Erica Kohl-Arenas Selected as Imagining America Faculty Director

Erica Kohl-Arenas has been selected to lead Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, it was announced by IA and the University of California, Davis. Imagining America, a civic-engagement consortium of more than 100 academic institutions and cultural organizations, will move its national headquarters to UC Davis in the summer of 2017. 

Erica Kohl-Arenas

Kohl-Arenas will join the UC Davis faculty as the consortium’s faculty director, as well as associate professor in the Department of American Studies. She is currently a member of the faculty of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York City.

“Erica is a perfect fit for both IA and the UC Davis campus,” said Susan Kaiser, vice dean for the Division of the Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis. “She has a brilliant track record as a community-engaged scholar, bridging theory with practice in a way that is truly unique and groundbreaking. I know she will lead IA in new and exciting directions, building on the amazing 20-year history of an organization that has fostered public scholarship and a spirit of diversity and inclusivity across the nation, as well as on her own personal research grounded in California.”

Returning to Davis

Kohl-Arenas has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Reed College, and she completed a master’s degree in community development at UC Davis before earning a doctorate in social and cultural studies in education at UC Berkeley in 2010. Both as a researcher and community development practitioner, she has worked extensively with farmworker and immigrant organizations in California’s Central Valley. She was also one of the organizers of Tamejavi (of the Pan Valley Institute, American Friends Service Committee), a multiethnic cultural collaborative and festival in the Central Valley. She has also done research and community-engagement work in the coal-mining towns of Appalachia, in urban public schools, and, internationally, in southern Africa, Scotland and Wales. 

Kohl-Arenas’ scholarship and teaching focus on critical studies of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, participatory community development, grassroots social movements and cultural organizing. Her recent book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016), reveals how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality through case studies from California’s Central Valley. Her scholarship also appears in a diversity of publications including Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Social Movement Studies, Journal of Poverty, Geography Compass, and Public: A Journal of Imagining America.

“We are fortunate to have Erica returning to our campus where her research interests in community engagement took root,” said UC Davis Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter. “Her experience and relationships with farmworker and immigrant groups in our Central Valley are a big plus for us.”

Kohl-Arenas brings not only research and leadership experience in community engagement and organizational studies, but also a long engagement with Imagining America. She joined a cohort of leaders in rural Kentucky in 2016 for a summer forum focused on IA’s national economic and cultural development initiative, Performing Our Future.

“We are delighted that Erica has agreed to lead Imagining America in the next stage of its work, both nationally and regionally,” said Bruce Burgett, the chair of the IA National Advisory Board and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. “Her work as a scholar, passion as a cultural activist, and deep knowledge of the national landscape of civic engagement, along with her specific focus on questions of grassroots and community cultural development in California's Central Valley, make her an ideal director for IA during its partnership with UC Davis.”

The search committee comprised a wide range of UC Davis faculty across departments, including the departments of African American and African Studies; Art Studio; Biological and Agricultural Engineering; Design; Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Human Ecology; and Theatre and Dance. The committee also included two members of the IA National Advisory Board: Lisa Lee (vice-chair and incoming chair, as well as director of the School of Art & Art History, University of Illinois-Chicago) and David Scobey (senior scholar at The Graduate! Network), who co-chaired the search with Susan Kaiser.

“Our search was lucky to have a diverse, impressive pool of candidates,” Lisa Lee commented. “It testified to the strength of Imagining America and to the excitement people feel toward our move to UC Davis. But Erica was especially compelling. She has a mix of warmth, thoughtfulness, intellectual depth, and collaborative spirit that seems perfect for IA as we begin our next chapter.”

Media Resources

Kimberly Hale, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-9838,

Holly Zahn, Imagining America, 315-491-1787,

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