Partner Spotlight: Civic Imagination Project

When did your organization launch and why?

Launched in 2016, the Civic Imagination Project taps the civic imagination (our collective vision for what a better tomorrow might look like) to bridge perceived cultural gaps between diverse communities. Over the last six years, our team, based at the University of Southern California, has worked with communities all over the world to develop tools for unlocking the imagination and harnessing unbridled creativity for real world action because we need hope and imagination to mobilize and sustain our collective efforts. Our group believes that to make the world a better place everyone needs to be able to imagine what a better world looks like, even now, especially now.

The Civic Imagination Project emerged as a key facet of Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of its Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) research network. In the multi-year collaborative research project, MAPP, we looked at youth and youth-focused groups using new media and storytelling as central aspects of their political and activist movements, indicating a new culture of political participation and media literacy understood through the framework of participatory culture.

When the MacArthur Foundation launched its Digital Media and Learning initiative, Jenkins was among the first to be asked to help the foundation understand the new literacies required for meaningful participation in this emerging culture. Henry Jenkins’ (et. al. 2006) white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture defined participatory culture as having “relatively low barriers” to entry, strong support to create and share content, and informal mentorship structures. In a participatory culture, members “believe their contributions matter” and feel a “social connection” with each other as those with more experience mentor others.

When the MacArthur Foundation initiated a multidisciplinary research network focused around Youth and Participatory Politics, Jenkins and his USC team, now headed by Sangita Shresthova, became a key partner in that venture. The research network deployed quantitative and qualitative methods to map the political lives of American youth. The USC team conducted ethnographic case studies to identify groups that had been particularly effective at getting young people involved in political life. Altogether, we interviewed more than 200 young activists representing the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters; the DREAMer movement; Invisible Children; Students for Liberty; and a network of organizations for American Muslim youth.

Civic Paths’s previous efforts resulted in the NYU Press book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism and the online resource for educators developed through collaborations with several organizations, including NAMLE. As Civic Paths learned, these networks often place an emphasis on personal and collective storytelling, grassroots media production and circulation, and content worlds drawn from literature, film and other forms of popular culture.

As of 2016, the MacArthur Foundation has committed to fund a new multi-year project focusing on the concept of the civic imagination, a key insight from By Any Media Necessary.

What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?

We map the civic imagination through research, case studies, workshops and brainstorming sessions with people from diverse grassroots communities. Rooted in aspirational approaches to civic action, our workshops help build teams and professional or activist communities through creative storytelling and play. They can build bridges between communities that want to work together and need a creative way of surfacing shared values and building strong foundations for collaboration and unity. They can also guide a group through the ground-up creation of an entire fictional universe with multiple intersecting narratives, all built around exploration of memory, shared values, and aspirations for the future. These worlds and stories can also be harnessed for learning, action, coalition building, and media creation.

What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?

We believe civic imagination is a key and powerful concept and understand that popular culture is an important point of entry. Before you can change the world, you need to imagine what a better world looks like. So, for the U.S. founding fathers, a new society emerged from their fascination with classical times, whereas for the Civil Rights movement, the push for social justice was fueled by imagery that took shape in the pulpits of the black church. Today, young people often draw on images taken from popular media, which they remix and repurpose towards their own ends — Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, superheroes, zombies, Star Wars. Even Occupy’s use of the Guy Fawkes mask is more informed by V for Vendetta than the folk mythology of British politics. But these remix practices fit within a larger tradition of political storytelling, which we also seek to understand. Stories might be historical or biographical, might come from myth, folklore and religion, but they have also been inspired across history by a range of literary and artistic texts.

What are recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?

  • Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Handbook (written by Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova) — This is a practical guide for community leaders, educators, creative professionals, and change-makers who want to encourage creative, participatory, and playful approaches to thinking about the future. This book shares examples and models from the authors’ work in diverse communities. It also provides a step-by-step guide to their workshops with the objective of making their approach accessible to all interested practitioners. The tools are adaptable to a variety of local contexts and can serve multiple purposes from community and network building to idea generation and media campaign design by harnessing the expansive capacity for imagination within all of us.
  • Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change (edited by Henry Jenkins, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova) — Across more than thirty examples from social movements around the world, this casebook proposes “civic imagination” as a framework that can help us identify, support, and practice new kinds of communal participation. As the contributors demonstrate, young people, in particular, are turning to popular culture — from Beyoncé to Bollywood, from Smokey Bear to Hamilton, from comic books to VR — for the vernacular through which they can express their discontent with current conditions.
  • Popular Culture and Civic Imagination Toolkit — In this toolkit tap the stories, TV shows, games, movies and folk stories we love (and love to hate) to activate our imaginations as we work through the social challenges our communities face. Our playful easy to do activities engage popular culture, imagination and issues of collective concern, tackling questions like: How do we want to live with one another? How do we resolve conflicts in our community? How do we know what’s fair for us and for others? How do we work together to solve big problems? The toolkit is intended for a broad age group — parents and children (5+), peer-groups, those working in educational settings and really anyone interested in watching, remixing, creating, and having fun with popular culture!

What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?

We see the media literacy movement as having gone through three stages: critical consumption, ethical production, and engaged participation. Our work centers on that third phase, helping people of all ages develop a deeper understanding of how they may engage with civic issues through resources of the imagination that often emerge from a critical consumption of popular culture and that take shape through the active and ethical production of new media. At a time when young people are actively participating in, and often playing leadership roles in, social movements around the world, they need tools and resources that encourage them to reflect on their own engagement with media but also offer them models for how to engage in important conversations within their community and beyond.

We see the exploration of popular culture related topics like credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy are of utmost importance for media literacy educators, which is why we collaborated with Participant Media and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRecord to create Conversation Starter Videos on these topics in 2016. We also developed supporting materials for the videos to be used in high school and higher education classrooms. We then partnered with NAMLE to develop and implement a strategy to distribute videos and curriculum related to these topics to educators.

Some of our other, newer, resources are also designed to be deployed by teachers in the classroom to foster critical discussions that may encourage greater civic engagement; some are designed for parents who want to foster imaginative participation in media culture for pre-school children and children who are being homeschooled during the pandemic; some are designed for use by organizations, activist groups, and after-school programs that want to encourage young people to help make change in their communities and to imagine otherwise. We believe the resources we have developed can make a vital contribution to media literacy development from early childhood through to senior citizens. Our ultimate goal is to foster greater agency on the part of people of all ages as they seek to shape the messages that drive civic action.

Why is media literacy important to your organization?

We have observed the increased use of popular culture content as a political vernacular within social movements all around the world. These examples show the active appropriation, remixing, and reimagining of stories drawn from media and they often get deployed via new media platforms and practices. These deployments of media content should connect to emergent forms of media literacy, often inspired through fan community practices. But they also often require active critique of media representations, especially along the axis of struggles for diversity and inclusion. Just as you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, you can’t make meaningful change from raw materials that are flawed and have not been actively examined. So these activists need to be both critical and creative in how they use media content and how they lobby for change within media industries. We see media literacy at all levels — critical consumption, ethical production, and engaged participation — as vital to the kinds of collective civic imagination our project seeks to foster. In the next phase of our project, we are turning our attention back to the media industries encouraging greater responsibility as they develop the media content that will shape civic imagination in the future.

Anything else you want our readers to know about your organization, your mission, or your staff?

Atlas of the Civic Imagination: Take part in a collective storytelling challenge and inspire others!

COVID-19 may change our world forever. We are now living through the days, weeks and months that will define this change. We see imagination as a tool which allows us to work beyond the current anxiety and uncertainty in hopes of identifying visions for what a better world might look like. What about the current moment will people remember when they look back at these changes 40 years from now? What will we want to remember? What will be different and why?

Often, as people imagine future changes that lead to a better world, they start by imagining a crisis — something that forces existing precarious circumstances to their breaking point, causing people to come together and try something different. Right now, our world is confronting a painful health crisis of unprecedented proportions and it is predicted it will be followed by an economic crisis of the same scope and scale. Recognizing this, let’s use this moment to initiate a process of reflection and intervention and bring our imaginative selves to the realities we face today.

Draw on what inspires you, respond to our prompt, and contribute to a collective brainstorm that taps our imagination at a time when imagining takes courage. All responses will become part of 2060: Reflections from the Future, a public and shared collection that connects our current hopes, concerns, and aspirations. Artists, thinkers, and community leaders working in various fields and formats will also bring our collective visions to life.

The views and opinions expressed in the Organizational Spotlight blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NAMLE or its members. The purpose of the Organizational Spotlight blog is to highlight our Organizational Partners and give them a place to share their reflections, opinions, and ideas.