Practicing Futures

A Civic Imagination Action Handbook

by Gabriel Peters-Lazaro (Author) Sangita Shresthova (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXII, 176 Pages


The real world is full of challenges and the sheer weight of problems facing us can stifle the genius of our collective human creativity at exactly the time when we desperately need imaginative and innovative solutions. Responding to this, Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook harnesses our connections to popular culture and taps the boundless potential of human imagination to break free of assumptions that might otherwise trap us in repetitive cycles of alienation. Utopias and dystopias have long been used to pose questions, provoke discussions, and inspire next steps and are helpful because they encourage long view perspectives. Building on the work of the Civic Imagination Project at the University of Southern California, the Handbook is a practical guide for community leaders, educators, creative professionals, and change-makers who want to encourage creative, participatory, and playful approaches to thinking about the future. This book shares examples and models from the authors’ work in diverse communities. It also provides a step-by-step guide to their workshops with the objective of making their approach accessible to all interested practitioners. The tools are adaptable to a variety of local contexts and can serve multiple purposes from community and network building to idea generation and media campaign design by harnessing the expansive capacity for imagination within all of us.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword: The Work of Imagining Communities
  • Section One Overview
  • Chapter One About Practicing Futures
  • Introduction
  • What Is the Civic Imagination?
  • What’s in the Handbook?
  • About Us
  • Key Concepts
  • Civics
  • Imagination to Imagining
  • Worldbuilding
  • Participation and Process
  • By Any Media
  • Our Journey
  • Tips
  • Imagined Outcomes
  • Bibliography
  • Section Two Practice Chronicles
  • Chapter Two Fantasy Can Help Us Breathe—Muslim Youth Group, Los Angeles
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Post 9/11 Generation
  • Fantasy Creeps In
  • This Is Your Daily Fantasy Newscast: Up-ending Stereotypes
  • Imaginary Bombs Are Off Limits
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Three Bringing Imagination to Activism—Freedom School, Los Angeles
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Building Trust with DREAM Activists
  • Building on ‘Coming Out’ Narratives
  • Connecting Immigration, Protest and Unicorns
  • Engaging Memory Objects
  • Accommodating Utopias and Dystopias in Activism
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Four Mind Blown! Grown Ups Freaking Out—Digital Media and Learning Conference, Boston
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Launching the Workshop
  • Educators Imagine the Future of Learning
  • Imagination as a Digital Citizenship Skill
  • Chapter Five Em/power Love: Building Empathy and Solidarity with Each Other—Salzburg Global Seminar
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Schloss Leopoldskron
  • Connecting to Others through the Inspiring Stories
  • Remixing Stories
  • Towards a Lasting Connection and the Atlas of the Civic Imagination
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Six Turning the Chairs to Face the Table—Bowling Green, Kentucky
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Future of Work Initiative
  • Reconciling Future Visions
  • Past as Lens for the Future
  • Commitment to the Present
  • Words Divide
  • Fear in the Room
  • Where Can We Go from Here?
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Seven Future of Faith?—Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Faith and Social Justice
  • A Future World Defined by Social Justice
  • Imagining a Future for Faith
  • Ties to the Past
  • Towards Faith-Based Civic Imagination
  • Building a Network through a Civic Imagination Event
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Eight Pakistan, from the Heart: Civic Imagination in Context of Violent Extremism
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Pakistan and CVE
  • What We Learned from the Interviews
  • Story-Making Workshops Build a Foundation
  • From Workshops to Projects
  • Extending the Relevance of the Civic Imagination
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Nine Imagination in the Classroom—New Media for Social Change
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Workshops Building Teams
  • Imagination in the Curriculum
  • Pivoting Toward Projects
  • Chapter Ten Of Two Faced Bunnies in the Woods—Brussels, Belgium
  • Key Insights
  • Introduction
  • Connecting the Creative Team
  • Imagining Place—About Brussels and Belgium
  • Mapping Story Terrains
  • Connecting with Communities
  • Bibliography
  • Section Three The Practice Guidebook
  • Chapter Eleven General Notes About Facilitation
  • Chapter Twelve Workshop: Origin Stories—Imagining Ourselves as Civic Agents
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (10 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Identify a Memory Object (15 Minutes)
  • Share Memory Objects and Identify Connections (15 Minutes)
  • Craft Origin Stories (20 Minutes)
  • Share Origin Stories (30 Minutes)
  • Final Reflection (15 Minutes)
  • Possible Extensions
  • Chapter Thirteen Workshop: Infinite Hope—Imagining a Better World
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (5 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Future World Brainstorm (20 Minutes)
  • Story Making (20 Minutes)
  • Performance Planning (15 Minutes)
  • Performance! (30 Minutes)
  • Final Reflection (Ranges between 10 and 45 Minutes)
  • Option 1—Short Reflection (15 Minutes)
  • Option 2—Iterative Group Reflection (30–45 Minutes)
  • Possible Extensions
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Fourteen Workshop: Step into the Looking Glass—Imagining Our Social Connections with a Larger Community
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (15 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Brainstorm (15 Minutes)
  • Entering the World (15 Minutes)
  • Meet a Character (15 Minutes)
  • Connecting to the Real World (20 Minutes)
  • Make a Poster (15 Minutes)
  • Final Reflection (10 Minutes)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Fifteen Monuments from the Future—Bringing Imaginative Dimensions to Our Real World Spaces and Places
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (10 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Place Based Observation (20 Minutes)
  • Identify Space/Place for Intervention (15 Minutes)
  • Inspire Place-Based Imagination (10 Minutes)
  • Monument from the Future—Intervention (20 Minutes)
  • Touring (20 Minutes)
  • Final Reflection (10 Minutes)
  • Possible Extensions
  • Chapter Sixteen Remixing Stories—Forging Solidarity with Others with Different Experiences Than Our Own
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (10 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Inspiring Stories (15 Minutes)
  • Connecting Stories (15 Minutes)
  • Creating Remixed Story (15 Minutes)
  • Drawing a Visual of the Remixed Story (20 Minutes)
  • Sharing Remixed Stories (15 Minutes)
  • Final Reflection (15 Minutes)
  • Handouts for Inspiring and Remixed Stories
  • Chapter Seventeen Creating an Action Plan—Imagining the Process of Change
  • Overview/Intro/Core Idea
  • Logistics/Nuts and Bolts
  • Running the Workshop
  • Icebreaker (15 Minutes)
  • Introduction (20 Minutes)
  • Activity Series
  • Identifying Issues (15 Minutes)
  • Issues, Action Strategies and Goals (20 Minutes)
  • Narrowing the Issue
  • Getting Serious About Strategies and Goals
  • Participation Profiles and Celebrity Spokesperson (20 Minutes)
  • Participant Profile
  • Celebrity Spokesperson
  • Create Success Scenario and Short Video (30 Minutes)
  • Viewing and Reflection (30 Minutes)
  • Workshop: Creating an Action Plan—Imagining the Process of Change
  • Worksheet
  • Issues, Action Strategies and Goals
  • Participation Profile and Celebrity Spokesperson
  • Create Success Scenario
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Eighteen Stories from the Field
  • Building Community Collaboration with Civic Imagination Workshops by Jimmeka Anderson
  • Postcards from/at Donde Rebotan Los Sueños [Where Dreams Hit the Wall] by Rogelio Alejandro Lopez and Emilia Yang
  • Bibliography
  • Final Thoughts
  • Recommended Readings
  • Author Biographies
  • Index
  • Series index

←xii | xiii→


Foreword: The Work of Imagining Communities

Henry Jenkins

Today, our popular memories see the 1940s as a golden age for civic engagement in America. The Second World War brought the United States together around a common cause—to overcome fascism, to make the world safe for democracy—and returning home, the “Greatest Generation” sought to build a stronger, more affluent, more forward-thinking country. These were the “good old days” in many of today’s narratives of civic decline. But, writing in the post-war period, political scientist George B. Huszar (1945) worried that the nation might soon experience the kind of “disintegration” of democratic culture which enabled the rise of dictators in Europe and Japan. And this was because democracy had become a thing of words rather than actions. Huszar writes in his 1945 book, Practical Applications of Democracy, “Democracy is something you do; not something you talk about. It is more than a form of government, or an attitude or opinion. It is participation.” (xiii)

Huszar made a core distinction between “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy,” arguing that democracy should be embedded into the practices of everyday life. Talk-Democracy, he suggests, is often top-down, as people consent to being ←xiii | xiv→governed by people who are all too ready to tell us what to do: “The teacher tells it to the children, the preacher tells it to the congregation, the employer tells it to his employees, and the politician tells it to the voters. We add together all this telling and call it democracy.” (12) But, “Do-Democracy” emerges from “creative participation by intelligent human beings in the ongoing process of society.” He concluded “The problem of democracy is not merely how to obtain consent, but also, how to create opportunities for participation and a determination to participate.” (13) His goal was to create “warm, personal, satisfying human relationships that develop when men join together in groups” that are empowered to take meaningful action on decisions that directly impact their lives (17).

Looking backwards, scholars of civic engagement, such as Robert Putnam (2000), point to the bowling leagues, garden clubs, Parent-Teacher Associations, and other civic organizations as helping to foster a sense of neighborliness and meaningful participation during this post-war era which they argue has been lost in more recent years. Huszar embraces similar groups, particularly those like the PTA which work together to solve shared problems: “The problem-centered-group is democratic in structure; it leads to the preservation of the integrity of the individual, nourishes his productive powers, and encourages participation. This structure is flexible, informal, stimulating and creative, with participant leadership. In contrast, the authoritarian social structure is rigid, formal, regimented, hierarchical, noncreative, and frustrating to the individual, with ‘leadership’ from the top down.” (26) Though largely forgotten today, Huszar’s concepts of “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy” have enormous relevance for our own time, where many are similarly worried about the disintegration of core democratic institutions and practices, the breakdown of civic ties within local communities, and a decline in our sense that there is any common ground to be identified amidst the sharp ideological divides between the country’s two competing political parties.

To be clear, Huszar’s “problem-centered groups” can only move forward with a great deal of talking, exchanging ideas, identifying shared values, swapping stories, forging shared vocabularies, proposing solutions, and debating the merits of different plans. But, he sees such talk as emerging among equals who understand themselves as empowered to participate, who are encouraged to contribute, and who have some expectation that their ideas will be respected by the others in their community. In a community with strong civic engagement, these problem-centered discussions may spill over into their everyday interactions—at the barbers, at the hairdressing salon, at the grocery store, at the bowling alley, in the taxi cab, at the coffee shop and tavern (to cite classic examples of civic spaces). Through such exchanges, we accumulate social capital and learn to respect each other as vital members of a shared community. Contemporary political theorist Peter Dahlgren ←xiv | xv→(2009) makes a similar point: “The looseness, open-endedness of everyday talk, its creativity, its potential for empathy and affective elements, are indispensable resources and preconditions for the vitality of democratic politics.” (90)

His idea that civic dialogues pave the way for democratic politics is only partially true. Core distinctions between civics and politics often get elided. The civic represents the shared beliefs and values, the underlying trust, which makes collective action possible, while the political encapsulates struggles over power within the decision-making process. In a well-functioning civic culture, people may disagree, fight hard for what they believe in, and then accept each other back as neighbors, because there is a core democratic infrastructure which allows us to resolve conflicts and agree to disagree so that we may continue to live side by side within a particular community. Sociologist Nina Eliasoph (1998) describes the ways we increasingly avoid politics as a topic in our everyday conversations with people we care about, fearing that political disagreements have become too divisive and that the heated disagreements may fray social ties in the absence of shared civic commitments. Because we lack such mutual understandings, the community fails to come back together again, wounds do not heal, in the wake of elections and other political events. Rather than developing the basis for shared understandings, we end up locked in a permanent culture war. Here, the political destroys the exchanges which enable the civic to persist and it is in that sense that talk-democracy may ultimately result in a loss of civic agency. Right now, democracy needs our help.

Practicing Futures: a Civic Imagination Action Handbook can be understood as a workbook for people who want to help rebuild the civic infrastructure of American democracy, who are interested in how they might do democracy at the local level within their own community. It describes ways communities might come together to consider alternatives to current conditions, to imagine what a better future might look like, and to build worlds together that help them to articulate shared values, hopes, and dreams. Through these workshops, we often find the common ground that so often seems missing in more partisan political discussions. We rediscover social bonds, because we are taking a step sideways from the immediate problems and playing with possibilities together. Imagine that.

A tradition of academic writing has spoken about “imagined communities”: the term comes from Benedict Anderson (1983) but he captures something which is widely recognized—the ways a group of people too large to know each other directly perceives each other’s presence, feels connected with each other, and comes to share a common history, identity, and vision for the future. Anderson’s “imagined” is framed in the past tense, as if what links a group of people together to form, in his case, a nation-state is something which happened a long time ago, ←xv | xvi→something we inherit from generations that preceded us. Often, the images we use to depict democracy—the Spirit of 1776 or Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, to cite two examples—are images that evoke a sense of tradition, rooting democracy in the past, rather than as a living tradition. Yet, over time, those old symbols of shared identities and experiences wear out, they become stale as we see them used in far too many President’s Day themed advertisements—they become “talk-democracy”. We stop listening as leaders talk down and talk past us with empty phrases and dead metaphors.

The work of the Civic Imagination Project embraces a different concept—that of the imagining community which is actively generating new cultural symbols to describe our relationship with each other. Imagination is seen not as a product or a possession (not a fixed identity or predetermined set of contents). Rather, we talk about imagining as a process. Imagination is not something we consume or inherit but something we actively produce together, something we do. We can watch imagining happen; we can hear the voices of people engaged in acts of imagining. We are in the room where it happens. Much like Huszar’s “problem-oriented groups,” these workshops create the preconditions for democratic imagining, we are constructing a space and claiming a time for active, creative, participation. This book describes some of the processes and practices which help free us to imagine together.


XXII, 176
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXII, 176 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro (Author) Sangita Shresthova (Author)

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, M.F.A., Ph.D. is Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs, and produces digital media for innovative learning. His current research interests include civic imagination and hypercinemas. He is a practicing documentary filmmaker and his courses deal with critical media making and theory. Sangita Shresthova, Ph.D. is the Director of Research of Civic Paths Group at the University of Southern California. Her work focuses on the intersections among popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. Her previous books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change (with Henry Jenkins et al.) and Is It All About Hips?: Around the World With Bollywood Dance.


Title: Practicing Futures