Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Winifred R. Poster & Gabriel Peter-Lazaro (Part I)


Gabriel Peters-Lazaro

I joined the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project six years ago. At that point the team had mainly completed the case studies for By Any Media Necessary and were heading to production on the book. There was a strong desire to create online resources that would complement the launch of the book, collecting media rich examples that were referenced in the case studies. At the time, I was involved with research at the University of Southern California (where I am a faculty member in the School of Cinematic Arts) that was focused on media rich learning in K-12 contexts and was active in the Digital Media and Learning (DML) community. As I got more involved with MAPP and Civic Paths, we expanded our ideas for the online companion to include resources for teaching and learning along with the media archive.

The sense was that there were so many unique skills and approaches that had been detailed in the case studies that leveraged creative storytelling and smart use of digital media and popular culture, that there would be a real benefit to trying to make those skills teachable and accessible to wider audiences. With this in mind we began developing and running a series of creative workshops. I had recently been working with USC professor and Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell via his Worldbuilding Institute and found that the worldbuilding methodology was an apt model for the kinds of goals we had with the MAPP workshops. We built our approach around big group brainstorms wherein participants imagine the world in a future where anything is possible and then create stories and performances about that world. This eventually leads to reflections and discussions about the kinds of values, hopes, desires and concerns that invariably arise within these stories.


We piloted these workshops in 2013 with several groups including the Muslim Youth Group of the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools program, and with educators and practitioners at the DML Conference in Boston in early 2014. In each case we were blown away by the enthusiastic responses of participants. We found that people in vastly different community contexts had similar desires for new kinds of group-based creative interactions that surfaced shared values and facilitated productive thinking about the future.

As the MAPP project wrapped up and the By Any Media book and online resources were launched into the world, we reflected more about what we had seen happening in the workshops. What was at the heart of the enthusiasm? How could we refine and enhance that experience and make it available and productive for more communities? This line of thinking led us to develop and ultimate turn our focus to the idea of Civic Imagination. Working with Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, and the rest of the Civic Paths team, we have come to define civic imagination as “an active practice envisioning social change that leads to a better world. Civic imagination supports the creation and strengthening of imagined/imagining communities, one’s own civic agency, respect and understanding for the perspectives of others, and opportunities for freedom and equality that have not yet been experienced” (Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, forthcoming). In addition to developing more workshops by running them all over the world (from Kentucky and Arkansas to Salzburg and Beirut) we have an online presence where you can learn about our work (, a forthcoming book with contributions from dozens of authors, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change (Jenkins, Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, editors, NYU Press, 2019) and a book that focuses on how to bring civic imagination into your own communities, Practicing Futures: a Civic Imagination Action Handbook (Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, Peter Lang NY, 2020). You can also learn more about civic imagination through this video of a great conversation that Henry Jenkins had with Clare Shine in 2016 at the Salzburg Global Seminar: [embed video here? There is an embed code on the Vimeo page]

Our shift to the focus on civic imagination was just ahead of a wave of changes in the global political environment illustrated by the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the Brexit referendum in the U.K., the global refugee crisis and the global rise of right wing populism. Certainly none of the trends arose in a vacuum and were connected to long simmering developments, but they certainly reached a crisis point around this time. Along with them came a wide ranging sense of frustration approaching despair about the divided state of political rhetoric that made it so hard to discuss differences across ideological lines.

Within this new reality the sense amongst our team and from the communities we continued to engage was that the need for a new civic language was paramount. We see civic imagination as a set off tools to help people escape the semantic cages of partisanship that have seeped so deeply into our public discourse. When we ran a workshop in Kentucky in 2017 with a diverse set of people concerned with the future of work in the state, there were folk representing progressive and conservative viewpoints. Any talk of healthcare was already a deeply loaded subject. But when the whole group engaged in a freewheeling vision of the future there was resounding consensus that high quality universal healthcare would be a good thing.

In the course that I teach with Sangita Shresthova at USC, New Media for Social Change, we've also seen an attitudinal change amongst our students. There's a heightened sense of urgency and a greater incidence of student participation in political action and discourse. In the course, we focus on media practice not just from a production perspective, but with an emphasis on process and participation. Students engage with literature on participatory politics and learn basic research methods to carry out their own case studies into activist and social change organizations that use new, social and traditional media in interesting and innovative ways. Students generally come to the course already having experienced at least some participatory political practices in their own lives. Most had at least seen and shared some activist campaigns and information. Many had also taken more active roles in organizations or networks including the Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters and ExtraLife, in addition to various campus-based student organizations.

Our students have tended to have ambivalent feelings about technology as it relates to political participation in a way that reflects a similar ambivalence about the role of technology in their lives more generally. In their daily lives, they feel that technology is all pervasive, deeply entwined in their social lives as well as all sorts of practical necessities from shopping to studying. Yet they also feel a sense of resentment or lack of choice; that technology invades their lives sometimes and gives them a sense that they’re missing out on some other way, some realer reality less full of stress and anxiety. But they also see the positive sides of tech and in the case of political action have a sense of great potential and possibility. They think that smart uses of media technologies can facilitate real change for the better. But that those same avenues of participation can also reinforce division or give people a false sense that they’ve taken action when really their energies could be better spent in other, less obvious ways.

In the classroom, we find that our civic imagination workshops provide a useful step towards getting past these general feelings of unease and skepticism and to help students pivot to more focused, affirmational visions for collective action. We usually run one workshop ourselves as the instructors with the whole class near the start of the semester. Sometimes we use a worldbuilding workshop wherein students create a collective vision of a future world where anything is possible, and then work in smaller groups to create detailed narratives taking place in that world. This leads to a reflection and discussion about the values undergirding these fanciful aspirations and the real values and concerns that they express about the real world facing us today. We also run a workshop about remixing inspiring stories. In this case, students surface and share stories that have made lasting impressions or played important roles in their own lives and which they believe contain seeds that might inspire other people or communities. These stories can come from their own lives and family biographies, from folk tales, popular fiction, history or religion. Once students have shared the stories amongst themselves, they work in small teams to remix their stories, combining themes, characters or other elements from each of their individual stories in order to create completely new and often surprising narratives.

In both of these cases the importance of narrative as a means of connecting with others and articulating shared values is centered. We then train students in workshop facilitation and have them run workshops for themselves. Some semesters they have run workshops with outside partners, working with elementary aged students visiting USC as part of a leadership academy. In other semesters they have prepared and run workshops with their fellow classmates. In both cases, students have found the process to be productive, challenging and fun. Many of them have told us that it helped them to assert themselves in new ways as they took on leadership roles in these action-based face to face experiences. Moreover, they have told us that the structured creative activities of the workshops have given them opportunities to connect with their classmates and get to know each other in ways that have been largely elusive in their previous classroom experiences but which they all seemed to crave.

After engaging with civic imagination workshops, students go on to plan their own media-based social action campaigns. We focus on blue-sky possibilities so that students don’t have to be bound by what they think is practical to achieve within the scope of the course, but they do have to create detailed blueprints, time lines, theories of change and goals for their campaign visions, including media prototypes and design strategies, so that they would be ready to take their proposals before potential partners or funders. A common aspect of many campaign proposals is the emphasis on creative media narratives designed to facilitate meaningful face to face interactions. Examples of these include performances, protests, guerilla libraries, art walks and communal dinners. We hope that the activities and skills in the classroom help equip students to be more engaged citizens and even to facilitate careers or extended engagements with social action organizations in and beyond their college careers.

Part of what I hope to learn from this blog series is about what those opportunities for careers and service look like both in terms of grassroots organizing and within larger institutional and organizational structures. Are young people considering careers in public service? In social action? What do those career paths look like, what skills are needed? How do the creative practitioners of media arts fit in? It is exciting to see a new generation of young leaders taking such visible roles in the national and global context: the student activist leaders of Parkland; the young people participating in global protests against inaction on climate change; representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her prominence in the national spotlight. All of these strike me as positive examples of a generational shift in political participation. I look forward to learning more examples from the conversations in this series and hearing about the thoughts and experiences of others in this field.

 Winifred Poster

Recent events in far-right politics and threats to democracy around the world have been shocking and demoralizing for me personally.  But at the same time, I know that these very same events have mobilized me for long-term organizing.  I had only been involved grassroots politics sporadically over the years, even though I write about activism as a sociologist, feminist labor ethnographer, and critical science and technology studies scholar.  The 2016 elections lead to an awakening and new sense of purpose.  So in this blog, I’ll take the opportunity to talk about what the current crisis has meant in my small world of neighborhood organizing.  I’ll also reflect on what has become a trend in social movements – the rapid diffusion of technologies into our daily routines -- and how they have been both an asset and a burden to our participatory politics.

I’ve wondered for a while what would ignite a serious uprising in the US, especially among women.  My first published article, based on my undergraduate thesis at UC Berkeley, was about activism in the California Bay Area and its divisions of race and class (Poster 1995).  The women’s movement had peaked in years prior, but it was ebbing.  I asked organizers what would it take for a relaunch.  One said it would have to be a single, galvanizing issue – something that could mobilize women widely.  When I asked “like what?,” she didn’t know.  Neither did I.

Decades later I find that the issue, for me and many others, is authoritarianism.  Without a second’s thought at the start of 2017, I hopped on a flight to DC to the Women’s March.  And heeding their call, I returned home to form a “huddle” in my community of St. Louis, Missouri.  For over two years I have been facilitating this local action group, which meets most weekends, and more frequently during elections.  Missouri politics are a challenge for us.  It is a heavily red-state with some of the most regressive policies in the country (especially on healthcare, guns, reproductive rights).  But my small tribe – comprised of many who had never before participated in politics – is committed to doing whatever we can.

Technology has played a role from the start.  I initially recruited members by posting an announcement on national websites for the Women’s March and Indivisible, finding my living room filled with pissed-off but eager new and seasoned activists.  Keeping the group going on a long-term basis has been aided by technology.  Social media is how we know what’s happening in our area – what other local activist groups are doing, what our elected officials are about to vote on, etc.  It’s how we organized a solidarity-with-Charlottesville rally after the racist attacks of August, 2017 – within less than twelve hours.  It’s how my former state representative Stacey Newman lead a successful boycott against a local extremist radio host (Jamie Allman, who threatened a “hot poker up the ass” of Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg).  Her well-crafted social media posts (including a list of the show’s advertisers, and instructions on how to contact them) had him out of work in a matter of weeks.

Technology is a part of our routine when we go out in the community.  We use platforms like Turbovote to register voters on college and high school campuses.  Resistbot helps us to send out faxes and emails to our officials, just with a few clicks.  5Calls enables us to see a list of the five key policy-makers who have special influence on a given issue, and then connect with them in quick succession.

I’m especially impressed with what technology has done for widespread labor campaigns – like the teachers’ strikes that swept the nation in 2018.  In my scholarly life, I had been writing about how technology can be demobilizing for worker struggles.  My book Invisible Labor (2016) with Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry documents how technology can hide the labor we are doing – by masking work that is sent abroad, by monetizing our online activities and data profiles, by reframing the narrative of economic activity to that of “sharing” (in which many are no longer classified as workers).  This creates new challenges for unions in organizing workers.


Along these lines, labor unions had been struggling to organize teachers in conservative states with deep cuts to education and teacher salaries.  Yet last year, teachers themselves used technology to spark a movement.  Spokesperson Kelley Fisher recounts how a tweet from a teacher about what to do initiated a chain of events in Arizona.  First a plan for wearing red shirts on Wednesdays (#redfored), then a Facebook page, and the founding of Arizona Educators United.  In two days, 1,000 people signed on; after seven weeks later, they had almost 50,000.  This lead to the first ever state-wide teacher walkout in Arizona, and ultimately a 20% pay raise.  To be sure, collective action on this scale happens from egregious conditions on one hand, and brave people working together on the other.  But in this case, technology provided a helpful jumpstart at a time when labor unions needed it.

Much of these technologies I’ve mentioned so far are internet-based (social media sites, specialized organizing apps, etc.).  My friend Tom Boellstorff reminded me how important hardware can be too.  He told me the story of his early days as a queer activist, going to Russia with an Apple computer in hand.  This ended up being one of the first computers for the gay newspaper he worked with in Moscow, and a crucial asset at a hotbed political moment.  The 1991 coup broke out, and his device was one of the only sources for printing flyers (especially when the presses refused to do business with them).  Their gay newspaper became the “printing plant for the Russian resistance” and pro-democracy activists.  Technology for organizing can encompass many things.

But technology can make us, as activists, frustrated.  Take the practical issues.  My group has tried multiple channels for our daily communications, and all of them have problems.  There’s no single platform that we all use.  People have varying skills with technology, and varying mobile devices.  Messages sometimes have to go out four times – on email, text, GroupMe, and other kinds of social media.

There are bigger issues too.  We’re becoming concerned about the subtle encroachments of big data on our activities.  An eye-opening moment was when we got a glimpse into the “VAN” – the voter database that national parties use to coordinate outreach activities.  To be sure, the VAN makes it easier for organizers to identify progressive-leaning houses when we go canvassing door to door.  But in the process, it shows how the political parties are collecting quite an extensive amount of data on us as voters.  When my group learned about it, we started to look up our own names.  We were stunned to see how much information the party had on each of us – our voting patterns, what causes we favor, if we donated money, what kinds of political activities we engage in, etc. – all of which was collated into a single number between 1 and 100 signifying how democratic-leaning we are overall.

I’ve also been observing how “social movement technology” is a thing of its own now.  Third party organizations are emailing us with advertisements for their apps, software packages, platforms – all designed especially for grassroots activists.  The organizations may be nonprofit, but some of the methods resemble corporate models.  An example is how they offer advice and tools on “CRMs.”  From my research on the digital economy, I’m familiar with this acronym as consumer relationship management (Poster 2011).  This is software and data for managing the production process in interactive service, along with its customers and workers.  Transferred to the political sphere now, I’m seeing how CRM has become constituent resource management.  It “broadly means a way to track the behavior and patterns of the people involved with your organization so you can communicate better with them.” 

My question is whether (or when?) this trend will become monetized, using our local action groups as a source of profit.  However well-intentioned the goals, and however effective the strategies, what are the costs?  Some of these organizations are asking to access the contact lists on our phones, in order to send out political messages to our social circles (see Outvote.) I’m seeing blurred lines of surveillance.

Protecting ourselves and our community members from big data collection will be an important task for grassroots organizers.  I’m just off the heels of a workshop at University of California at Irvine on Datafication and Collection Action, where “data self-defense” was a prominent theme.  It also makes me wonder:  how much are we as activists part of the system of surveillance, as we ask people to hand over personal details (e.g., in the process of actions like registering them to vote)?


My group is committed to direct action and face-to-face contact with people in our community.  Piven and Cloward (1979) showed us that street activism is critical for social change among marginalized groups.  This will always be central.  Whether we like or not though, it seems like grassroots politics is moving at a full gallop towards increasing datafication.  This became clear in the 2018 midterm elections, when I saw how campaigning has turned a sharp corner.  Forget volunteer activities centered on print mailers or phone calls.  The future of outreach is texting and social media.  Just a few months before the election, my group had spent hours and hours making phone calls around the state for local issues (only to be hung up on, or thankful if we could get one live person to talk to).  In contrast, what we found in the tech-oriented campaigns is how texting is a flurry of direct contact.  With Slack (as a communication hub) and Relay (a peer to peer texting platform), we now press one button to send a text out to 200 people at once (on a hidden list of numbers we never see), and immediately get replies from 50 of them.  Apparently, many people love to receive – and instantaneously reply to – text messages from strangers.  How long will it be before all or most political campaigns are run this way?

Grassroots activism has always relied on an integration of on-the-ground activism with various kinds of technology (old and new, material and immaterial, networked and free-standing, etc.).  But given the speed of how these technologies are changing, we need to pay better attention on how to manage them.  Moreover, my curiosity (both activist and scholarly) is how we can take control of them, and create our own.


Crain, Marion G., Winifred R. Poster, and Miriam A. Cherry, eds. 2016. Invisible Labor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 Piven, Francis Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1979. Poor Peoples’ Movements. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Poster, Winifred R. 1995. “The Challenges and Promises of Race and Class Diversity in the Women’s Movement.” Gender & Society 9 (6): 653–73.

———. 2011. “Emotion Detectors, Answering Machines and E-Unions:  Multisurveillances in the Global Interactive Services Industry.” American Behavioral Scientist 55 (7): 868–901.


 Winifred R. Poster teaches in International Affairs at Washington University, St. Louis.  Her interests are in digital globalization, feminist labor theory, and technologies of activism. With a regional focus on South Asia, she follows the outsourcing of high tech and call center labor.  Her research explores ethnographic transformations in service work through automation, artificial intelligence, crowdsourcing, and virtual assistants.  She also has projects on surveillance, national borders, and cybersecurity.  She is a co-author of Invisible Labor (UC Press) and Borders in Service (University of Toronto Press).  She has contributions in forthcoming books Captivating Technology (Duke University Press) and DigitalSTS (Princeton University Press).

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, M.F.A., Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. His current research interests include Civic Imagination and Hypercinemas and he is a practicing documentary filmmaker. His courses deal with critical media making and theory.