Recently, my research group, Civic Paths, released a special project, “Imagine Us, 2040,” which we developed using the Medium Platform. We’ve been spending more and more time as a group theorizing what we describe as the “civic imagination” and running world-building workshops with various groups as a means to inspire more progressive visions of political change. This process has seemed especially urgent to us in the aftermath of the November election and at the start of the Trump administration, given how many people have lost hope in the direction our country is going. We decided to apply this process to our own community and “Imagine Us, 2040” is what emerged.
In an introduction below, Gabriel Peters Lazaro describes the process which generated the project. You can visit the issue here. There you will find short essays on, for example, the future of technology and labor, alternative models of journalism, native rights, social justice, and my own reflections on what an ideal health care system might look like, to cite just a few examples.
The goal is to describe the kind of world we want to live in — an act of advocacy rather than simply critique. We’d love to see others experiment with this mode of analysis and critical writing.
If you’d like to know more about our workshops, check out this documentation of what we did last summer at the Salzberg Academy for Global and Media Change. I am just back from running a similar workshop with the good folks at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Introduction to Imagine Us, 2040
written with Gabriel Peters Lazaro
“Imagine it’s 2040 and everything turned out OK; in fact, things have have turned out fantastically. What does the world around us look like?” This was the opening question of the worldbuilding and civic imagination workshop that we, the members of the Civic Paths research group based at the University of Southern California, asked ourselves on November 28th, 2016, only three weeks after the presidential election. After brainstorming our collective answers to that question we each wrote a personal projection or story envisioning that future world and we share those stories here.
Imagining the United States as we would like it to be in 2040 may seem like an unusual way to respond to what may well be one of the most divisive moments in America’s history. It might seem that it is a reaction that rests on escapism and distraction from vital issues. But for us at Civic Paths it seemed like the best way to respond to a difficult moment. It felt like exactly what we needed to do to begin to collect our thoughts, mobilize as a community, and figure out how to guide our own responses to issues of politics and justice as they continue to evolve and arise. Giving ourselves a little space to take a deep breath and reflect on what we really care about and channel just a little bit of energy into visualizing a future world that we really want to live in seemed like a good way to face that moment and all the moments ahead. Now, having seen what the transition and inauguration have brought, we feel all the more affirmed in the necessity of this approach and invite you to read the stories we came up with about the world in 2040 and maybe even share your own.
Our decision to run this internal workshop was not simply an intuitive reaction to the election but in fact an application of insights gleaned from our previous research. Founded in 2009 by Henry Jenkins, Civic Paths uses public conversations, workshops, research, and the popular arts to bridge between participatory culture and civic engagement. Civic Paths’s previous efforts resulted in the NYU Press book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism and the byanymedia.org online resource for educators. For that project, the team interviewed several hundred young artists and activists to identify tactics and strategies by which networks of youth are able to expand civic participation via the practices and infrastructure of participatory culture. As Civic Paths learned, these networks also place an emphasis on personal and collective storytelling to effectively harness what we call the civic imagination.
We define civic imagination as the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political, or economic conditions; one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Beyond that, the civic imagination also requires the capacity to see one’s self as a civic agent capable of making change, as part of a larger collective which has shared interests, as an equal participant within a democratic culture, and as empathetic to the plight of others different than one’s self.
Working with community partners, Civic Paths developed several workshops around the civic imagination with the hope that they would help communities tap into and expand their inspirational and organizational potentials. The workshop we ran internally with our group in November is a variation on our “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop, which is a future-focused experience highlighting the power of stories as tools for fostering civic imagination and inspiring real world change.
Although our interests and perspectives are generally transnational in scope, we felt that the current moment called for a focus on the United States. Our brainstorm on November 28th was divided into two parts. The first part was a free-wheeling, anything goes brainstorm where we defined some key characteristics of the world we envision for 2040. The second part invited Civic Paths members to contribute their own autobiographical or fictional response to the world. It gave each of us an opportunity to really delve into that positive future vision that we had generated collectively, but in very personal terms.
The outcome is a collection of short stories and reflections that we share with you in this publication. We feel they capture our thoughts and visions at this particular moment, a moment that we feel will one day be historically significant. We also feel that by taking this time both collectively and individually to articulate some of our values and hopes for the future, we will be better equipped to make tough choices and take action in the world today. Each story includes links to other writings or organizations that are working in the areas addressed in each of the pieces and include topics such as healthcare, immigration, education, social justice and financial security. We also want to extend an invitation to others who may want to respond with their own aspirational vision for the world of 2040 and have included the full prompt here. Anyone can author their own piece and submit it to us for inclusion in this publication.