Why We Need a Civic Imagination

The crisis in civics is a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

  • “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside of us already. We have the power to imagine better.” —J.K. Rowling

    If the definition of technology is any tool or process we use to organize ourselves to achieve some goal, then the most important technology we have, as humans, is our culture. Culture is the knowledge we collect and pass on to our children, the rituals we use to organize society and give meaning to life, and the expectations we have of how people are supposed to behave. And any discussion of the potential of civic tech to change the world for the better has to confront the challenge that culture presents.

    The hardest thing to change, when it comes to getting an organization or institution to embrace a new technology or way of doing things, isn’t the technical capacity of that organization’s staff. It’s something more amorphous: its “culture.” Otherwise, as management expert Peter Drucker says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Today, our civic culture is at a crossroads. Many Americans appear to be withdrawing from public engagement, frustrated by the seeming ineffectiveness of traditional political processes. Meanwhile, there’s new energy around the idea of doing-it-ourselves, using the disruptive potential of the open internet, open data, and social networks, to make things work better.

    So it feels like a great moment to come to Civic Hall to explore how we might hack the civic culture, and look for ways to turn some of the energy that our culture now channels into entertainment and distraction and outdated rituals into more substantial kinds of public engagement.

    As I approach this work, I’m drawing on the insights of several great teachers, starting with Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor at USC Annenberg. Jenkins defines the civic imagination as the capacity to imagine creative alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems. When we address the civic imagination, we are addressing the heart of our malleable societal norms.

    It was Jenkins who helped me understand the work I’ve done for the last ten years with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). The HPA uses parallels from Harry Potter to engage fans across the world to improve upon the story of our world. Together, HPA members have built libraries in Rwanda, Detroit, the Mississippi Delta, and Brooklyn; sent five cargo planes to Haiti; funded the protection of thousands of civilians in Darfur and East Burma; continue to give to their local communities in our 270 chapters in over 30 countries. After more than four years of advocacy, we got Warner Bros to make all Harry Potter chocolate Fair Trade or Utz- certified.

    After extensive research on the HPA, Jenkins writes:

    These kids weren’t political when they first joined HPA: They don’t come from the kinds of backgrounds where politically active youth traditionally come from. Research has shown that most kids who go on to be politically and civically engaged first learn to talk about politics around the dinner table; they have a civics teacher who brings in real-world examples, and connects their history book to their lives; they’re involved in certain extracurricular activities like student government. After the age of 16 or 17, their lifelong political engagement tends to be fairly predetermined. The HPA’s work is breaking that mold.

    In all of our efforts, we’ve been inspired by JK Rowling’s statement about our power to “imagine better.”

    Unfortunately, instead of imagining better, the civic culture conjured by our national leaders and elected representatives seems barren of such optimism and does little to speak to us as anything more than consumers of government, or just as plain old consumers. What an impoverished civic imagination that implies! Mainstream education debates are focused on test scores without prioritizing the complex inner lives of our students, our political experience is dominated by big money, etc. If what we appreciate, appreciates, we are building a society of human beings with little respect for anything human or imaginative. Even some of our best government innovators are pushing to improve public services not because they add to human dignity but because they want government to treat its “customers” at least as well as Amazon or Google.

    Worry about how many Americans are turning off from civic engagement has led to some well-intentioned efforts that misunderstand the problem. While Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has done terrific work on iCivics, an online platform that uses video games to help students learn more about how government works, she is mistaken in thinking the central problem is a nosedive in how we as citizens understand our political institutions.

    Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media has not only pointed out that the data does not reflect the existence of such a collapse in civic knowledge, he has joined Jenkins in arguing for a broader definition of civics that is far more accurate to the experience of all citizens, particularly to young people. Whether we know it or not, we are engaged in the makings of a civic experience every time we are on social media. Think of how hashtags have become cultural statements, even the names of political movements. The challenge is not, as O’Connor hopes, to get people to expand their knowledge of how government works. The crisis in civics is, in actuality, a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

    The crisis in civic agency is causing exponential damage. While most people believe that issues like human rights atrocities, widespread inequality, and ecological devastation are serious and deserve immediate attention, the average person does not believe they can do anything about them. We’ve lost incalculable energy, talent, and resources on solving complex problems because of the frustration, fatigue, and complacency that come from feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

    Through my experience in co-founding and directing the HPA, I have seen first-hand how building a robust civic imagination can lead to a vibrant community discovering its agency through campaigns that effect social change and helps other changemakers replicate those victories on a wider scale. The accomplishments of the HPA stand in the way of “grown ups” who tell kids to get their heads out of fantasy and into the so-called “real world”; in fact, fantasy is not simply an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. We dream at night, but our culture dreams through books and movies and stories. Working with those stories is cultural dream work. Working with stories that we put energy into is cultural acupuncture. And that is where I hope to focus my work as Civic Hall’s first Civic Imagination Fellow.

    In cultural acupuncture, we find where the psychological energy is in the culture, and move that energy towards creating a healthier body for our world. In cultural acupuncture, stories are the proverbial needles; stories are what resonate. Stories are what can expand our civic imagination and allow us a transformed sense of agency.

    My plans as a Civic Imagination Fellow are ambitious. One area of focus is the invention and re-appropriation of holidays. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge trend in this direction. Seattle recently changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day.” Some have equally serious goals, like Mandela Day, when people are called to take action to change the world; or Giving Tuesday, when online advocacy groups push post-Thanksgiving shoppers to donate to good causes. And others have a more light-hearted emphasis, like April Fool’s Day online, or Talk Like a Pirate Day.

    On August 3, to get things going, I’ll be hosting a meetup at Civic Hall around Esther Day. Named after my dear friend, the late Esther Earl (who inspired John Green to write the bestselling book and blockbuster film, the Fault In Our Stars) and led by the foundation in her name, Esther Day is the world’s first baggage-free holiday about love.

    Beyond exploring how we reboot our national holidays, I will also be developing several culture hacking campaigns, including one that draws on the attention around the Hunger Games movie to expand the discussion around economic inequality, and an even more ambitious effort to tap the excitement around the upcoming Star Wars film to help focus more attention on the problem of big money in politics.

    There’s so much more to come and I look forward to a dialogue here and in person as we collaboratively explore an ambitious agenda to fire up the civic imagination.