Participatory Politics in the Age of Crisis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part One)

‘On Shaping New Civic Fabric: Reflections on the Role of Creativity & Culture in Social Justice’

Caty Borum Chattoo (Director for the Center for Media & Social Impact, American University School of Communication)

“What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”

A colleague posed this question in my office a few weeks ago. We were discussing a particular scenario, but I’ve let the query reverberate internally, evolving into a kind of compass to guide a pile of prospective projects. It’s a decent existential place from which to contemplate civic practice and my perspective about the questions that remain and the challenges that lie ahead.

Across different industries, I’ve spent my entire career in service of social justice through the means of media, storytelling, and communication. But only now can I see a deeper understanding of how it all fits together, and more importantly, how it can fuel new curiosities and contributions. A quick glimpse into the journey: As a public health and media researcher out of graduate school, I worked on a philanthropic team that collaborated with entertainment producers and writers to incorporate pro-social HIV messages into top TV programs, and then evaluated how audiences learn and feel and even behave differently after watching. In my work on a national youth civic engagement initiative founded by the legendary Norman Lear, our route to encouraging voter registration and behavior was enabled by entertainment and comedy. I produced (and still produce) social-justice documentaries designed to engage audiences around issues ranging from human rights abuses to environmental justice to global poverty. I was a senior executive at a global communications agency, where I focused on social marketing and behavior-change communication, a research-based strategy that centers around audience targeting and precise messages to encourage healthy behaviors and prosocial norms.

I believe in all of this work, but aspects of it made me feel impatient – or rather, recognition of the fact that the various approaches often work in silos. We were not nearly stretching past the safety of templates and industry traditions and models of doing business. We – people in service of research and strategy around social justice and the role of media – were not sufficiently coloring outside the lines and experimenting. Research-derived messages alone often are too clinical to compel people to care about human rights and social justice challenges. The entrenched organizational and cultural norms of each area of work – scholarly and market research, communication strategy, storytelling – often prevent the kind of cross-pollination that leads to innovation.  

Feeling impatient – and curious – sparked the career revelation and manifesto for my current research, creative, and convening efforts at the innovation lab and research center I now direct: Positive social change is a long game that ebbs and flows, not easily reduced to behavior change or message targeting; the role of creativity and culture is and must be the centerpiece of efforts to expand social justice in the evolving information age. A favorite quote from the author Tom Robbins captures my perspective: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

Enter the networked era – and the awakening of new creativity and activists who have exploited the possibilities of participatory media and pushed past the gatekeepers of the analog media age. Despite the constraints of digital platform dominance – which are considerable, like surveillance and corporate power over the information ecology – social justice activism is enjoying a resurgence of creativity. Activists, particularly new ones, are embracing culture as a mechanism to reflect and increase equity. Traditionally marginalized groups are capturing attention and telling their own stories, not trying to assimilate into versions of themselves deemed acceptable to pre-set power dynamics. It all matters in the remaking of our national and global civic fabric – which I envision as a rich tapestry of human stories and values and heroes and villains and norms that comprise the meaning of “civic” in Henry Jenkins’ articulation of it, as “a shared set of norms and values to which we return.”[1] From my perspective, the effort to build a strong, sustained, diverse, optimistic civic fabric is the one of the most important contributions to long-term social progress. It shapes the values and beliefs that underlie policy and norms alike. Believing and acting on this idea requires that the various “industries” of communication and social justice (foundations, researchers, strategists, storytellers) coalesce and actively collaborate with one another. Shaping civic fabric for the long game compels us to not feel content solely with one short-term effort at a time – to want more than only one measurable metric of influence. This way of thinking insists that civic imagination – envisioning the world we want to create, not only its problems – is a vital ingredient of every effort for change. It requires that storytelling and creativity play starring roles, and that we understand that these ideas are not synonymous with targeted key messages or predictably tidy tactics or a mere constellation of facts we transmit to people. It’s a lens that welcomes hope and optimism into dire social problems that can seem too impossible to tackle, and it encourages empathy and human connection, often more powerful forces than statistics when it comes to shifting perspectives.  


And so, this is one problem I’ve been striving to solve: How can social justice organizations and efforts more readily understand and embrace the profound function of creativity and culture in social change? What research and insights are necessary to help contribute to this work? What does it look like when creativity helps to fuel civic practice?

What it looks like, gleaned from creative projects and book research (in comedy and social-justice documentary storytelling, respectively) over the past several years, is inspiring: A young activist, Amanda Nguyen, passes unprecedented new sexual assault survivor laws partially enabled by engaging the public through comedy. Caring Across Generations works with The Second City, the legendary comedy group, to help empower a marginalized caregiving workforce to tell their stories, training them through improv. Independent documentaries create counter-narratives or break new stories or mobilize publics in ways that expand justice on a range of topics, from domestic violence to sex trafficking to environmental contamination. In the entertainment marketplace, comedy truth-tellers like Hasan Minhaj and Francesca Ramsey are talking about racism and student loan debt – they are connecting with young audiences who absorb the realities of the world around them partially through their generation’s digital-native creativity, in a media ecology where the boundaries between news and entertainment are hopelessly blurred.




And yet, the paradox: We are re-shaping our civic fabric to more readily embrace ideas and people who haven’t traditionally enjoyed full cultural access and cultural citizenship, re-fashioning a way of co-existing with one another as the digital media era has opened the playing field, at least partially. But we’re also engaged in this work while partisan divides expand and trust in news declines. Authoritarian messages tell us that access to information is an enemy of the people. Creativity and free expression are increasingly challenged. The ties that bind us together as publics, not just individual consumers of products – the notion of the “civic” as a shared set of communal ideals – feel weak.

While we embrace the renaissance of creativity, culture, and media power rendered a bit more possible in the evolution of the transforming digital age, we have to face the herculean task: Repairing and re-shaping our torn civic fabric from the damage of a Trump-era attack on news and even creative industries, alongside a culture of violence and hatred, is a generation of work that lies ahead. But fundamentally, it requires that we agree on the very idea that “civic” – that is, the values of public good and equity – is something to strive for, to pass on to a new generation, and that being civically engaged for the sake of community well-being is a shared value in itself. It feels like we are just beginning. Generating the questions and creative ideas and research projects that get us there: Those are the problems I’m trying to solve.  

‘Is “Civic” a Meaningful Word to Young People? No, but they may be an inspiration for rescuing its meaning’

Jeffrey Jones (Director, Peabody Media Center and George Foster Peabody Awards, University of Georgia)

The term “Civic Engagement” was popularized in the 1990s in political science to address what was often seen as a deficit thereof in the American polity. More recently, the employment of the word “civic” has found new uses, including phrases such as “Civic Imagination” (Henry Jenkins), “Civic Hope” (Rod Hart), and “Civic Fabric” (Caty Borum Chattoo). Even the MacArthur Foundation has a large grant project called “Civic Storytelling.” 

We talk about “civic” as if the term is widely understood and utilized. But what if it isn’t? In particular, what if young people—the citizens we are increasingly looking to for help and leadership in mobilizing against gun violence, police violence against minorities, and climate change—don’t know or use the word? This is the question that Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, posited in a Facebook post earlier this year. 

When talking about public life in one of my classes recently, I used the word, but then paused to test Andrew’s question. “Civic. How many of you know what that means?,” I asked. A smattering of hands raised, which was then followed by several weak attempts to define it. To cut to the chase, not many of these 18-21-year old students could define the word, and they certainly weren’t using it when conceiving of public life or their role as citizens within it. 

Thus, to follow Andrew’s line of questioning, if young people don’t know or use the word, is it worth rescuing from the Ivory Tower? Do we need to popularize the term, or find a new one? Does the word simply mean “politics?” In short, what is its continued value as an active word of choice by those seeking to address public life?

“Politics,” of course, is and has long been a dirty word, or at least a pejorative one. Politicians has been ridiculed in literature and poetry for millennia, while the modern-day Republican Party has spent the last forty years railing against it. In contrast, the word “civic” not only escapes these burdens but often carries a hopeful invocation in its usage—civic virtue, civic responsibility, civic participation, civic culture. The contemporary uses noted above—imagination, hope, fabric—follow in this same vein, suggesting a belief that there is some form of redemption or pro-social outcome inherent in the word.

I won’t attempt a definition of the word here but will simply point to some of its more common meanings and associations. Cities are best at locating the word in the physical world—civic centers and civic auditoriums are two examples. The word’s cousin, Civil, is used in invoking civil society, or institutions and associations that buttress public life. These include churches, volunteer organizations, youth leagues and activities (sports, band, scouting), libraries, councils and commissions, and so forth.  These are all institutions built by communal labor, entities typically dominated by volunteers more than paid labor. Even the word itself rarely sits alone; it is coupled with some other word to share meaning (unlike “politics”).

At the heart of all of these is community, the connections with others through which we share something in common, often best achieved as a group.  At the local level (as resident in the uses of civic and civil society noted above), such sharing and commonalities is fairly obvious (faith, family, geography, infrastructure). At the national level, though, such sharing seems less of a given. We share ideologies, political parties, and perhaps even positions on issues (taxation, regulation, welfare policies), but the bonds of communal connection are more ephemeral, perhaps best rendered in nationalized symbols, myths, and traditions than in common public self-determination.

Seeing the word civic as intimately related to community brings to mind Jim Carey’s discussion of the ritual view of communication (Communication as Culture), and the root of the word shared with others such as “communion,” “commonness,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is linked to “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” and “fellowship.” For Carey, society benefits most from communication systems dedicated less to control (of people) and more toward the representation of shared beliefs that maintain society.

Carey invokes John Dewey in his concern that the public has become spectators of public life rather than participants in its making. The public is asked to ratify a political world that is already represented (by news media, experts, officials, political consultants), not to be active in its construction. For Carey, our institutions of public life, especially our communication networks, have failed the public. Not only has community life atrophied, but the basic skills necessary to be engaged and self-constituting publics have withered as well. “We lack not only an effective press but certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued.” 

What seems vital in this discussion is that public life via “politics” and mass communication has been rendered a spectator sport. What Carey and Dewey are asserting, instead, is that an informed and engaged public must, by necessity, be a self-constituting one, brought together through our communicative acts and institutions that facilitate it. As Carey argues, “what we lack is the vital means through which this conversation can be carried on: institutions of public life through which a public can be formed and can form an opinion.”

What is at stake, I argue, is that public life must be grounded in similar feelings of commonality and community, of connectedness, and of the ability to have these expressions manifest in communicative action. In short, the feelings and forces that constitute “civic” at the local level should be at play in constituting national public life as well. “Politics” is controlled by forces beyond our reach. “Civic” life, however, invests the community as constituents in its making.   

But rather than just proffer theories, I believe the contemporary landscape offers rays of hope for civic practice and public revitalization. In particular, what we are seeing through three specific mobilizations around issues--Gun Control (Parkland students, March for Our Lives), Climate Change (Greta Thunberg, school strike for climate), and racial injustice (Black Lives Matter)—at the intersection of youth and digital/social media is the emergence of a national and global politics much more strongly tied to ethos of local civic practice than old school politics. 

In each instance, the local is strongly impacted and has been part of the reason behind the mobilizations. News presents the visual evidence, but then through social media, young activists naturally turn to the channels through which they conduct their lives to make their case that previous generations, who seem to take the issues of racism, guns, and a warming planet as problems too big to tackle, are implicated (and condemnable) for their intransigence. Of course, these are big national and global political issues that will be dealt with (or not) through traditional political institutions. Yet there is a degree of witnessing, or a testimonial quality to these media engagements. Their invocation is to a commonality of experience, their appeal is through sharing. The personal is political, for sure, but also local.

In sum, this moment where youth + tragedy + digital/social media engagements = political activism has emerged in ways that suggest, at least to me, there is a particularly affecting communal quality here that is more than simply the politics of old. Rather, what I am seeing invokes a new brand of civics--one where the local experience is emblematic of the broader challenges we as a nation and global polity face (somewhat like Stonewall), one where an array of creative cultural expressions will be employed, where new forms of civic imagination (see Jenkins et al., By Any Media Necessary) will be deployed to mobilize and activate a polity that has been asleep for far too long.  There may not be a singular “New Hope” on the horizon, but I think the early evidence suggests that our most recent steps backwards in our national politics has, paradoxically, awakened a civic hope that is just now beginning to take shape.


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.