Imagining The World of Tomorrow with Oakland Youth
By Rogelio Alejandro Lopez
The World of 2060, According to Oakland Youth
On February 5 our Civic Paths research group traveled to Oakland, California to conduct a "civic imagination" workshop with Youth Radio - an award-winning youth media non-profit organization. The purpose of the workshop was to collaboratively imagine the world of 2060 with Oakland teenagers, using a core "world-building" workshop to brainstorm key areas for change and deploying visual storytelling to share these visions with others.
Youth Radio: Media Production as Youth Development
Founded in Berkeley, California in 1993, Youth Radio emerged in response to a media environment desperately lacking in youth voices, perspectives, and priorities, and has since used public radio (and now a variety of multimedia) to train young people as "next generation storytellers." Based in Oakland since 2007, today Youth Radio serves the East Bay-area's diverse youth by providing "hands-on" media training. From journalism to computer programming, the organization simultaneously addresses a historic lack of developmental resources for teens while preparing them for a digital workplace through paid internships.
Located only minutes away from the heart of Silicon Valley, Youth Radio has recently ventured into the world of "code" as a structured part of their operations. As an organization already attuned to questions of representation through storytelling, coding becomes a way for young people to understand how the digital world is intentionally designed and structured a certain way. By becoming 'coders,' youth too can build new types of tools and explore technological interventions in the world. It was this opportunity to frame "app" design and coding as a way to re-imagine the world that led to our collaboration with Youth Radio through the Civic Imagination Project.
Challenging the Taken-for-Granted World Through Imagination
The Civic Imagination project is led by the Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California, and is focused around "civic imagination" - the idea that social change begins through a process of imagining. According to the project website, the civic imagination is partly defined as "the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions…" In By Any Media Necessary (2016), Jenkins, Shresthova, Gamber-Thompson, Kligler-Vilenchik, and Zimmerman examine how youth activists often drawn upon narratives and symbols from popular culture to discuss contemporary issues and to reimagine the world. Tapping into comic book lore to advocate for immigrant rights, undocumented youth "Dreamers" highlighted Superman's undocumented status to drive a conversation about the nature American identity and values in relation to legal citizenship (Jenkins, Shresthova, Gamber-Thompson, & Kliger-Vilenchik, 2016).
Although re-imagining the world is itself an important exercise, often allowing activists to gain new perspective by escaping "the tyranny of the possible" (Duncombe, 2007), The Civic Imagination Project is also concerned with the role of the imagination in cultivating a sense of civic agency and informing civic action. The practice of collectively reimagining the world through the civic imagination can be a crucial first step towards becoming an "agent of change." During the Occupy Wall Street protests, becoming an agent of change meant responding to a commonly known symbol in New York City, the spotlight "bat signal" from DC Comics' "Batman," which was reconfigured to call upon the everyday citizen, the "99%," to catalyze social change (Jenkins, Shresthova, Gamber-Thompson, & Kliger-Vilenchik, 2016). Essentially, this work explores how the process of collectively reimagining the world using the shared symbolic resources from popular culture can be a catalyst for carving out one's own role in the process of social change. As the Civic Imagination website puts it: "the civic imagination also requires the capacity to see one’s self as a civic agent capable of making change, as part of a larger collective which has shared interests, as an equal participant within a democratic culture, and as empathetic to the plight of others different than one’s self."
In an effort to shift the process of collectively (re)imagining the world from the abstract into practice, the Civic Imagination Project uses "worldbuilding" workshops to facilitate the creation of aspirational worlds - which was the purpose of our visit to Youth Radio.
Civic Imagination in Practice: Building Worlds Together
Our Civic Imagination workshops combine creative brainstorming, narrative, and performance to facilitate reflection of social issues, cultivate aspirational visions for the future, and generate roadmaps for problem solving and steps towards realizing "utopias." For our visit to Youth Radio, our group used a "worldbuilding" workshop, inspired by approaches used at the USC Cinema School to develop rich narratives by first imagining a fleshed-out content world and populating it with unique characters and relationships. While we have modified the workshop to suit particular group needs and interests, the civic imagination worldbuilding workshop essentially consists of three core parts: 1) creative brainstorming of core areas as a means to collectively build an aspirational world; 2) using brainstorm ideas and the aspirational world to develop a narrative, with characters, conflict, and resolution; 3) sharing back narratives, either visually or through performance, as a means to reflect on the process of imagination to plan for the future, problem solve, and potentially inform action.
At the start, participants are instructed to temporarily suspend their sense of what is possible, and are instead encouraged to tap into a play-oriented and imaginative mode of thought where elements of fantasy and science fiction can be useful tools for reimagining the world. Brainstorm areas from past sessions have included anything from "transportation" to the "environment," and flying cars, teleportation, solar-powered clothing, and technology-assisted talking animals have been some creative takes on them. Narratives have ranged from "smart-birds" (ala Planet of the Apes) taking over major cities as a means to force humans to think about environmental impact, to a story created by second-graders involving a flying, talking dog's relationship to humans as an allegory for improved relations with the animal kingdom. These kinds of narratives were used to ask questions about action-planning today: what steps can we take now to realize this vision? What kinds of organizations are already doing this work? What can I do to make this happen? As an organization with deep ties to communities and local issues in Oakland, our group was excited to conduct a worldbuilding workshop with Youth Radio.
From Oakland to the World: A Space of and for Youth Media Makers
Sangita Shresthova and I arrived at Youth Radio in the afternoon of February 5, and we were met by Newsroom Senior Editor Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep, who gave us a tour of the facilities. Youth Radio's Oakland headquarters offers young people a variety state-the-art and industry-standard production spaces: radio and music recording studios, video broadcasting booths equipped with green-screen technology, and multimedia production and post-production stations. The organization taps into this production space, staff, and young people themselves to offer hands-on media making classes, which begin with a "core" overview of various kinds of media production before teens decide the specific track they wish to pursue.
While media production is Youth Radio's bread and butter, the organization also offers a variety of support services to help young people thrive: educational mentorship and college prep, general counseling and resource linkage, life skill training (ex. cooking classes), and material resources (ex., food banks, libraries, "community clothes closet."). This structure has allowed Youth Radio to reach millions of people through their journalism, positively influence high school graduation and college enrollment rates among involved youth, and produce award winning work - earning them a George Foster Peabody Award in 2011, among others.
Co-Creating the World of 2060 with Oakland Teens
With the help of Scholar-In-Resident Clifford Lee and Lissa Soep, we prepared for our worldbuilding workshop from a 5th-story corner conference room overlooking downtown Oakland. Aside from a requirement of space to host the expected 30+ youth, materials required to run our worldbuilding workshop are relatively accessible: butcher paper or flip charts, writing utensils (pens, colored pencils, dry erase markers), and an optional whiteboard.
Once the young people arrived and populated the chairs organized around a central conference table, we opened the workshop with two simple ice-breaker questions: what is your name and what do you do at Youth Radio? As we started to familiarize ourselves with names and faces, we learned that the teens in the room represented the many branches of Youth Radio's production operations, from journalism, to interactive, to graphic design.
To frame our workshop, we discussed the power of imagination and narratives for social change. Given Youth Radio's emphasis on storytelling and attention to social issues, this group of teens seemed particularly socially aware and equipped with a critical vocabulary to unpack current events. It was clear early on that we were indeed in a special place in terms of youth empowerment, and I would not have been surprised if many of these Oakland teens already identified as "agents of change."
From past collaborations at the grassroots level, we knew this degree of social-political consciousness could greatly assist in identifying and analyzing areas in the world that require imaginative transformation, such as immigration or the environment. However, we have also seen how temporarily breaking away from the "tyranny of of the possible" can be particularly challenging for people highly engaged at the grassroots level - where the immediacy of the present can (understandably) take center stage. To encourage a free flow of imagination, we settled on the year "2060" as the point in time to collectively build a new world, since it seemed distant enough to suspend reality while also appearing relevant to the lifetimes of the young people.
Collective Brainstorm: Identifying Areas Ripe for Change
When identifying the "areas" to reimagine for social change, we used a combination of pre-selected topics already relevant to the teens' work and group brainstorm. Five areas emerged from this process, including housing, media, transportation, health, and education. The initial contributions for these areas tended to emphasize present-day limitations that needed to be fixed, a kind of deficit frame, rather than using strengths-based or aspirational frames, and much less turning to fantastical elements to rebuild an area from scratch.
Housing in 2060 would no longer be controlled by corporations, public housing would be improved and free, there would be a prevalence of community gardens, and physical structures would consist of recycled compost and glass materials. Similarly, aside from the prevalence of "holograms," media in 2060 appeared to largely address the limitations or deficits of today: more realistic and diverse media representations and balanced media use to counter a "connected 24/7" culture. By our third topic of healthcare, this trend was solidified: corporations would be removed from the equation, healthcare would be universal, less processed and more affordable organic foods, improved mental health access and reduced stigma, and more holistic healing practices that consider culture and ethnicity.
We were awed and inspired by how socially and politically aware this group of teens was - a testament to the important work of Youth Radio. At the same time, the diagnoses of contemporary social ills painted an overall grim (even if accurate) picture and did not necessarily provide the aspirational building blocks for a "better world." Instead, we encouraged the young people to highlight strengths and aspirations - both from the present and future - that could be used to replace limitations and envision a new kind of world. Rather than thinking about "less deportation" and "no border wall" for "immigration," for example, teens began to imagine a world with "fluid movement of people," where "all cultures are respected," and where immigration due to grave circumstances is not needed (because the world overall has become a better place).
When we finally arrived at the topic of "transportation," this group of woke teens found a compromise between their commitment to addressing present-day local issues and using the imagination to envision and plan for a better world. While they wanted a future with fewer vehicular accidents and a safe transportation culture (based on limits of the present-day), they also wanted flying cars, free public transportation, environmentally friendly transportation, the elimination of cars on the roads, driverless cars, and cities structured around bicycles, trains, and buses - a much more radically different vision for the future.
Images Courtesy of Youth Radio (Facebook)
Illustrating Our Future: From Aspirational Building Blocks to Storytelling
Having identified our aspirational building blocks during the brainstorm session, we proceeded to break out into smaller groups to realize a vision for the world of 2060 through illustration and storytelling. For this segment, young people gathered in groups of 4-5 people and were instructed to identify an area we discussed (ex. Immigration, healthcare) and illustrate what it will look like in the future. Using only a sheet of flip-chart paper and markers, each group was given fifteen minutes to develop a story about the future, with attention to characters, conflict, and a resolution.
The stories the groups generated involved collective action to establish radical community gardens (Figure 1), a young person's struggle to receive mental health support in high school (Figure 2), and the "Billy Ray Cyrus Effect" explaining how people will eventually escape the clutches of social media and become "IRL activists" (Figure 3.). While fifteen minutes was not enough time to fully flesh-out a story, the storytelling and civic imagination combination allowed the teens to collaboratively create a future, or at least one specific instance of it, and think about their relationship to that future today.
"The Radical Garden!" story allowed young people to reflect on current efforts to create community gardens in public spaces, and the role of radical activism in reclaiming public space (often through clashes with police). The story about access to mental health speaks to needs that should be addressed today, and many expressed a personal interest in seeing such support more openly available in schools. Finally, the "Billy Ray Cyrus" effect imagined a tipping point when the surveillance and manipulative aspects of social media would become apparent more broadly, leading people to reconsider their relationship to and consumption of media and how it may hinder or support activism.
Figure 1. The Radical Garden
Figure 2. Free Mental Health in Schools
Figure 3. The "Billy Ray Cyrus" Effect
One Step Closer to the World of 2060?
We very much enjoyed our time with the brilliant and empowered young people at Youth Radio, as much as with the Youth Radio staff, and we are grateful of the time we shared imagining the world of 2060. Although far away from now in time, building worlds alongside these young people brought that future, that "better world," one step closer into fruition through discussion, imagination, play, and illustration.
Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., & Kliger-Vilenchik, N. (2016). Superpowers to the People! How Young Activists Are Tapping the Civic Imagination. In E. Gordon & P. Mihailidis (Eds.), Civic media: technology, design, practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., & Zimmerman, A. M. (2016). By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. New York: New York University Press.
Civic Imagination Project (2017). https://www.civicimaginationproject.org/
Civic Paths (2018). http://civicpaths.uscannenberg.org/
Youth Radio (2018). https://youthradio.org/