Imagining America Director Named Freedom Scholar

Erica Kohl-Arenas
Imagining America director Erica Kohl-Arenas is a recipient of a new award from the Marguerite Casey Foundation​ and ​Group Health Foundation​.

Erica Kohl-Arenas, faculty director of the UC Davis-based Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life and an associate professor of American studies, has received a Freedom Scholars Initiative award of $250,000. She is one of only 12 winners of the new award given by the Marguerite Casey Foundationand Group Health Foundation​.

Kohl-Arenas is a scholar of grassroots community development and has worked extensively with immigrant and farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley. She also has led research and community engagement in Appalachian coal mining towns and urban public schools. She is the author of the award-winning book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, which reveals through Central Valley case studies how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality. She is currently working on a book about intergenerational freedom fighters. 

“The aspect of this award I most look forward to is being in partnership with this fierce group of scholars,” said Kohl-Arenas, who earned a master’s degree in community development from UC Davis in 1999. “The award will allow me to continue research on social movement elders from the 1960s and 1970s ​in conversation with the movements of our time, a project I have been working on for several years. Some funds will be donated to radical movement causes, giving in larger amounts to grassroots organizations that I already support.”

Kohl-Arenas was hired to lead Imagining America in 2017 when UC Davis was selected as the new home for the civic engagement consortium of 72 academic institutions and cultural organizations across the nation. Imagining America brings together scholars, artists, designers, humanists and organizers to imagine, study and enact a more just and liberatory America and world.

The $3 million Freedom Scholars Initiative will provide two-year support for progressive academics who are at the forefront of movements for economic and social justice, creating the catalytic ideas for transformative change, according to the Marguerite Casey Foundation. These scholars of abolitionist, Black, feminist, queer, radical and anti-colonialist studies are working in critical fields of research that are often underfunded or ignored, said Marguerite Casey Foundation CEO and president Carmen Rojas.

Three other UC scholars — two from UC Riverside and one from UCLA — were also named 2020 Freedom Scholars.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science