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New Civic Paths and a Public Sphere of the Imagination: The Civic Imagination Project

Paulina Lanz, Tyler Quick, Mehitabel Glenhaber, Joan Miller, Ioana Mischie, Khaliah Peterson-Reed, Becky Pham, Steven Proudfoot et Paromita Sengupta


Depuis 10 ans, notre équipe de recherche Civic Paths à l’Université Southern California a cherché à favoriser l’engagement civique à travers les discours de la culture populaire. Dans cet article, nous détaillons la théorie et la méthodologie permettant de comprendre ce que nous appelons l’imagination civique, que nous définissons de cette manière : « la capacité d’imaginer des alternatives au conditions économiques, culturelles, sociales et politiques actuelles » (Jenkins, Peters-Lazaro, & Shresthova, 2020). A travers des lectures critiques et des pratiques de créations d’univers collaboratives, nous avons travaillé avec des groupes allant de membres de l’Eglise, à des membres d’université pour construire des visions articulées et solidaires de la justice sociale. Ici, nous partageons nos bonnes pratiques avec vous.

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Notes de l’auteur

About Civic Paths
Founded by Prof. Henry Jenkins and based at the University of Southern California, Civic Paths explores continuities between participatory culture and civic engagement through outreach, creative work, research, and academic inquiry.  Civic Paths, which started as a small, informal group of graduate students interested in the ties between online participatory culture/popular media fandom and civic engagement in 2010, has grown into an established group with an impressive publication record. Civic Paths holds weekly meetings members with active members attending each meeting. Current Civic Paths members collectively work on group projects that shift from semester to semester and maintain a network of support for each other’s individual research projects.
À propos de l’équipe
Fondée par le Professeur Henry Jenkins et basée à l’Université Southern California, l’équipe Civic Paths explore les liens entre la culture participative et l’engagement civique à travers le travail créatif, la recherche et les enquêtes. L’équipe, qui a commencé comme un groupe informel de doctorants travaillant sur les liens entre la culture participative / les communautés de fans en ligne et l’engagement civique en 2010, est devenue un groupe de recherche avec un impressionnant taux de publication. Les membres actifs de Civic Paths se réunissent de manière hebdomadaire. Les membres travaillent de façon collégiale sur des projets qui changent de semestre en semestre et soutiennent les projets de chacun.

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1Once upon a time, Eat Pray Love protagonist Liz Gilbert went to Brazil, where she fell in love with famed photographer Sebastião Salgado. The lovebirds traveled the world together until an extraterrestrial fairy named Emerald (from the anime television series Sailor Moon) appeared before them. She warned Liz and Sebastião that the Universe Council was going to destroy the Earth unless they saw evidence of work being done to fight gender-based violence. Liz, Sebastião, and Em traveled the world documenting cases of activists and organizations working to address the causes and effects of gender-based violence. Their efforts, combined with stories collected from millions of others responding to a public call for self-documentation and self-representation, started a massive social movement. They were then able to present all this material to the Council and convince them that Earth was moving in the right direction and should, therefore, be saved.

2Liz and company’s adventure is just one of the many narratives created by 70 college-age students from diverse national backgrounds who participated in our “Remixing Stories” workshop at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change in 2016. The workshop was part of a larger civic imagination initiative that our research collective brought to the annual three-week academy that year. In this workshop, we introduced the civic imagination as an approach that could help the students develop a deeper understanding of each other’s visions for social change as they explored stories and lore from their own lives and experiences that were personally meaningful. They then took what they learned about themselves and each other home with them to inspire others in their communities. For the three young women who created the “Em/Power Love” narrative, remixing their individual stories allowed these women (from the United States, Lebanon and Thailand) to surface shared interests and identify underlying values in ways that would have been difficult to achieve under other circumstances.

3The “Remixing Stories” workshop is just one of the many examples of the work we do at the Civic Imagination Project, a research and practice initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation and conducted through the Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For nearly a decade, Civic Paths has brought together academics, artists, and activists to work on research projects and participate in imagination-building seminars. We partner with schools, places of worship, activist groups, media organizations, and comrades across the world to investigate how seemingly apolitical cultural discourses are claimed, repurposed, and deployed to inspire and empower individuals and communities to articulate their own visions of a better future.

4By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, a 2016 book written by our founders, Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, in collaboration with Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman, invokes a vision of participatory politics grounded in “the ability to forge a sense of collective voice and efficacy through larger networks that work together to bring about change” (41). Recognizing that the levers of cultural and political power are disproportionately operated by the wealthy and powerful, we have sought to understand how, through creativity and criticality, popular culture discourses can be co-opted and repurposed by ordinary people for political purposes. We are interested in documenting how diverse communities imagine alternatives to hegemonic media narratives, and how this reimagination informs art and activism. Our earliest work sought to theorize the mechanisms by which these visions of civic empowerment and social change were constructed through the appropriation and remixing of popular culture, and how those visions were disseminated via social media through fan-activist communities. While our focus began with fans and fan activism, we’ve expanded in recent years to consider how similar visions emerge through community-based workshops we host across the United States and around the world, . As we have grown as an organization and expanded the scope of our research project, we have come to appreciate how imaginative work is crucial to reclaiming the future from deterministic, elite narratives about progress and politics.

5Our workshops seek to cultivate what we call the civic imagination, in other words “the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions” (Jenkins, Peters-Lazaro, & Shresthova, 2020). The tools we develop are designed to empower activists, artists, and academics—especially those living and working on the mainstream’s margins—to articulate political and cultural agendas in their own voices, to develop communities grounded in shared hopes and aspirations, and above all else to tap into their own creative powers. In doing so, we aspire to overcome what Stephen Duncombe (2012) calls “the tyranny of the possible” -- or rather the voice within each of us which limits our ability to develop long-term progressive visions because of fears that they cannot be achieved under current circumstances.

6Ours is an exercise in conscientização, the process that Paulo Freire (1970/2017) describes as the perception of “the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform” (23). Like Freire, we are uninterested in providing the content of our partners’ liberation agendas. He writes that “every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” (21). Our method works against the usual academic paradigm. Instead of prescribing solutions, we ask lots of questions. Instead of telling our participants about the world, we ask them to create it anew. Instead of focusing on fighting against something, we encourage participants to articulate what they are fighting for.

7World building is integral to our method. Laura Cechanowicz, Brian Cantrell, and Alex McDowell (2016) describe world building as the co-articulation of a “myriad of stories by multiple storytellers across disparate platforms” (29). For McDowell, what is essential to world building is the “What if?” and “Why not?” This provocation is the centerpiece of our understanding of world building. Everything can and should be questioned. To confront today’s wicked problems and to construct paths through and beyond them, we need to draw insights from multiple intersecting disciplines. World building offers the training in how to think systematically at the constraints and affordances of our world and to come together to collectively imagine alternatives to current impasses. It is through these acts of collective -- as opposed to purely individualistic -- imagination that we can change the world. (Mischie 2018).

8In Design Unbound (2018), Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seeley Brown suggest that world building offers a new mode of cultural analysis and production, one grounded in systems thinking and the exploration of how details and events work together to constitute a larger whole. Focusing on worlds rather than plots or characters encourages us to think about the interconnections between people, about the logics and practices that facilitate, hinder, or reshape our capacities for change. Drawing on the narrative materials provided by popular cultural products (e.g. comics, video games, television, etc.), internet subcultural ephemera (e.g. meme culture, social media), popular discourses of politics, power, and progress, and the unique subject positions of our research participants, our workshops seek to conjure up, per Shresthova and Peters-Lazaro (forthcoming), “a common lore,” (27). We facilitate political discussions through a popular vernacular so that those who might feel estranged from formal politics can participate within an environment with a “relatively low” (Jenkins et al, 2006, 7) barrier to engagement.

9We endeavor to ask rather than inform. Our workshops, as detailed below, try to inspire our participants and partners to name and describe their liberation in their own terms: “Through shared narrative construction we hope that participants gain a sense of the powerful potential that storytelling holds for real world change” (Shresthova & Peters-Lazaro 28). When we speak, it is only to draw connections between similar ideas or to ask clarifying questions for the benefit of the entire room. We do not dictate, however, because that is antithetical to our goals and method. In Baby Suggs’ powerful sermon from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she tells her congregation that “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine” (106). Likewise, Freire contends that “to do this authentically they must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting” (58). Thus, this process begins with imagining ourselves not as the deliverers of erudition to the ignorant or uninformed, but rather as the provocateurs of constant inquiry and theorization. By sharing our tools for building the civic imagination, this article aims to interweave conversations across disciplines and borders in the hopes that we might inspire a deep belief in the possibility of change.

The Civic Imagination

10The civic imagination is a tool and process in which people come together to “imagine a better world.” In our casebook, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination, we define the civic imagination as “the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions” and “to imagine the process of change, to see oneself as a civic agent capable of making change.” (Jenkins, 2018) The civic imagination is the foundation of a greater process in which ordinary members of a society come together to share the change they want to see in their world. Through what they share in our workshops, we can better comprehend their shared understanding of the problems that impact their communities and help them to envision a world in which these problems have been resolved. Then, once they have a vision of how they want the world to be, we can facilitate their planning how to get there. Our workshop is not a process that creates immediate societal change, but where mutual understanding of their shared hopes and fears helps lay the groundwork for a better civic reality.

11We think of “imagination” as a force with real political and social power, and imagined worlds as political arenas where serious issues can be explored and aspirational futures can be crafted. This definition of the imagination is presented in contrast to a traditionally more negative view of imagination and imagined worlds as childish, trite, or escapist. Our research group draws on Peter Dahlgren’s (2009, 90) definition of “civics” as a democratic mindset and set of values by which members of a community embrace roles as active participants in “public life,” working towards a “common good.” Thus, “the civic” provides a framework to understand social actors as empowered to directly influence policy and participate in shaping and planning their communities, and furthermore helps them to recognize their responsibility to do so. Putting these two concepts together, we arrive at the civic imagination: a process by which members of a society come together to collectively construct serious imaginaries, which engage with real-world social and political issues.

12We understand “the civic” as signifying a set of commitments civic agents make to each other as they pursue collective goals. The civic is a resource which can get damaged through political conflicts but needs to be revitalized and rearticulated through the process of reconciliation and forgiveness which follow disputes and divisions. Right now, in the United States and elsewhere around the world, cultural divides and partisan battles go unresolved, destroying the bedrock of civic connections that previous generations depended upon to work through hard times and towards better futures. As we seek to revitalize the civic imagination, we also recognize that for those previous generations, the civic was constructed through its exclusions and marginalizations, allowing some groups to come together at the expense of others, and thus, we are calling for a more diverse, inclusive, intersectional conception of the civic to shape these emerging visions of a better future.

13Civic imagination can take many forms, from sober imagining of “realistic” futures to fantastical, science-fictional, or whimsical imaginings of completely alternate universes. While taking fantasy worlds seriously in real world political discourses may seem strange, it is important to remember that, on a less fantastical level, we, as voters, activists and policymakers, are always engaging in the civic imagination. Whenever we consider a policy or a political candidate, we engage in an act of civic imagining: What would a world look like where this candidate was president? What would a world look like with no guns, or where all Americans had access to affordable healthcare? Is that a world I would want to live in? And while it may be at a glance further removed from reality, fantastical civic imaginings have a unique power - allowing us to discover new analogies and ways of thinking about political issues, engender empathy for groups whose experiences we might not otherwise consider and imagine more radical possibilities for social change. Today, popular fantasies -- like Sailor Moon evoked in our opening story == represent shared cultural resources which may help bootstrap a larger process of seeing the world anew.

14For instance, Stephen Duncombe (2012) discusses how Star Trek’s far-future setting in deep space freed fans to imagine utopian, anti-capitalist, egalitarian worlds. Because drastic social change could be justified in the show’s world building as the product of technological change or centuries of political progress, the show got away with depicting realities, such as a black woman on the bridge of a star ship, which might have seemed “unrealistic” in 1960s society. However, these fantastical futuristic visions did have real impacts on the present - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously convinced Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura not to quit the show because of how important it was to Black Americans to see her on television and be able to, through her, imagine a utopian future for themselves. Duncombe speaks of utopias not as blueprints for actual worlds but as provocations for further reflections and conversations. Thus the civic imagination presents a solution to Duncombe’s (2012b) “tyranny of the possible” - the oppressive force which squashes many activist movements before they start as would-be participants self-censor their desires and aspirations as “ unrealistic.” Instead, the civic imagination encourages questioning of why current conditions exist and what alternatives might look like. Finally, fannish affects towards fantastical worlds are powerful motivating forces that can mobilize people who might not otherwise participate in politics. As Tracy Van Slyke puts it in Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through With Popular Culture (2014), “Pop culture has power. We can either ignore it, letting dominant narratives as well as millions of people who interact and are influenced by popular culture slide by, or we can figure out how to double down and invest in the people, strategies, products, and experiences that will transport our stories and values into mainstream narratives.”

15Our workshops aim to explore the multitude of potential answers to the core questions driving contemporary politics. Familiar narratives from popular culture give us resources that may help us to imagine a better world. But they should be deployed as the starting point and not the end point of our speculations, which can lead us towards previously unimagined stories as we incorporate those who had little voice in the production and circulation of commercial representations. Meanwhile, answering “how to imagine the process of change” can show us the different potential points of entry to making that change. It is by engaging in such a process of reimagining futures and rethinking the process of change that new people begin to imagine themselves as civic agents. And it is through the process of building new worlds together, coming to consensus around shared aspirations and fears, recognizing common needs and goals, that communities of participants forge a collective identity, locating their actual civic connections with each other. When we come together and form that collective community identity, how do we forge solidarity with others with different experiences than our own? By sharing stories with each other and showing empathy, we can start to answer that question. And this process can help us to bring an imaginative dimension to our real-world spaces as we develop new civic rituals, new vernaculars of political expression, and new ways of living with our commonality and diversity. .

16There are several precedents that approximate our idea of the civic imagination. The first of these is Michael Saler’s (2012) “public sphere of the imagination,” the idea that discourse communities often form around popular fictional texts. providing an “as if” space for political issues to be discussed at a safe distance from their real world implications and from predetermined partisan investments. The civic imagination draws heavily on Saler’s framework, but it is a somewhat broader and more activism-oriented version of his work. The civic imagination also comes close to Sheila Jasanoff’s idea of “socio-technical imaginaries,” or, as she puts it more poetically in the title of her book, “dreamscapes” - ways that societies come together to imagine technological futures through science-fiction, futurist writings, and media coverage of new and future technologies. Finally, the civic imagination runs parallel to decades of thought on utopian writing, especially Duncombe’s idea of an “open,” or collectively constructed, utopia. We can think of the civic imagination as a broader concept which encompasses all of these frameworks for thinking about imagining; it can be about fictional texts, but isn’t necessarily; imaginings of science and technology play an important role but are not the whole story; civic imagining can be, but is not necessarily fully, utopian. But, central to all these frameworks, these writers are acknowledging that collectively imagined worlds can have real civic implications, a thesis that we fully endorse.

17Outside of the academy, fiction writers for decades have also acknowledged the transformative power of collective imagining. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman (2013) acknowledges not just the power of the imagination, but our responsibility to use that power civically: “We all—­adults and children—­have an obligation to daydream...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 nothing...But the truth is...[i]ndividuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.” In her visionary short story Omelas, feminist-anarchist science-fiction author Ursula K LeGuin (1973) dares the reader to join her in collectively imagining a utopian world: “how about technology?...they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that...As you like it.” In her essay, “Positive Obsession,” Octavia Butler highlights the importance of sparking the imagination in marginalized communities. A trailblazing Black woman science fiction writer, Butler was often asked “What good is science fiction to Black people?” The question irked her:

I’m asked, what good is science fiction to Black people?
What good is any form of literature to Black people?
What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? […] At its best, science fiction stimulates the imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow, footpath of what ‘everyone’ is saying, doing, thinking -- whoever ‘everyone’ happens to be this year. (1995, 134-5)

18Butler’s own imaginings have been recognized in fields like queer theory and critical race theory as equally integral to their political projects as explicitly political theorists (Hoda, 1990). The possibility of having alternative ways of thinking and doing take on a greater force when populated, by being participatory. By engaging with popular culture, we’re tapping already-affective resources in order to connect the emotion and the imagination. Popular culture inspires collective hope, which is closely connected to the past, present and future of nostalgia.


19The link between theory and practice is fundamental to our understanding of the civic imagination, and has motivated us to curate an anthology of real-world case studies which use the civic imagination framework to understand how the digital skills and social networks that we are utilizing on a daily basis can transmit political messages. Our approach considers how diverse social movements have tapped resources from popular culture, reconstructing, reimagining, rewriting, and remixing them to draw out themes that are meaningful for their causes and communities. Cohen and Kahne (2012) define participatory politics as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern”. As the casebook and workshops demonstrate, participatory political practices often are fueled by the emotional connection between the stories that inspire us and the change we want to see in the world.

20Our research team is based at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which affords us unique opportunities to build relationships with media professionals, artists, and activists, and move beyond academic theorizing about civic change to practice-based community work. However, we also attempt to expand our approach beyond American politics and try to understand how the civic imagination is being deployed by organizations in other cultural, political, and economic contexts, such as online feminist movements in Korea, Bollywood dance in India, and the series of transnational protest movements which constituted the Arab Spring.

21Each case study in Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination identifies an existing social, cultural, or political problem, and asks “How do we imagine a better world in which these problems no longer exist?” The case studies utilize varied and dynamic methodologies, including online ethnography, participant observation, critical content and discourse analysis, collaborating with practitioners, and self-reflexive observation of our own media practices. What links these diverse essays together into a cohesive anthology is that each case study uses the civic imagination as a critical lens to examine how transmedial cultural practices are constantly being deployed for political ends. Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination makes the case that alternative imaginings of the future are both possible and necessary. And to this effort, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination is shaped by the six questions that drive our larger project.

Case(book) Studies

22Each section of our casebook contends with a different aspect of the civic imagination. Part one investigates how we might imagine a better world. The essays in this section think through the different ways that the public imagines this world and identifies the barriers to obtaining it. Several essays focus on the political discourses surrounding speculative fiction with topics including political correctness and the alt- right criticism of Star Wars. Lauren Levitt (2020, 43-50) traces the persistence of revolution narratives in highly successful dystopian young adult fictions such as Hunger Games, linking its themes of wealth inequality, totalitarian rule, and media manipulation with real world social movements, particularly Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders’ Campaign.

23Part two considers how groups imagine the process of social change and the ways communities galvanize resources to achieve these visions. Many of the writers in this section highlight the role of technology and make the case that media literacy and digital apparatuses aid in conceptualizing process of change. In one chapter, Andrea Alarcon (2020, 109-116) looks at the different media deployed by peace-makers (and war-mongers) confronting Colombia’s half-century long civil war, including art projects turning weapons into statues.

24Part three asks how we can imagine ourselves as civic agents. In the aptly titled, “Learning to Imagine Better,” Diana Lee (2020, 121-128) emphasizes the benefits of using popular cultural narratives like Harry Potter as tools for personal liberation and social change. Lee illustrates how an Asian American spoken-word poet responds to the implicit erasure of Asian American women in popular culture. The essays also include nuanced studies of pop cultural phenomena such as “#BlackGirlMagic” (Gipson 2020, 129-135) and the ways contemporary pop divas like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga engaged with the feminist backlash against Donald Trump (Kelvin 2020, 136-143).

25Part four explores how we might forge solidarity with people whose causes and interests differ from our own, especially in times of political polarization and fragmentation. Examples include essays on such topics as training experiences with activists and artists; Trump’s tweets’ referencing professional wrestling culture; the ways G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) comics represent American Muslims (Wanzo 2020, 206-213); and the environmental politics expressed through remixing Smokey the Bear (Moran and Billard 2020, 231-240), This section engages with popular culture’s capacity to ignite popular resistance and its concomitant violence in our quest for societal betterment. In particular, one case study examines how blending the civic imagination with theories of affect and the public sphere helps us better understand the underlying motivations of #GamerGate and the #AltRight . joan miller (2020, 214-222), with plenty of help from Arjun Appadurai, Judith Butler and others, suggests that certain large scale public violence can be attributed to a defensive reaction from “an imagined public in revolt,” demonstrating that the civic imagination is not inherently pleasant, utopian or aspirational.

26The case studies in section five include Hamilton and the Tea Party movement (Jenkins 2020, 253-261), Bollywood dance outside Bollywood (Shresthova 2020, 245-252), global/local appropriations of Humans of New York beyond its project creator’s preset boundaries (Sengupta 2020, 262-270), and the Vision for Black Lives manifesto (Harris 2020, 271-280), all of which allow the contributors to explore our social connections with larger communities. Sangita Shresthova explores how remixed Bollywood dance that emerged out of the Mumbai-based, Hindi-language film industry gained transcultural traction and inspired a contested practice and imaginary environment. By championing cultural diversity and creative spreadability, Bollywood dance performances and competitions by both the Indian diaspora and non-Indian communities in the United States foster an expanding inclusive space that effectively negotiates progressive visions and Indian nationalist narratives that could be at odds with each other. Moving beyond Benedict Anderson’s notion of the “imagined” community (2006), we stress the value of “imagining” communities. Instead of being produced by central authorities as a means to locate people in relation to one another, imagining communities advocate active participation in the production, circulation and interpretation of media in a networked society toward collective action. This is an ongoing process, an unfinished struggle complicated by different cultural and political realities. It’s not just about the story, but how the story is being told.

27Taking a step forward to bring the concept of civic imagination closer to our everyday life, part six suggests ways we could bring an imaginative dimension to our real-world spaces and places. Through considering construction projects in Haiti, Christian activism for social justice in the American South, the mythical Aztlán and an immersive virtual reality project in Israel, this section considers what tools allow us to map our memories, attachment and sense of belonging onto physical/mental/social geography.

Our Workshops

28In addition to theoretical inquiry and case studies, the Civic Imagination Project actively engages with communities to surface and activate the civic imagination. Working with community leaders we met through our research on youth and participatory politics, we developed tools that we could test and ultimately share with anyone interested in our approach. That initial collaboration with American Muslim, immigration rights, and fan activists (among others) led to the development of our first “Infinite Hope” workshop, rooted in the concept of worldbuilding, which we detailed in an earlier section of this article. In this particular workshop, participants brainstorm a future world in which both real and fantastical solutions to social inequality are possible. They then collectively create and perform stories that help us understand how such a future might be achieved.

29Building on our success in helping interested communities to forge aspirational futures, we developed five more workshops, to complete a series that activates each function of the civic imagination:

  • The Origin Stories workshop delves into the past by inviting participants to surface a memory object that was meaningful to them as children. Over the course of the workshop participants then create a narrative that imbues the object with a superpower that a younger version of themselves uses, thereby helping them “imagine themselves as civic agents.”

  • In the “Step into the Looking Glass” Workshop participants identify a shared fictional content world and enter it through an imaginary two way mirror. Once in the world they collectively tour it before sitting down to have a conversation with a character who shares some previously-unknown detail about themselves, the story or the world itself. The shared detail has real implications for our world and the participants then use it as a ‘provocation’ to generate dialogue around a real-world issue.

  • In “Monuments from the Future”, participants imagine new landmarks, artifacts, and rituals which might help them embed new civic visions in their everyday environments.

  • To support “solidarity with others”, participants surface and remix inspiring stories in the “Remixing Stories” workshop.

  • And finally, the “Creating an Action Plan” workshop walks through key steps of developing a campaign to help participants envision how change might happen.

30While each workshop stands alone, together the series becomes a practical tool for activating each function of the civic imagination. We tested and refined these workshops with diverse groups, including coal miners and tobacco farmers in Kentucky, representatives of water agencies in Southern California, educators in Idaho and Beirut (Lebanon), members of religious organizations (Mosques in Los Angeles and a Lutheran church in Arkansas), and the already mentioned students participating in the Salzburg Academy on Media and Social Change in Austria.

31Through this process, we generated insights about how the civic imagination operates in specific contexts. Our work with American Muslim youth at the Islamic Center of Southern California confirmed that imagination and fantasy were important as these young people negotiated their always, already politicized identities in a post 9/11 America . We watched visions of wall-free classrooms, customized learning, and flying teachers emerge through sessions with educators. Our workshops allowed for initial discussions around the future of work in Kentucky but also how fear and silence can stifle creativity.

32Overall our efforts have shown that civic imagination workshops empower elementary school children and senior citizens alike. Working with a Lutheran pastor in Fayetteville helped that community imagine how faith could connect to their visions of social change, leading to establishing sanctuary network in that state. In 2016 and 2017, our partnership with Dil Say Pakistan, a transmedia social impact campaign, confirmed the relevance of our work outside the United States as the forward looking “What are you for?” approach resonated with professionals fatigued by the “counter violent extremism” framing that dominated Pakistani social impact efforts at the time. In a remarkable expansion of our approach, the Pakistani team adapted and used civic imagination to launch participatory community projects such as Holi and Christmas celebrations that brought together Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and others. Since then, we have continued to partner with other scholars and communities outside the United States- in Lebanon, Sweden and Austria. For those interested in learning more about these experiences and perhaps conducting workshops in your own communities, our book, Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook, is coming out in Spring 2020.

33We hope that insights from this archive of possible-futures may also inspire storytellers to deploy alternative visions within their work, as others have done in the past. Some of our partners have been working with youth to help them build their own future worlds. For example, Ioana Mischie, a transmedia artist and futurist originally from Romania, created Government of Children, a transmedia documentary franchise that aims to empower children to “see themselves as young leaders, to imagine their societal future and to share their long-term views.” Prototyped as a pilot in California and then fully launched in Romania in 2018, Government of Children is designed as an ongoing universe (film, web, VR). How would children solve real-world problems such as extreme poverty, pollution or violence if they could be leading our societies? How can the visions of children, who have no rights to vote in our societies, inspire the current decision-making process? The project now hopes to expand to other continents, allowing us to compare the visions cross-culturally.

Expanding Our Imagination

34If you’re reading this, you might find yourself thinking about the future, not necessarily the one you have already mapped for yourself, but a future that until now might have been unimaginable. We carry aspects of our pasts -- our identity, our memories, our traditions -- with us into those futures, but the past should not predetermine the future. We might, as we often do, imagine the worst possible outcome, we might see the future as predetermined by past mistakes, but we might also expand our vision to include more utopian imaginings, which may move us beyond the constraints of the current moment and provoke us to reflect on choices and possibilities that once seemed foreclosed. Before we can build a better world, we need to imagine what a better world might look like. And then, we need to bring that vision back with us to our current reality, so that we can enfuse our everyday spaces and practices with the possibility for social transformation and with the obligation for civic participation.

35We believe that these practices of the civic imagination can open up new conversations across the globe. In the words of Paulo Freire, “authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication” (1970/2017, p. 50) Our project offers multiple resources to foster such conversations -- from broad theorizations to case studies of how the civic imagination is already being deployed by various social movements to workshops where communities imagine their futures together. As we do so, we consider nostalgia as a form of the utopian imagination through which we reimagine the past alongside the future, and we see this process as an important means to identify what aspects of our usable past we want to bring with us into our ideal futures. Our workshops often invite the sharing of memory objects and the stories we form around them as a way of acknowledging how humans make meaning through their relations with material culture (Appadurai 23). We pay respect to the biography of material objects as a means of paying respect to the people who value them.

36We continue to explore modes of inquiry that can help us understand and connect around memory and imagination. We asked our Bowling Green (Kentucky) and Fayetteville (Arkansas) workshop participant to bring a meaningful or memorable object with them and share its story as a means of introducing themselves to the group. At first, we understood this practice as simply an ice-breaker in our workshops, but from the start, it was clearly much more. Sharing these objects and their stories creates a degree of intimacy and vulnerability between the workshop participants; it enables trust as people talk about stuff that is at the core of our common humanity.

37Continuing with this exercise, we invited our graduate students (who come from diverse cultural backgrounds) to pen personal responses as they engaged with some of the memory objects. The students wrote about and to people they had not met, people they only knew through these stories about cherished objects. We gathered these responses into a publication on Medium (​memory-objects), which allowed us to share them back with our Fayetteville and Bowling Green collaborators. For the project, this was a discovery process that allowed us to explore how such iterative exercises can be harnessed for civic communication.

38Our civic imaginations must respect a range of human experiences if they are going to be inclusive enough and expansive enough to enable collective action in an increasingly interconnected and intersectional world. One of our current projects is the development of an Atlas of the Civic Imagination where workshop participants can post the stories they generate, the worlds they imagine, and the objects they share ( In mapping these diverse futures, we encourage people to build on each other visions, reflecting on similarities and differences in perspectives, positionalities, and aspirations in different cultural contexts. The Atlas will help motivate and document the spread of these methodologies. Doing so will help us to achieve an expanded “public sphere of the imagination” that is appropriate for a networked globe.

39Our own methodology is not fixed, even as we share the first phases of our research through our upcoming book releases. We keep experimenting with new ways of fostering the civic imagination through, for example, shorter encounters rather than full day workshops, encounters that might operate within museums or book festivals, crossroad where diverse people come together and may be willing to try new experiences,. We certainly will make some sacrifices when we seek to develop quicker interactions with people, but we also anticipate new insights and we are excited by the prospect of expanding the scale and scope of our efforts. We have already been tapping digital tools which allow us to map in real time insights from larger groups than can be accommodated by our existing workshop practices, and we are interested in how alternative futures might be built up over time by successive visitors to a museum or gallery.

40If our goal is to encourage people to hold onto multiple visions of the future, to refuse to accept predetermined answers, we must also remain flexible in our approaches, always searching for new civic paths. We need to embrace our obligation to daydream, to imagine, to continue to engage in everyday issues and concerns, to keep from transforming strong civic ties into banal interactions, to expand the range of groups with whom we interact. We want our method to inform scholarship, but we also see it as a tool for intervention and outreach. We see our processes and practices as inspiring hope, triggering reflection, intensifying social connections, expanding civic capacity and individual agency, in short, as making a difference on the ground in the lives of our participants, In that way, the civic imagination concept will further inspire participatory politics.

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Paulina Lanz, Tyler Quick, Mehitabel Glenhaber, Joan Miller, Ioana Mischie, Khaliah Peterson-Reed, Becky Pham, Steven Proudfoot et Paromita Sengupta, « New Civic Paths and a Public Sphere of the Imagination: The Civic Imagination Project »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 18 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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