Defining the American of 2060
By Rogelio Alejandro Lopez
Where Imagination and Citizenship Meet
On April 20, 2018, our Civic Paths team traveled to Chicago, Illinois to continue our Civic Imagination work as part of the "Define American Film Festival." Define American is a immigrant media and culture non-profit, founded by undocumented Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. The organization combines storytelling, media, and culture to influence public discourse and enact social change, particularly in the areas of immigrant rights, refugees, citizenship, and national identity. Notable projects include the documentary film "Documented" (2014) about Vargas' own immigration story, and the "Superman is an immigrant" campaign which tapped into comic books to spark conversation around identity and citizenship. On day two of the 3rd Annual Define American Festival, Civic Paths conducted a slightly modified version of our "world-building" workshop - meant to scale up for larger groups.
Learning to Imagine Together at Scale
Our team was set to facilitate a worldbuilding workshop with most of its core parts, mainly collective brainstorm and storytelling. However, expecting a slightly different venue in the form of a large auditorium and potentially more participants than usual, our team explored new ways to adapt our method to this occasion. The first modification came in the form of a real-time word-cloud-generating platform called MentiMeter, which allows users to submit one-word responses to a provided prompt via smartphone web browser. Once submitted, these responses are then displayed in real-time as word-clouds through a monitor or projector, with more frequently submitted words appearing larger. The idea was that this platform could allow our team to translate our usual whiteboard/butcher paper and marker brainstorm approach into a format more accomodating for larger groups. Potential prompts included: How do you define being "American" in 2060, in one word? What values should shape the world of 2060?
The second revision in method applies to the group storytelling aspect, where small groups are asked to develop a narrative based on the areas and ideas generated during the collective brainstorm. Rather than the usual free-structure of the narrative creation component, our team explored a "mad-lib"-style story template, which provided participants with smaller chunks of a greater whole and provided a pre-existing scenario to flesh-out. These "chunks" or parts of story included "location," "characters," "magical item," and "conflict and resolution." Each part included a prompt meant to aid smaller groups in exercising their imagination, such as:
"In the year 2060, there’s a very important place that represents the current state of the world and where all the most important values and events of this era intersect. In the space below, describe this place. Where is it? What is it called? Who lives there? How do they live? How do people come to live there? What are their homes like? How do they get around?"
The premise of this slightly revised workshop was more or less the same: To use collective brainstorm as a means to encourage participants to enter an "imaginative" mode of thought, especially using popular culture, and to use brainstorm ideas as inspiration to imagine and build future worlds through stories. Our only missing element would be participant-driven illustrations and performances of their created stories, which for this occasion would be done by spoken word poets and professional artists.
From Black Panther to the Clouds
On a brisk Saturday morning in Chicago, our Civic Paths team assembled in preparation to build worlds. Our team included: Dr. Sangita Shresthova (Director), Dr. Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Andrea Alarcon (PhD Student), and Rogelio Alejandro Lopez (PhD Candidate). We connected with Define American's staff, namely Entertainment Media Manager Kristen Marston and Campus Engagement Manager Julián Gustavo Gómez, and briefly rehearsed our civic imagination presentation.
As an organization with ties to entertainers and artists, Define American informed us that undocumented film and television star Bambadjan Bamba would be available to open our workshop with inspiring words to participants. Addressing a crowd of about 20-25 people, a number much lower than expected, Bamba spoke of the importance of "telling our stories" and of daring to "imagine better." His words, presence, and magnetism certainly provided an inspiration and empowering tone to the workshop early on, and also solidified the idea that culture, the arts, and social change can and do intersect to great effect.
Video. Bambadjan Bamba
With energy high, we jumped immediately into our introductions and use of MentiMeter. As we displayed our first menti-meter prompt overhead using the auditoriums projector, instructing participants to respond with 1-3 words each, I noticed our first technological snag of the day: no cell service. Luckily for us, access to wifi saved the day. After sharing the wifi password with everyone in the room, with smiling faces all around as people reconnected with the world, we began to see our first word-cloud slowly take form. Overall, the use of word-clouds seemed to work well to bring participants into a space of possibility, aspiration, and imagination.
A Latinx President Walks Into an Multicultural Festival in African With OHO...
Collaboratively creating stories about aspirational futures has been a core-component of our world-building workshops, and for Chicago we did this with a slight twist: mad-lib-style story templates. As mentioned before, the idea behind these templates was to allow small groups of participants to flesh out some smaller part of a story, such as its setting and protagonists, due to restrictions on time and physical space. As our first foray into this style of storytelling, our team was not sure what to expect. However, after the usual get-to-know-each-other chatter and careful deliberation of template instructions, our team observed participants creatively engage, and even enjoy, this narrative activity.
I floated about the room from group to group, listening to discussion about what kind of magical tool could make the world a better place. "Could we create a type of magical portal, that could be used to transport resources all over the universe?" said one participant. Another responded with: "But we have to remember that the portal can only be used by one person, so we have to make sure they are benevolent." Another magical tool idea was "OHO" (a remixed version of H2O), a powerful liquid substance that could cure all ailments and imbue people with knowledge and wisdom.
A group working on developing a "location" for the story settled on an advanced African country, much like Black Panther's "Wakanda," which was set to host an international festival with people from all over the world, meant as a symbolic unification of humanity to tackle the Earth's most pressing issues. For conflict and resolution, one group reported a concerning problem in our own time which reaches dire status by 2060: oceanic pollution. By 2060, the Earth's ocean will be so polluted that all oceanic life has ceased to exist, and humanity, seeing no need for the ocean due to non-existent fishing, has chosen to ignore the seas altogether. As a possible resolution, the group proposed a planet-wide epiphanic moment, a mass and instantaneous raising of consciousness, that could lead to humanity banding together to restore the ocean.
"Who will be the agents of change in 2060?;" What will they care about?" These were some of the types of questions posed to groups imagining the characters for our shared story of 2060. As participants talked among themselves, I overheard many of the terms and keywords reflected in our word-cloud earlier regarding how "American" will be defined in 2060: queer, immigrant, black, activist, among others. When reporting back to us, the "characters" group described the protagonist of our 2060 story: a queer Latinx immigrant female President of the United States, whose own experience and social position would allow them to serve people across many types of background and difference. This character echoed the sentiments of Zoe Leonard's 1992 poem, "I want a president."
While we did not have enough time to fully piece these story elements together to create a continuous narrative, many participants were able to suggest links between them. "Our Latinx President could wield OHO for social good, to heal others and to share knowledge," someone said. "Perhaps it is at the World Festival in Africa where the moment of mass consciousness raising happens, and people will begin to care about the oceans," added a voice in the crowd. "Since world leaders will areadly be in Africa together, why not have our President encourage them to action using OHO?," commented another. Had time allowed, I believe this exercise could have transitioned well into our usual next step of performing stories and illustrating them to bring them to life. Instead, we turned to spoken word artists Yosimar Reyes and Patricia Frazier to perform poetry inspired by and written for our session, which used terms, themes, and ideas generated during our brainstorm and narrative building exercise. Additionally, many of these story elements were illustrated in real-time by local artist Bria Royal, who brought the world of 2060 one step closer to fruition.
Artist. Bria Royal
Video. Yosimar Reyes
Video. Patricia Frazier
Takeaways from Our Chicago Worldbuilding Tour
In closing, I'd like to highlight three main personal takeaways from this experience, centered on: 1) using word clouds for brainstorm; 2) alternative ways to creative stories in groups; 3) some limitations to this revised approach. First, using MentiMeter for collective brainstorm worked surprisingly well. While limited to only one word, the added simplicity of this exercise seemed to encourage participants to enter an imaginative space early on. Seeing the word-clouds generate in real-time also became quite mesmerizing, as people were literally able to see each other's priorities build-up together, often with much overlap and shared commonalities.
Second, the storytelling aspect of the worldbuilding workshop can be a key moment for groups to do the work of civics, mainly learning how to work with others across difference, developing leadership roles and group responsibilities, and finding compromise between personal needs and group needs. I was unsure how much of these aspects would be able to happen when participants were steered in a certain direction with a template. However, its seems none of the community-building aspects of collective storytelling were lost, and having some predefined goals seemed to have facilitated civic processes. From my observations, participants continually returned to the template to stay on task, which can be a challenge at times in more free-structured formats. Furthermore, creativity did not appear to be stifled either, as "OHO" and teleportation portals can attest.
Third, while much of the same creative "magic" and process came through with these revisions to our world-building workshop, it is important to be aware of potential limitations, if for no other reason than to anticipate them and work around them. These include a limitation of word-clouds in general, which is that they rely on frequently re-appearing words to be effective. Some word-cloud prompts seemed to have worked "better" simply because a certain idea or term caught on with many people, making its presence all the more visible (such as "Black Panther"). A drawback to this is the potential to overlook less frequent but equally important ideas, such as personal family narratives and immigration stories. Finally, less of a limitation of method than time, it would have been great to explore collectively how the separate story elements generated via "mad-lib" could have come together to form a single narrative. We got a preview of what this could look like at the end of the session, which shows its promise and potential.