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Civic Imagination: The Urgency of Possibility

My father keeps forgetting that he already asked me to forgive him.

His body and mind are failing him;
he is slowly becoming someone else.

If that which harmed you seeks forgiveness,
but seems disconnected from the past that you recall,
what are you forgiving?
Who are you forgiving?
How do you reconcile what was, what is, and what could be?

If There Is No We

We live in a time of disinformation, distrust, disharmony, and denial. We experience, every day, the subtle and not-so-subtle signals that people see change in vastly different ways and they respond accordingly. In the United States, the human composition of our communities is shifting; our demands of institutions and systems are transforming; we are reckoning with structural racism and a history of colonialism in new, urgent ways; the stories of who we are, what our shared past means, and what future we want are splintering into narratives that take us further away from each other. It may be fair to say we have never been a collective “we” in this nation. It may also be fair to say that if we don’t learn to build and activate an inclusive, comprehensible “we” at the interpersonal, institutional, and systemic levels, then the crises we face, from the municipal to the planetary, will be beyond our capacity to truly address. If there is no “we” to imagine change together, how can we make change that works for everyone?

A group of people stands on all sides of a round card table and plays a civic planning board game.

Attendees at Grantmakers in the Arts Annual Conference 2015 playing through Sojourn Theatre's Built.

What Does It Take?

You’re in a theatre.
Or a community center.
Or a school auditorium.
Or a conference room in a municipal building.

You are one of ten people sitting in a room.
Your chairs are in a circle.
The chairs have cushions, but the cushions are thin.
No one is especially comfortable.
You are not especially comfortable.
These ten people, of which you are one, don’t know each other.
You all glance around and nod awkwardly.

A screen at the front of the room flashes and gets your attention.
Words appear.

Game One.
You have a decision to make. Together.
Should our community spend more money on mental health services next year?
If so, where should we get the money?
If not, what should we do about our overcrowded ER, currently overwhelmed by a large increase in individuals needing mental health interventions and care?


You don’t speak.

The screen goes blank.
You look at each other.

The screen flashes again.

Game Two.
You have a future to design. Together.
What does our community look like if everyone who lives here knows how and where to access mental health support?
How is your daily life different?
How do the people you care about experience the place they live?

The screen goes blank.
You look at each other.

A voice is heard in the room.
It says—
Which game do you want to play?
Game One or Game Two?

Decide or design?
Can you decide before you design?
If you do, what do you risk?
what does it take for a group of people—you—to do either, together?

You Are Already Asking

For you who work in municipal government and public health and community development and across the public and nonprofit sectors;

for you who, at times, have to decide without being given room to imagine and design;

for you who work to solve complex problems within a system that often seems designed to stymie your boldest efforts;

for you who take chances on surprising and sometimes disruptive strategies in the face of bureaucracy that demand outcomes and results often at a pace and within parameters that do not leave room for relationship building, process, and iteration;

for you who are always looking to bring smart, committed people together to improve the lives of the residents you serve;

for you who believe art and culture as process and product has the power to connect, inspire, ideate, and transform;

and for you, artists and arts leaders and arts students.

You are already asking your own versions of these questions.

How do we build a better, healthier we in our communities, large and small?
How do we collaborate across sectors, agencies, and stakeholders to solve complex problems?
How do we engage diverse residents in civic decision-making with authenticity and consistency?

To answer these,
we need to build individual and community capacity for residents and decision-makers who share place, who hold different values, who do not share lived experiences nor make sense of the world in the same ways,
to imagine, together,
equitable and just futures for all.
We need civic imagination.

An Economy of Care

My father keeps forgetting he already asked me to forgive him.
He puts his attention on me.
He says, haltingly, that he misses me.

What do you owe somebody or something that failed to care for your well-being?

When, as a nonprofit, local government, or arts institution, we try to build relationships and trust in community, we are often operating from within systems that have done harm. Can we build a healthy “we” on a foundation of harm? What have we changed? What have we repaired? What have we made right? Who is being centered, every day, by what we do now and how we do it? To whom are we listening? And most importantly, what comes from that listening? How is our listening legible?

I think to listen is to pay attention. To pay implies offering transferrable proof of currency value. Beneath the currency is the actual thing being represented—the matter to which the proof of value is attached. In the case of attention, that matter is love. When we listen through our attention, we are showing our love—for the story, the thing, the group, the person.

But for a currency to be trusted—for it to represent that which it stands for, for its worth to earn reciprocity, for sudden attention to be more than a signal of need or desire—it has to be stable. Consistent. Durational. Active.
It has to demonstrate care.

How often have we heard from someone we care about that words are not enough?

We cannot imagine together if we don’t listen. We cannot listen if we don’t pay attention. We will not pay attention if we don’t care. So, for whom do you care? What do you care about? Who and what does your organization/agency/department care about? Who and what does your project care about? Who and what does your programming care about?

And what does your care look like?

An Obligation of Care

I was recently in a rural place where I spent a morning with men holding power, and an afternoon with residents lacking basic needs and rights.
A resident, knowing of our morning, knowing of speeches and shook hands and pleasantries, warned—
Do not be brainwashed.
Do not be fooled by ceremony and formality and the appearance of contrition.
When power takes humble pleasure in tales of repair, look for reparation.
If you see none, doubt.
Hear words but listen for action.

Re-Imagining Success as Care

Cities, towns, and counties sometimes conduct public engagement as part of developing new strategic plans for things like local parks, new transit investments, and affordable housing options. These planning processes operate with strict timelines, stated goals, and mandated outputs. These planning processes are one of the only ways that civic decision-making is, structurally, set up to be guided by community input. They are supposed to be public activity with a direct correlation to government resource allocation and action.

A proposal: measure the success of public planning process not by the quality of the resulting plan but the durability of the new relationships you build on the way to making the plan. Measure your success not by outcomes in eighteen months but by quality of connection in ten years. When you need a new plan ten years from now, ask at that moment: What relationships did we build and sustain over the last ten years that now allow us to plan with people who, last time, were strangers and targets for outreach? Measure your success not in contact hours and scope today but in longevity and depth tomorrow. Consider this a structural change, not a tactical one. Commit to a generational focus; commit to a relational focus; commit to growing trust by consistently showing up and listening; commit to processes that invite design before demanding decisions; commit to making listening legible—what was heard needs to be seen in what happens next.

What might it look like if institutions committed to care through structural innovation and new approaches?

Two actors sit across from each other at a small square table during a show.

Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd in Sojourn Theatre's Don't Go at the University of Southern California in Spring 2018.

An Office for Civic Imagination

What if municipalities—cities, counties, towns, tribal governments—had an Office for Civic Imagination to work creatively across departments and agencies on building structural practices that support care, collaboration, and creativity?

What if that office existed to…
…deepen the ways that departments (such as transit, public health, and education) work together and collaborate with artists to tackle issues such as equitable access to excellent education for all young people?
…find opportunities for city housing officials and nonprofit community stakeholders to rethink, together and with the support of culture-makers, how they engage with unhoused residents?
…collaborate with cultural workers to mitigate the disproportionate economic impacts of the pandemic on communities of color?

We might imagine/see…
…artist-designed pop-up stations at bus stops that connect counselors and advocates with young people at the beginning and end of school days to assess needs and deliver services.
…Indigenous culture-makers collaborating with policymakers to develop projects that honor the wisdom of impacted residents as co-designers of housing opportunities.
…neighborhood-based Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) cultural workers collaborating with local economic development agencies and small business owners to create communication, visibility, and gathering strategies.

A Department of Civic Imagination

What if arts and culture organizations—theatres, museums, cultural centers, music ensembles—had a Department of Civic Imagination to work across executive, artistic, programming, and engagement offices on structural practices that support commitments to care, collaboration, and creativity?

What if that department existed to…
…take the quality of attention that artists ask of audience and turn it around, listening with purpose to community aspirations and challenges?
…aim its creative resources at bridging gaps between community residents and the frequently insular, inequitable process of civic decision-making?
…contribute to equitable public health outcomes across the community.

We might imagine/see…
…neighborhood-based artists commissioned to create new work that listens, synthesizes, and expresses hyper-local perspectives and then commissioning institutions purposefully situating that work physically and/or virtually in civic and public contexts.
…arts institutions partnering with local municipal agencies and nonprofits to develop creative, equitable public engagement approaches that disrupt traditional power dynamics and strengthen relationships between residents and community services.
…artists trained as community health liaisons delivering arts workshops in neighborhoods with historically low healthcare access and connecting community participants to partnering health centers for hand-off health services and health screenings.

What Was, What Is, and What Could Be

My father keeps forgetting that he already asked me to forgive him.

Forgiveness is not always deserved, earned, or warranted. It is not always possible. I felt stuck when I could not imagine forgiveness. I could not see what could be. And I wanted to see what could be. I wanted to remove what stood in the way of my caring.

Forgiveness is not my answer to the question:
How can we imagine together?
My answer is care.

The obligations that come with care today
from where we each stand
as individuals,
as workers at institutions,
as figures
complicit in and survivors of
oppressive legacies and contemporary injustice,
are vastly different.

Possibility is urgent.

So, what is possible from where we each stand?

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