The Civic Imagination 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 understood through the framework of participatory culture.
Participatory culture has been a primary concept animating Henry Jenkins’ research since the early 1990s. First introduced in his 1992 book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, the term was coined to describe the ways that science fiction fans were generating new genres of cultural expression -- from fan fiction to music videos and cosplay -- and the ways that they were forging new identities and social relations through their collective play with fictional stories and characters. The internet made visible a much broader array of communities and subcultures forged around shared storytelling and expressive practices.
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 byanymedia.org online resource for educators. 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.
Our research led to community-based practical interventions and a partnership with Gabriel Peters Lazaro at the USC School of Cinematic Arts Media Arts + Practice Division. We brought many young civic leaders together across different movements through a series of webinars and experimented with collaborative projects that might allow them to learn from each other. Our online database of civic media was complimented with a series of lesson plans and activities developed in concert with these groups and with educators across the country. We conducted workshops to help organizations tap into creative collaboration and existing pop cultural storyworlds to strengthen their messaging skills and community bonds.
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. The Civic Imagination Project will be a unique opportunity to explore and activate the Civic Imagination in publicly accessible formats that include both creative practice and scholarly perspective.