature (Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action) or responsible for the end of mankind (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). American soldiers are bloodthirsty lawbreaking maniacs (Any military film). The CIA conducts illegal, secret operations that have nothing to do with protecting America. Radical Muslim terrorists are never villains. Trial lawyers are crusading do-gooders.

And where do Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers find their ideas about America? Largely from academia and the media whose influence permeates the whole culture. As a consequence, over time Americans’ resistance to big government, tax increases, radical social engineering, and the other malevolent projects of the Left has weakened. America used to be a center-right nation, but in the age of Obama, that’s not so clear anymore. American values seem to be shifting.

Imagining America is at the center of it all, accompanied by neo-Marxist activists and organizers who cheer our republic’s decline and teach Americans to despise their country.

The Obama administration is helping the group accomplish its mission. In early 2012, IA proudly announced it was working with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the U.S. Department of Education, and various groups to publicly launch the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), “a yearlong initiative to promote higher education as an agent of democracy and a force for public good” (emphasis added).

The director of ACP was socialist organizer Harry Boyte. IA’s Peters and his fellow co-director Timothy K. Eatman were also both members of ACP’s steering committee.

With taxpayer funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) laid bare the radicals’ objectives in a 2012 report. In “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy‘s Future,” AACU recommended that “existing national civic networks … be tapped and expanded for leadership in mobilizing the next generation of investment in civic learning.” It singled out Imagining America, as well as the Research University Civic Engagement Network and Project Pericles.

At page 42 the report states:

If indeed we seek a democratic society in which the public welfare matters as much as the individual’s welfare, and in which global welfare matters along with national welfare, then education must play its influential part to bring such a society into being.

That’s the goal of Imagining America and the public scholarship movement in a nutshell. They aspire to transform America so that the collective trumps the individual, and the rest of the world trumps America.

Who knows how long your tax dollars will continue to support these culturally subversive goals? Recall that Hillary Clinton helped launch the narrative-rewriting effort in 1999, when she headed the White House Millennium Council.

Matthew Vadum is a senior editor at Capital Research Center and the author of Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts Are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off America’s Taxpayers (WND Books, 2011). (This paper is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared at




Alcorn State University
Allegheny College
Arizona State University
Auburn University
Augsburg College
Bates College
Binghamton University, SUNY
Brown University
California Institute of the Arts
Cascadia Community College
Christopher Newport University
Colgate University
Columbia College Chicago
Columbia University
Cornell University
Dominican University of California
Drew University
Duke University
Emerson College
Emory University
Hamilton College
Hendrix College
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Kalamazoo College
Kennesaw State University
Lafayette College
Long Island University
Macalester College
Maricopa Community Colleges (Chandler-Gilbert, Estrella Mountain, GateWay, Glendale, Mesa, Paradise Valley, Phoenix, Rio Salado, Scottsdale, South Mountain)
Marlboro College
Maryland Institute College of Art
Massachusetts College of Art and Design
Michigan State University
Millsaps College
Missouri State University
Morgan State University
New York University
Occidental College
Ohio State University
Oklahoma State University
Oregon State University
Pennsylvania State University
Princeton University
Rhode Island School of Design
Southern Oregon University
St. John’s University
St. Joseph’s College New York
St. Olaf College
Stonehill College
SUNY Fredonia
Swarthmore College
Syracuse University
The New School
Tulane University
University at Buffalo, SUNY
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of California, Davis
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of Delaware
University of Florida
University of Illinois at Chicago
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Iowa
University of Kansas
University of La Verne
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
University of Miami
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of Michigan, Flint
University of Minnesota
University of Nebraska Rural Futures Institute
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
University of Oregon
University of Pennsylvania
University of Richmond
University of Southern California
University of Washington, Bothell
University of Washington, Seattle
University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Vanderbilt University
Virginia Tech
Wagner College
Wesleyan University
Xavier University of Louisiana







Tags:  Alcorn State University, Allegheny College, American Association of Colleges and Universities, American Democracy Project, Arizona State University, Auburn University, Augsburg College, Bates College, Bill Clinton, Binghamton University, Bringing Theory to Practice, Brown University, California Institute of the Arts Cascadia Community College Christopher Newport University Colgate University Columbia College Chicago Columbia University Cornell University Dominican University of Ca, Center for American Progress, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Center for Institutional and Social Change, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, DiscoverTheNetworks, Erin Martin Kane, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Executive Order 13072,, George J. Sanchez, George Soros, Harry Boyte, Hillary Clinton, Imagining America, International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, Jesikah Maria Ross, John Podesta, Kevin Bott, Marlboro College Maryland Institute College of Art Massachusetts College of Art and Design Michigan State University Millsaps College Missouri State University Morgan State University New York Univers, Marshall Ganz, Matthew Vadum, Modern Language Association of America, Nathan Cummings Foundation, National Collaborative For the Study of University Engagement, National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, National Service Learning Clearinghouse, New England Resource Center for Higher Education, New York Council for the Humanities, New York Times, Norman Beckett, Praxis Projects, Rockefeller Foundation, Ryan Metzler, Saul Alinsky, Scott J. Peters, SUNY Fredonia, Swarthmore College, Syracuse University, Teagle Foundation, The New School, Tides Foundation, Timothy K. Eatman, Tulane University, U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, University at Buffalo SUNY, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of California Davis, University of California Santa Barbara, University of Delaware, University of Florida, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign University of Iowa, University of Kansas, University of La Verne, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Flint, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska Rural Futures Institute, University of North Carolina Greensboro, University of Oregon, University of Pennsylvania, University of Richmond, University of Southern California, University of Washington Bothell, University of Washington Seattle, University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Vanderbilt University, Virginia Tech, Wagner College, Wesleyan University, White House Millennium Council, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Xavier University of Louisiana

Matthew Vadum

The author of Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers (WND Books, 2011), Vadum, former senior vice president at CRC, writes and speaks widely…
+ More by Matthew Vadum