Exercising the Imagination Muscle: Notes from the Imagine 2040 Symposium on April 7, 2017

I wanted to share this report on some of the work being organized by my research team at USC. Our work on the Civic Imagination Project has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation. This research grows out of our last book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which was published by New York University Press. We are hard at work on a new book which will expand our understanding of the concept of "the civic imagination" and the events described here are, among other things, part of the process of ideation around this research. We would love to hear from other research groups that are exploring related themes and topics.

Reposted from the Civic Imagination Project website.

Photo by RB Photography

April 7th, 2017 marked an important step forward in the emerging work that the Civics Path Group is carrying out around the idea of the Civic Imagination. With support from the USC Collaboration Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, Civic Paths and the Civics and Social Media research groups convened a one-day symposium on the USC campus called “Imagine 2040.” The event brought together a widely diverse set of scholars, practitioners and activists from across the country and Mexico to think about the civic imagination and to consider key questions that have emerged from our initial work in this area.

We will be continuing to explore the outcomes and ideas from this day for the next several months and will have more in-depth analyses to share as we go forward. But we wanted to get things started by giving a quick account of the event along with some high-level takeaways and reflections from the organizers. For more background on the civic imagination and previous activities please see our About section and Chronicles page.

Photo by RB Photography

The Event

Although many of the participants of “Imagine 2040” are already harnessing civic imagination in their work in one form or another, we wanted to create a shared foundation of concept and experience to ground the event so we began our day with a brief presentation from Henry Jenkins and an abbreviated worldbuilding exercise. Dr. Jenkins provided an overview of how we define the civic imagination within our work and how that definition aligns and diverges with others. From there, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro led the group through an abbreviated version of a worldbuilding workshop similar to one that Civic Paths ran internally in the fall of 2016 in which we collectively imagined the world we’d like to live in in the year 2040.

After a wide-ranging whole-group brainstorm about the future, participants worked in smaller groups to develop and share back narratives about how that world came to be that included stories about sentient birds, participatory pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Before breaking for lunch we spent a little bit of time reflecting on the process from the morning. Participant Susu Attar, who also helped create the very first worldbuilding workshop that we ran as part of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, shared these thoughts:

I think the thing that I really love about the design of this is that you’re considering life on earth and then you’re engaging people through  imagination and creativity about future problems but also future solutions. And that requires listening and building consensus and then making something together….It exercises all the tools you need to really ever do anything in this life.

On our return from lunch we organized the afternoon based on The World Cafe model of discussion. Civic Paths research assistants Samantha Close, Raffi Sarkissian and Yomna Elsayed each led a round of discussion. Each round started with the introduction of a topic related to our collective inquiry into civic imagination, framed with a brief introduction and key points for consideration. Participants then spent 20 minutes discussing these points in small groups around their tables. Notetakers from Civic Paths stayed at the tables to share back summaries of the discussions from each group after each round. For each subsequent round, participants would move to new tables creating new discussion groups.

Discussion leaders Close, Sarkissian and Elsayed share their topics of inquiry and brief accounts of participant responses in the following sections below.

Photo by RB Photography

Round One: Imagination from escapism to escape - Yomna Elsayed

Topic Introduction

 To many parents and educators, daydreaming is negatively viewed as a sign of withdrawal, a kind of solitary confinement by choice that should be resisted for the sake of better involvement with the world around us. Inspirational videos circle the web urging young people to stand up and do something, anything. Somehow doing is more valued than imagining. The rapid pace of our modern lives, and the severity of much of our modern day tragedies, be it the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, transnational migration crisis, all push us to act, and act quickly. After all, we cannot see what someone is imagining, even our tools of description be they language, art or technology repeatedly fail us at capturing the exact details and at the same time vividness of our imagination when constrained by words, materials, colors or what is technologically possible. But like world events have become ephemeral phenomena, so have many of our actions and their effects. How can civic imagination slow us down to come up with civic, possibly better, alternatives that work to reimagine the world we live in, rather than just mend it?

In his 2013 talk, English author and fiction writer Neil Gaiman urged us “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

To Gaiman, “pretty much every form of fiction [including fantasy] can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in. So no, they’re not escapist. They’re escape.” (link)

These divergent views on imagination got us asking: when is imagination ‘escape’, and when is it ‘escapist’, and if there is a difference between the two? Whether imagination is self-sedating or if it can be used to pass critique and/or question reality? And if so, when does imagination become civic?

Key Insights From Round One

Imagination is an active process.

Initially, someone lost in their thoughts, a fiction book or a game, might seem to be a passive contributor to this world, occupying physical space without really contributing to it. Participants however, suggested that imagination can be a processing space, one that is suitable for building fiction, which can itself move us one step closer to a solution. In building up a fiction, authors have to strip away constraining details, thus allowing themselves, even in imagination, to move beyond physical limitations, noted one of the participants. In other words, to many, imagination can be a safe dynamic space for experimenting with ideas.

Participants suggested that even technologies that are often accused of distracting people from “real-life” such as social media and virtual reality sets, have a double function, to both engage and escape. Virtual reality technologies for example, can be used as escapism but also as a tool for empathy, they noted.

Imagination is crucial for activism.

With many of our participants working in activists spaces, the question “does escapism contradict with being woke?” came up more than once. Asked differently, can escapism or even escape be valuable to activism?

While the literal meaning of staying-woke may sound contradictory to the image of someone lost in their thoughts or daydreams; figuratively, however, staying woke is about staying informed and aware of the underlying workings of systems of power, which does not necessarily stand in contradiction with the act of imagination. As one of the participants suggested: escape in itself can be a retreat, a recharging period to reflect, make sense of the world and imagine alternatives.

For marginalized communities, imagination becomes a necessity when reality does not seem to be offering them much to work with. Therefore, they have to start by first pushing boundaries in their imagination: one has to imagine themselves in a particular space first before they can participate in it; it thus takes a leap of faith, sometimes. A similar tension occurs between art and activism, where art needs room to dream and imagine while activism needs a space to act.

Our participants partially concluded that instead of pitting escapism and “woke-ness”, art and activism, against one another, we should view them not as goals in and of themselves but as active and dynamic processes that work together to enable action. Once imagination is actionable, noted one of the participants, it is transformed from being an escapist route to becoming an escape route.

Round Two: Civic Imagination as a mechanism? Civic Imagination as a valence? - Samantha Close

Topic Introduction

Carrying on the thread from the last prompt, one of the enduring debates about both media and technology are whether they are, at their basic levels, empowering for everyday people and conducive to progressive political change or empowering for existing governments and corporations and conducive to conservation of the status quo.  Others argue that media and technology are fundamentally neutral; means that can be turned to a variety of ends.

You could ask a similar question about the civic imagination.  But this might not be the most productive question to ask—at least at first.  Rather than starting off debating if the broad idea of a civic imagination is just a tool, a way of doing things, or if it carries an inherent political and ethical charge, we are interested in when and how particular civic imaginations have been thought up and put out into the world in particular moments.

We asked participants to think of examples of civic imagination that scare, worry, or repulse them—what kind of civic world do they imagine?  How is that imagination expressed?  Then we encouraged them to think of some civic imaginations that inspires them or in which they share.  How are those imaginations expressed rhetorically or put into material practice?  Do these different examples of civic imaginations share anything, either in the ways in which they are expressed or put into practice?  In what is imagined?  If not, where do they diverge—what are the differences in how they are expressed, what they imagine, and how they are materialized?

After considering these questions we asked participants to try to pull back to the abstract level.  If civic imagination is like a mechanism, a way of thinking and doing, what are its key components?  What does an idea need to have or do to be both civic and imagining?  Is it possible to distinguish the progressive or inspiring civic imaginations from those that scare and concern you, to say something like “an ethical civic imagination will have these things”?

Key Insights from Round Two

Imaginations are civic when they are shared.

Participants had little trouble coming up with examples of civic imaginations, pulling together civic imaginations from current politics, history, and popular culture genres from music videos to video games.  But there seemed to be a minor divide over a deliberative/collectivist view of civic and an aesthetic, somewhat solitary, view of civic. According to the first view, when imagination is shared, it moves from the private space of our own minds to a shared public space in which it is engaged in conversation. Some ventured to suggest that even sharing one’s imagination is action in itself (and to a member of a marginalized community, an act of courage). The second view however, suggested that even private imagination is value unto itself, as it is also changing the person who is doing the imagining.

Collectivity is a necessary means but not a good end.

A sense of collectivity is a necessary means, part of the mechanism of any civic imagining, but it is not an ethical end.  Ethical civic imaginations must be built on the fact that there are and will be important differences between people—there will always be people fighting for what they believe in.  Civic imaginations that scared the group generally had in common that they imagined a collectivity of sameness, futures where everyone was alike in the most important ways.

To imagine a civic world, you must also imagine power.

It is essential to imagine power: what it is and where it comes from.  This is a shared feature of many civic imagination examples.  There does not need to be only one kind or source of power, but knowing what they are and how they are accessed is essential.

Round Three: From Imagination to Civic Imagination to Action - Raffi Sarkissian

Topic Introduction

The final prompt brought the discussion of the civic imagination to the work that each of the participants do in their professional and civic lives. In this round, we asked each table to think about how the ideas and approaches discussed throughout the day reflect or reinforce the principles and practices of their own projects. Is the civic imagination active or compatible with their own work? Alternatively, we wanted the groups to discuss potential obstacles to adopting the tenets of the civic imagination across the fields and spaces, both physical and digital, they occupy and intersect. Ultimately, we wanted them to think through ways we can put the ideas of the symposium into practice.

The ensuing conversations around each table were rich with inspiring work participants were already engaged in and raising important provocations as they synthesized the collective thoughts and experiences that informed the discussion throughout the day.

Key Insights from Round Three

Many of the participants shared that key principles of the civic imagination were already present in their work. The discussion around several tables centered on the role of media-makers in creating narratives of the civic imagination beyond what is available in existing popular (and often hegemonic) texts and formats. For instance, one group gave pushback to the confines of the traditional, linear model of storytelling, which included the world-building exercise from the morning session. They raised questions on how to tell stories about individuals doing great work in marginalized communities but avoid the hero/leader trope. How can we expand existing stories and avoid fixed narrative structures in order to tell stories about collective action?

Several groups brought up social media and technology as double-edged swords in that they can foster networked communication but also act as obstacles often slowing us down, whether by trolls, distractions, or exhaustion. Some cited the need to keep resistance alive but push it to the backdrop and instead use imagination to move us forward. Others noted the constant pressure they feel for civic content and outreach to be entertaining. Another table discussed the trade-off between depth of content and breadth of its reach in regards to alternative media narratives, especially in local artist communities. A few others discussed the challenges of inclusion when considering the reach of the civic imagination--how can the civic/political be inviting without being prescriptive?--and recognizing that some groups have been consistently fighting for these goals way before November 2016.

To put much of this work into context, one of the tables likened the civic imagination to a muscle, which needs exercise to grow and see its full potential. While many activists are already engaged in this work, those who are not as attuned to practicing imagination need to work out and flex that muscle. This was an apt analogy to cap off the productive day of collaborative imagination.

Connecting Imagination to Action needs a nudge.

One of the workshop participants, an educator by profession, noted that sometimes all students need is a nudge, possibly referring to constraints of an assignment or a project that encourage students to flex their imagination muscles and equips them with tools for tying their imagination to action. However, the nudge can be anything from a symbolic to a physical limitation that pushes people to experiment with other creative ways of circumventing their apparently constrained realities.

This is of course is not an encouragement for educators or decision makers to become more authoritarian so as to breed creativity, but it is an illustration of how civic imagination need not be only a goal, but also a starting point, better a methodology, whereby imagining civically is one of the ways for carving out an “escape route”.

Photo by RB Photography

Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the primary challenges of conducting such a rich and wide ranging event with so many thoughtful people is to harness and catalog the ideas and energy that emerged from that day. Our group is currently in the process of conducting one-on-one interviews with symposium participants. This gives us and them a chance to let some of the ideas settle and to reflect in depth on the themes and questions of the day as well as to explore possible future collaborations across the emerging network seeded at the event. This work is ongoing but we are already excited to hear from participants about ways the work of that day has stayed with them and about the kinds of creative actions that we are already beginning to plan going forward.

In addition to interviews and written work that we will continue to grow and share on this website, we were also fortunate to have the talented Greg T. Whicker with us as a graphic recorder. Throughout the day, John listened closely to the ideas and conversations flowing through the room and at a steady and focused pace, translated those words into colorful visual representations. Beside being a recommended component of World Cafe, we found the participation of a graphic recorder to be a valuable tool and wonderful complement to our engagement with civic imagination; helping to bring ideas to life in the visual realm and to expand a collective sense of vision and action.

The “Imagine 2040” symposium was a valuable experience for our work and has already influenced the direction of our next steps, helping us to continue to expand and hone our theoretical frameworks around the civic imagination. We are also looking forward to running more events in this model, bringing new voices and perspectives into conversation and growing the network as much as we can. We want to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated in our April event and who helped to make it possible. And we want to encourage any readers who may be intrigued by this account and these ideas to reach out to us for more information or to get involved.

Summary by: Gabriel Peters-Lazaro