How to Enhance Our Imaginations & Creative Talents for Positive Social Change

by Michael G. Cartwright
Vice President for University Mission  

Social change is not easy. Proposals for significant change are often fraught. Conservatives are not the only opponents of change. In very few places is change welcomed with near unanimity. Some citizens resist change for reasons of principle. And some of us don’t like change even if we don’t have good reasons for opposing it. Even “progressives” have been known to resist shifts in civic society when the changes take place in their own backyards.

These are but some of the reasons why positive social change requires a vivid sense of imagination as well as developing one’s creative talents. The UIndy mission statement recognizes that students not only need “to become more capable in thought, judgment, communication, and action,” but also “to enhance their imaginations and creative talents.” Indeed, it is difficult to exercise leadership in the absence of a fertile imagination combined with sustained creativity.

Isaias Guerrero Cabrera ’08 displays both in abundance. Indeed, I think we have much that we can learn from this alumnus. Those of us who attended the October 30thInternational Education Month presentation, had the opportunity to hear Isaias speak about his experience as an immigrant in the context of the political debate regarding the Deferred Action on Child Arrivals (DACA). Like the other two members of the panel, also immigrants and refugees from central Indiana, Isaias was invited to tell the story of his family’s journey from Colombia and share his perspective on debate surrounding the DACA legislation associated with the Dreamers.  He certainly did both of those things. What was especially striking about his comments on this occasion was what he had to say about the impact of his education at UIndy. I will have more to say about that part of the story shortly.

When it comes to telling the story of Isaias Guerrero Cabrera, Dr. Jim Pennell says that the most salient factor is “the passion he has for engaging people—all people… his selflessness, fearlessness, charisma, energy. Isaias is always focused on and fully engaged in the moment he is in. Sure, he is thinking about what is to come, but when you are with him, you feel like he is there with you now and he doesn’t want to be somewhere else. He is genuinely who he is, and he treats everyone with respect and generosity. But he is not afraid to speak out about injustice. When he speaks about it, you feel like you really need to do something, it must be done, and you can play an important role.”

Members of the sociology faculty remember Isaias as a student who “made the most of the opportunities given to him” despite the obstacles he faced. Dr. Jim Pennell offers a mental image: “Isaias [rode] all over the city on his bicycle to get to meetings because he couldn’t drive, but he would get where he had to go despite being unable to get a driver’s license. And he was fearless. He would go anywhere to meet with young Latino people” in the city of Indianapolis.

When Isaias Guerrero looks back on his student years at UIndy, he can see some of the ways that he was educated to exercise a vivid imagination, as well as to develop creativity in the fields of sociology and international relations. In addition to various courses that he took in the Sociology and International Relations programs, he also recalls several memorable experiences that helped to shape his self-understanding as an advocate of social change.

He remembers the trip he took with Dr. Tim Maher to Golden Hill neighborhood where he and other students learned about social segregation. At the same time, he was studying “how to create spaces to imagine the world as it could be.” He thinks about the classes that he took at the Wheeler Arts Center where he encountered some of the amazing artists in Indianapolis. He found new avenues for expressing his convictions by networking with social activists and artists.

As he learned more about the history of social movements and the sociology of social change, he started applying it to his own life. “I began to put things in context: why we migrated, why we fell into deportation proceedings, etc. I began to understand the narratives that were at the root of my experience.” Some stories cultivate a sense of powerlessness or make immigrants feel empowered to take initiative for themselves and others. “Once I started to ask the right questions, I began to see positive solutions, an expansive sense of freedom…”

In Dr. Mary Moore’s Sociology of Religion class, Isaias learned to use tools to understand the intersection of religious commitment and social transformation. During his student years, Isaias learned constructive ways to imagine the world “as it should be.” Social theories provided windows through which he began looking at the world even as he learned to use new tools to combat forms of oppression. Ten years after graduation, Isaias reflects with gratitude on the many ways in which UIndy faculty helped him to “craft” his vocational self-understanding. “They always opened doors for me even—when I didn’t even know how to articulate the right questions.” Isaias truly appreciates the different ways that UIndy faculty “come alongside students and listen. They guide you as you grow.”

UIndy faculty revealed opportunities for growth and leadership development. For example, Dr. Moore connected Isaias to the Indianapolis Peace House in 2005. There he studied issues of urban peace and justice alongside students from Earlham, Manchester and Goshen Colleges.

Two years later, Isaias spent six months working as an intern at the Highlander Center in Tennessee—a time of great personal growth and leadership training. If Dr. Jim Pennell had not called it to his attention, Isaias thinks that he would never have known about this historically significant training ground for leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He remembers thinking, “how cool it was to stand in the room where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks” from the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) once gathered with Myles Horton and activists from the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee (SNCC) to plan social justice campaigns like Mississippi Freedom Summer. Jim Pennell recalls that the leaders of Highlander “were so impressed with his work as an intern that they invited him back for a paid summer position.”

Isaias also appreciates the friendships that he developed with several UIndy faculty around a shared love of music. Jim Pennell introduced Isaias to old songs associated with the American labor rights movement. Because Isaias didn’t grow up in the USA, he didn’t know much about the history behind movement songs. Here again, it is true that Isaias learned from his faculty mentor, but Jim Pennell also stresses the uncommon talent that Isaias brings to the music of social struggle that exceeds what he learned in the classroom.

Another excellent example of Isaias’ multitalented creativity is “El Campesino,” the song he recorded that emphasizes the dignity of the Latino farmer. Jim Pennell explains, “The song is very moving. And the performance is virtuoso… He goes between beautiful finger picking to dynamic strumming and back. And his vocal range is impressive and the vocal performance is nuanced and dynamic. I just listened to it again now, and it has the same effect on me as it did then. It’s a masterpiece, a beautiful piece of work of over six minutes in length and recorded in one take.”

While he was still a student at UIndy, Isaias began working with immigrant advocacy groups. He recalls the “Artists for the Dream Act” event where over 200 Latinos gathered at the Schwitzer Student Center. He also connected with Latino Youth Collective (media projects). The first of these, “Obstructed Dreams” (2005), gathers the voices of Latino youth who find themselves caught in a system in which their dreams of going to college are threatened by immigration policies. The second film, “Instating Attrition” focuses on a set of related problems that Latino students in Indiana have faced.

This video includes the story of how five undocumented students attempted to occupy the Indiana governor’s outer office (2011). They said, “We are not going to leave until Governor Mitch Daniels meets with us.” As Isaias explains, “The five students were arrested. Then, because of the community support, we were able to get them out of jail. They didn’t have DACA status. They knew the risks.”

When Isaias looks back on this period, he recognizes that he was “learning to apply new tools” in Indiana, particularly in the area of youth immigration rights. He also recalls with warm gratitude some of the practical ways that Indiana Senator Richard Lugar encouraged the efforts of Dreamers as one of the original sponsors of the Dream Act (2007), which was never brought to a vote in Congress.

Given this wide-ranging set of endeavors, UIndy readers will not be surprised that Isaias went on to complete a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame. During part of this time, he also worked in Colombia group of peasants who found themselves caught in the middle of that country’s civil conflicts. Click here to see how the women of Mampujan, Colombia, were able to participate in the difficult work of peace and reconciliation.

Isaias currently works for the Center for Community Change, D.C.  Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a coalition of 44 immigration rights organizations that are working with an even broader network of institutions to advocate social change. The encompassing goal of the movement is to expand the framework to embrace the “cultural definition of citizenship.”

When Isaias connects with groups of undocumented students, he makes sure that “the conversations are around positive social change so that immigrants feel safe to come out of the shadows.” This requires that he set aside “the poisonous narrative about who belongs and who doesn’t.” As we break the fear, “We invite immigrants to tell their stories of immigrants,” to recognize that “their own labor is a form of power” to be used to “push back on the attacks.”

At the same time that they are organizing this grassroots effort, immigrant rights advocates at the Federal level are pushing for a “Clean” Dream Act, i.e., legislation that is not attached to another bill that would require senators and members of the House of Representatives to vote for or against an unrelated agenda. In the midst of this work, some of the persons who have supported their work might surprise you. For example, Lamar Alexander, the senior senator from the state of Tennessee is one of the Republicans who is an advocate for extending DACA. This part of the work requires a different set of tactics and strategies.

Meanwhile, Isaias and his fellow immigration advocates apply for grant funding from various foundations for the purpose of building organizations. This is another place where Isaias calls upon what he learned at UIndy. Part of what it means to have a “sociological imagination” is to realize that citizens’ everyday lives are connected to societal structures and laws. To bring about positive change requires that immigrant rights advocates be capable of offering the kind of intellectually astute arguments that move policy changes forward. But offering persuasive arguments, however necessary it may be, will never suffice. The tactics of intimidation that are used to “obstruct the dreams” of undocumented immigrants must also be exposed and contested. These are some of the social dynamics that make it challenging for Isaias Guerrero and other immigrant rights advocates to do the work they feel called to do.

UIndy’s missional focus includes the challenge “to enhance [students’] imaginations and creative talents.” Notice that the operative word here is “enhance.” Dr. Jim Pennell is no doubt correct when he points out how over and over again Isaias Guerrero makes the most of the opportunities he has. UIndy faculty should receive credit for helping student make connections, but academic programs do not manufacture creative talents out of whole cloth.

If you are intrigued by what you have read in this month’s Mission Matters reflection, I encourage you to attend two upcoming events. “Engaging DACA: Hearing the Voices of the Dreamers” will take place in McCleary Chapel of Schwitzer Student Center at 7 p.m.on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. I am pleased to report that Isaias Guerrero Cabrera will be speaking at this event along with fellow activist Ms. Guadalupe Pimentel Solano. Immediately prior to this event (5:30 to 7:00 p.m.Kylie Harmon ‘19 will be leading the “Finding Your Place in the Story of Immigration,” a timeline activity on the second floor the Shreve Atrium of the Schwitzer Student Center. I invite you to join UIndy students, faculty and staff as we gather to learn from UIndy alumnus Isaias Guerrero about what it means to exercise a social imagination. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.