Yours Truly on the What If podcast

Kindred spirit Rob Hopkins– who seeded the now-global Transition Town movement— wrote about humanity’s urgent need for more imagination in his recent book From What Is to What If. He’s followed that with a podcast called From What If to What Next?, in which he speaks to all kinds of different people musing on What Ifs in their own sectors.

And a few weeks ago he invited me and Masum Momaya, an arts funder and former Smithsonian curator with a social justice focus, to explore the question What If Imagination Were a Universal Human Right?

You can listen to the full podcast here. You’ll get to hear us describing the more beautiful world humanity achieves by 2030 (a gorgeous form of spellcasting that opens every one of Rob’s podcasts), and then we rap for a half-hour about the impacts of marginalization and oppression on the imagination, the role that artists play in creating sustained change, and how we personally support imagination in our own lives.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer reading to listening:

ROB: Thank you both so much. Beautiful, beautiful. So the first, the first question I wanted to ask you both is whether you agree with the premise of this show, namely that in 2020 imagination is not a universal rights. And if you do, what do you feel are the factors that are contributing to that?

MASUM: I think we have many things that are stated as rights and have not been achieved in reality. In terms of imagination being a universal right, I think there are so many factors that prevent that: widespread fundamental insecurity on so many levels; so many forms of injustice; an environment that’s out of balance; pervasive violence.

Because of all of these things, I think imagination is either a means of survival–sort of being able to transmute ourselves from day to day reality and, and try to live in a space that has more wellbeing, more peace, more creativity, more laughter— or imagination is impossible, because people are struggling for survival on a fundamental level. And I think another factor is that on a practical level, in most societies, including here in the United States, culture, creativity, the arts imagination are either poorly funded or not funded at all. There just aren’t enough resources. And that, you know, starts at the very early level in many schools, but also permeates all the way to national coffers. One example in the United States, we don’t have a Ministry of Culture. A lot of the support is private and relies on the market to value it. And I think we know that neoliberalism and markets are not necessarily going to do that because they’re not quote unquote productive, unless they contribute to productivity in some ways. I think that there are barriers on a social, sociopolitical and economic level.

ROB: Thank you. Ariane?

ARIANE: Similar to Masum, I think it’s about what’s protected, and unfortunately, even the ones that we’ve named already as universal human rights, like to have food and shelter, to be free from torture or slavery, we’re not doing a terribly good job of ensuring. But of course, imagination hasn’t even been named formally or “enshrined.” And so it’s also of course not being protected.

In terms of why not: I think imagination is a threat to the system of control and exploitation that is still–even in what we think of as no longer sort of colonial societies–still at the root of many of the institutions and the systems that are in place.

I worked on a book that came out in 2018 called Decolonizing Wealth, where I supported the native American leader, Edgar Villanueva, in writing it. And we called it the “colonizer mindset”: to divide, to control and exploit. And you see those three dynamics all across the board: to divide, to control and exploit. You see it in how the great majority of our organizations, our businesses, but also other kinds of organizations are designed: these pyramid structures in which the power of decision-making is consolidated at the top among the leaders, who then also claim the majority of the wealth, with the bottom of the pyramid, having very little to say about any of it and deriving much less of the wealth that’s being created. That’s classic divide control, exploit design still in place today.

And in the next book I worked on after that, with community leader Zach Norris in Oakland, we described our model of safety in the United States. Supposedly it’s our model of public safety. It’s been sold to us as that. But actually it’s a system of dehumanization. We broke it down into four parts: deprivation, suspicion, punishment, and isolation— and you see these enacted in institutions, not just, you know, in policing and in sentencing, but also in banking and housing. Again, really that’s, that’s underscoring the divide–a divide between an Us and Them– once again, we’re back to that colonizer mindset: divide control exploit.

Having people be imaginative threatens a system of control and exploitation. The question What If? is threatening. You know, if slaves have any space to imagine, they’ll imagine a way out. If, God forbid, school children get imaginative, they’ll imagine something other than this education system that is essentially training them to be cookie cutter workers in an industrial economy, still. That’s why totalitarian regimes clamp down on artists, historically, because they’re a threat to the order that’s imposed.

MASUM: I think that many of the points Ariane made are evidenced in the rise of fascist regimes that we see around the world, including here in the United States. In terms of the ways that they’re clamping down on people there are so many ways, but I think one is really just trying to push a singular story of who we are or a singular narrative about what people’s lives should be, what a nation should be, what society should be.

And so I feel like what we’re seeing now today is evidence of exactly how threatening imagination is, and how threatening artists are. To me, like, I think of that phrase– we can’t breathe or I can’t breathe —really often, and it just echoes on so many levels. I feel like we can’t breathe and we can’t imagine are sometimes interchangeable, in terms of thinking about this question of imagination as a universal right. Because if one can’t breathe, one cannot imagine.

ROB: Wow. Thank you. What do you see in the world around us now as manifestations of the fact that we haven’t treated the imagination as a human, right. What happens when we ignore the imagination in the way that we have or systematically eroded it, as you’ve just been describing.

ARIANE: When we don’t allow for imagination or only allow for, you know, an impoverished sort of imagination, we get stuck. And we are stuck. Even the solutions we generally tend to come up with– to the multiple crises we’re facing.. I don’t think I need to name them all, everybody who’s listening probably is familiar— but most of the solutions that we come up with, they still tend to reflect the same paradigm.

I’ve been reading this wonderful book, These Wilds Beyond Our Fences, by a philosopher named Bayo Akomolafe. It’s a book I cannot recommend highly enough. He says: “in trying to climb out of the pits that we’ve dug for ourselves, the pit becomes resilient. In trying to escape the prison, the prison gains its form.” Which, you know, reminds me of the famous Einstein quote, of course, that we can’t solve problems from within the same kind of thinking or consciousness as created those problems. So that’s where we’re at with the limits to our imagination.

MASUM: There is so much evidence that we’re not treating imagination as a human right. I think on a very personal level, a lot of mental illness is connected to that in terms of anxiety, depression, loneliness– which I think is another pandemic that is global, in so many ways. I think being disembodied, feeling detached from our bodies is another way, especially as more and more of life is about, as Ariane said, being workers in industrial capitalism, being productive, having to configure our lives really around that, which has been that way for decades, if not more than a century. And so our day to day lives are circumscribed by that. And it’s not very joyful as a result. 

I think also what I see an activist movements is that it’s much easier to deconstruct and break things down and criticize, than to offer alternatives. We see that everywhere from social media, right, where people post a tweet taking an argument down. I think our education systems have allowed us to become more and more fluent in different forms of criticism, which is important, but I think it’s only half the picture. And I think what has suffered is the ability to reimagine anew, because we get stuck in this place of really being able to name what doesn’t work and why it’s not working.

But then the What If? question or the What Else? questions I think are the ones that are really hard to answer. In so many sort of activist spaces, for example, like the World Social Forum, or a gathering around a specific issue, a large percentage of the conversation is really breaking things down and saying “these are all the things that are problematic,” which again  is not unimportant, but very little sort of time-energy-space are given to the What If.

If we look at the way a human being develops, it’s inverted, right? Because children, as they play, they imagine, and they have less social conditioning at that point, less of those types of deconstructing frameworks and more of the What If frameworks. And then as one goes through schooling, and then one is trained to become a worker in whatever field, that is inverted, right. And we’re trained to be able to speak in a certain kind of language or discourse, to be able to produce in a certain kind of way.

And so even activist circles have been colonized right in that way. It’s all about being able to present things as talking points and be able to kind of show up and perform in a certain kind of way. And so I think that it’s a type of colonization.

I actually wanted to ask Ariane–because one of the things when I first met her that she was talking about in terms of writing and people putting work out into the world was this desire for solutions– that people are hungry for that. That was two years ago, Ariane, when we had this conversation, but I’m wondering if you still think that’s true. And if that is related to this whole needing more of imagination.

ARIANE: Yeah, obviously everything you just said resonates entirely. And I do- I meant to thank you, Rob. Not just for writing the book, which I have finished now and which I do think has the wonderful impact of making us all contemplate how much we’re bringing imagination into our work and our life.. which is a wonderful outcome for a book, speaking as someone who professionally makes them.

Also this exercise that you lead people through at the beginning of the podcast, to speak their vision of the different world. I have all of my clients, my authors do that, if they haven’t already done it. And like you’re saying Masum, it’s interesting how little of the time people who are working towards change will sit down and actually articulate: what does the world look like when we win? In fact, that’s been in a couple of books, we did that in the Story of Stuff. And in the book about care, elder care specifically, Ai-jen Poo’s book, where the outcome of that exercise is in the book, so that we are helping to make it so.

I am certainly not interested in a book that is just breaking things down. I think we’ve had this long love affair with deconstruction. We’re terribly good at it on the Left. We are eating each other alive. We desperately need to be constructing and visualizing.

“Solutions” actually is a word that I’m starting to have a slightly more complicated relationship with, partially influenced by Bayo Akomolafe and some other folks -Nora Bateson–.. I’ve begun to think in a more nuanced way about solutions just in terms of what I said before about them reflecting the same mindset, and it’s really difficult to think about how, how we really get beyond that. You know, Bayo calls for trickster approaches– he has a lot of wonderful language around fugitive spaces and awkwardness and unraveling. These sort of, you know, weird ways of talking about just kind of getting entirely liberated, which I’m currently super fascinated by.

ROB: What can we learn, do you think, from the experience of the struggles of people of color over many years in terms of how to keep the imagined imagination alive under extraordinary levels of oppression and trauma? For example, the question of what if there were no prisons, which always feels to me like one of the most incredibly imaginative and far reaching questions, one that opens up so much rich thinking, has been kept alive for decades. What insights can we learn from, from that experience?

MASUM: There’s a couple of quotes that come to mind. One is from organizer, Mariame Kaba on what it would look like to defund the police and abolish prisons. And she’s like: we’d have a society that was built on cooperation instead of individualism and on mutual aid instead of self preservation. I also think about the quote from Cornell West, who says “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I feel like every time I hear that, I really just have to let that seep into me.. because I don’t know what love looks like in public. You know, it is something that I think is still very foreign, based on the prison system and the incarceration system that we have in the US and worldwide.

I think also just looking back at the cultural work and cultural production of people of color throughout history, I think there’s a number of things to learn. I think one is just to be reminded of and to revere  human strength, courage, determination, and the resiliency of spirit–which in a lot of cases has been broken many times and is still alive and is still fighting to imagine. So I think just to remember that, especially in the moments of darkness like we are living today.

I think another thing is to remember that imagination is both individual and collective, because so much of what neoliberalism has done, especially in the United States, is to make everything about the individual. And really: artists are inspired by each other and they build work based on each other, and many of them co-create the work that they do. So I think, to be reminded that this is the work of all of us and it’s the work of all of us together, and that we hold this for each other.

And I think the work of communities of color remind us that the alternatives are actually there. They’ve been colonized, eviscerated, derogated over time but they’ve actually been there. We have countless examples throughout history. I think one popular one is obviously the Harlem Renaissance and all that was produced during that time and the diversity of things that were produced during that time. And, I think it’s interesting, for example, like right now, at least in the United States, many people are going back to the work of writers, poets, musicians, artists that was created during that time to really be able to indulge their own imaginations on a day to day basis and find so many things: healing, solace, inspiration.

I just think we’re very lucky to have the history of the cultural production of communities of color and people who have been colonized around the world. I think that it is something that we will have the privilege to go back to over and over again, as we figure out our way forward.

ARIANE: Yes. I think we can learn everything about imagination from people who have been marginalized. We know that trauma limits the imagination on a physiological level. You get stuck in a frozen response, which limits your ability to see options. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk talks a lot about this.

So I’m going to say something provocative. Are you ready, Rob? I immediately think about how these days, I only rarely read or watch films or TV or consume creativity that is made by, or about, white men. I find them really predictable and mediocre. And I think that’s because when you breeze through the world easily, without challenges to your assertions, you don’t get the chance to hone and sharpen your thinking and your imagination muscle. And the system rewards you anyway, because it was engineered to reward you, no matter what. I’m not saying that white men don’t face adversity– most do, at some point. And in fact, I think it’s interesting: I think there’s a correlation, often the time when someone comes up with something interesting, whether it’s a, you know, a business idea or whatever, a work of art, it usually comes out of encountering an obstacle or getting hospitalized for a long stay or failing or having his heart broken. That’s anecdotal…I mean, I don’t have actual data on that, but that’s sort of my observation.

I need to be careful not to romanticize suffering, but I do believe there’s a correlation between facing adversity and developing a strong imagination muscle, or creativity muscle. You look at a place like Cuba and the ways in which people repurpose parts of stuff in order to meet their needs. It’s mindblowing how creative they are. I was just amazed when I was there. And I feel like in our societies where all our needs are met, in these consumer societies where we can buy anything and have it delivered the same day or the next day, we get really lazy and entitled. We forget how to make things ourselves. And we forget how to make believe.

ROB: Writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara once wrote one of my all time favorite quotes that the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why imagination, creativity in the arts is so central and vital to deep sustained revolutionary change. It’s such change even possible without them?

MASUM: I don’t think revolutionary change is possible without artists. For me, artists, they help us imagine the alternatives, but I think equally importantly, they help us feel things– in our beings, and in our bones. And I think that’s what makes something irresistible. Once you have felt that love that Cornell West references, it’s very hard to want the alternative, but I also think until we feel that it’s just easy to kind of stay in our heads and say, well, this is how it is, or this is too hard, or it’s just going to take so much to kind of get to where we want. Helping us feel those things is the fuel that, that really underscores transformation. And I think it’s not just helping us feel our pain and our struggle, but it’s also helping us feel joy, love, pleasure. Who doesn’t want more of those things?

I think also on a sociopolitical level, artists help revolutions be not half baked in the sense that, once something is dismantled, once a regime is toppled, then what? And if that question is not answered, there’s a vacuum that gets filled by those that are ready to seize power or the narratives that are convenient, which tend to be really narrow and reductionist, um, or even extreme factions. As we saw, for example, with the Arab Spring, there was such a wonderful energy in terms of people coming together in coalitions to topple regimes. But then because the What Else, or What Instead, or What If didn’t lead, then extremists came in to to take that place, to fill that vacuum.

So I think it’s just the full range of what imagination and culture and art does that, that makes a revolution–a true revolution, a lasting revolution, one that actually sticks, and that is transformative at every level–possible.

ARIANE: Yes to all of that. I always say to people when they come to the retreat where I help people develop books–which is how Masum and I met–it’s a nonfiction book that we’re working on but you can’t just fill it with studies or data in order to create any sort of change in people’s mindsets and hearts. And absolutely what Masum said about the visceral reaction, the data doesn’t do that. You can be as logical as you want, but in my work until you’re using stories, you can’t achieve that embodied, visceral level of reaction in people, which is what I think ultimately causes them to take action.

I was so happy to see the Zapatistas mention briefly in your book, Rob– the resistance movement of the indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico– for those who are too young to remember. They were so creative. Their uprising was against the Mexican government wanting to exploit their land and their resources. And they called it their war against Oblivion: against corporate globalization and colonialism and neoliberalism and miserablism, all the isms… They were so masterful in using symbols and stories. They’d take over the radio station and broadcast these communiques. And they had these allegories with these really memorable figures. They sold the little dolls with the ski masks. For such a tiny place, they made a huge impact on generations of activists after that. One of the truths that they were working from is, you know: you can kill an individual leader or you can kill individual leaders, but you cannot kill a potent symbol.

ROB: What do you feel is the role of cultural institutions in this? What role can museums and other cultural centers and the “official repositories of the imagination” in our culture play in nurturing this?

MASUM: I think they have a role to play, but I think more than ever this moment is calling on them to do some internal work. I think first to decolonize themselves as institutions, to confront their own racism and systemic oppression, and to grapple with things like repatriation of artifacts and things that were taken as part of the projects of colonization, missionization, exploration. I think that most of the cultural institutions that we have today were born out of either projects of colonialism, projects of nationalism and nation building, or education in a very narrow sense. And so these institutions that we look to as possible homes for imagination have to do much before I think they can actually be that.

We have an interesting example here in the United States, right now, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland recently decided to cancel an exhibition by Shaun Leonardo, who is an artist who among other things creates drawings of police brutality against black and Brown bodies. And they canceled the show without consulting him, citing that they weren’t sure that they would be able to handle the backlash, the controversy, the community rage and conversations that would likely result from the exhibition, especially during this time. That’s just one of many examples of how these institutions are not serving as models for the type of imagination, decolonization, cultural engagement and community engagement that we need.

That being said, I think that there are examples of museums– such as for example, the National Museum of African American Culture and History that has opened just a few years ago, as part of the Smithsonian institution in Washington, D C –that are very different models of museums, that are born from community engagement, that have their roots in thinking very differently about what the role of a museum in society can be. And that also manifest themselves very differently in terms of how and where they put on exhibitions and public programs, how they think about collections, how they work with artists.

So I think that there is a huge role to play, but personally, I think that this is a moment to reflect and to clean house for most cultural institutions. And I think that both those who work inside them, especially, um, in the United States, again, museum workers of color, but also, those communities that engage with them, are asking for that in this moment. And I think not responding to those things will have dire consequences for the future of cultural institutions and society at large. No longer can these kinds of questions about slavery, empire, colonization, extraction of land, exploitation of people–which museums have been a part of throughout history–no longer can those questions be swept under the rug.

ROB: So one of the ideas that I play around with in From What Is To What If  is the idea of a national imagination act. The idea that we could create a national piece of legislation designed to uphold everybody’s right to an imaginative life. Do you think something like this might work? That we might be able to find a way of intentionally prioritizing the conditions for the imagination on a societal scale? Ariane?

ARIANE: Okay. So you’re asking me if I were Empress of the Earth, as I often suggest that I should be. I would probably focus on other contextual things as opposed to designing an, a national act itself.

I really believe that a major impediment to our imagination is our consumer culture, where we’re inundated with easy, shiny, distracting things, and we’re all numbed out and deprived of our agency. And so it’s like, how, what are the, what are the drivers of changing that? It’s very difficult one to work on. That one, I think, happens with culture change, working to make a different kind of life seem desirable. Or maybe a total breakdown.

And I know you’ve had an entire podcast– I enjoyed it–devoted to the impact that a Universal Basic Income could make. And I do think that if people had to work less in order to make ends meet, it’s probable that they’ll get more creative and imaginative.

We could mandate things like meditation in schools and workplaces so that the day starts off with 15 minutes of silent meditation for everyone. I think those kinds of things would for me be the engines, as opposed to an outright national imagination act.

MASUM: Yeah. I agree with a lot of things Ariane said, I think I’m very leery in this moment of kind of having government or a piece of legislation be a driver of that. I think what we’ve seen is just a lot of lip service that doesn’t translate into political will, that doesn’t translate into allocation of resources. I think largely as Ariane mentioned, about cultural change, shifts in day to day life. I think that anytime something becomes bureaucratized, it often also becomes diluted. And we want the opposite of that in this case. I think we want it to seep into the cracks and crevices of how we structure our days. And so I think there’s other types of intervention that may be more useful for that.

I really do wonder in this moment, you know, as we live through this pandemic, and as we reckon with racism and many other forms of oppression, if there is an opportunity to really bring back–not to bring back, but maybe to have people reconnect—to the kinds of things that will help us not just survive, but thrive beyond this. Because so many things are different and so many things that we took for granted have changed. And we’re going to be in this period for a while longer. And so I think that there is a moment here to be able to reimagine a lot of things, simply because many things that we took for granted are not necessarily true.

ROB:  How do you both, in your own lives, protect and nurture your own imagination, create the best conditions to live the most imaginative lives you can?

MASUM: I feel like imagination is related to time and space. And so, I’ve really been thinking about kind of my own internalized oppression around productivity and the need to be productive all the time. I have been more intentional in carving out time and space that isn’t scheduled, where there isn’t a to-do list that has to be taken care of. And I realize how much of a privilege that is. And so I think just having gratitude for that for me is really important because I know that for many people, life is about survival and they don’t have a lot of choices around that. And so creating and being grateful for time and space to be able to just have something that is unoccupied and to explore then what emerges.

As you mentioned in both of our bios– Ariane and I mentioned walking and being amongst nature– I think for me, that’s another way to cultivate imagination. I feel like nature itself is just full of inspiration in that way. And to see that across the changing seasons, I think is important, because it reminds me that there are cycles, and that I think imagination is part of that cycle and also has cycles of its own.

 I think also obviously engaging with art in different forms in every single form, from so many different artists, including those whose life experiences are very different from my own is definitely a way I nurture my imagination.

And then something which isn’t part of my day to day life, because I don’t have children, and also because of social distancing during the pandemic, but playing with children is also a really beautiful way to nurture imagination because they, they embody that and they are role models for us in way.

ARIANE: I should also start with the fact that I am incredibly privileged. I got dealt a really high hand of cards in life. But I have also made a conscious effort to create a life that enables a lot of reflection. Ten years ago I moved to a place with a much lower cost of living than where I had been living previously– the San Francisco Bay Area and in Brooklyn, New York. Ever since that, I haven’t had quite that level of anxiety hanging over me, you know, the demand to make some huge rent every month.

And then in terms of sort of a specific practice: for the last 12, I think, years or so, I’ve started most days by doing the morning pages– that practice of clearing, a written meditation, that Julia Cameron recommends for creative people in her book, The Artist’s Way.

You know, I joke that I live a little like a monk. I also am a child-free, currently single– like Masum said, you know, it’s time and space.

I’m a big believer in silence. So I don’t have background music or the radio going, for most of the day, if I put on some music it’s cause I’m going to, you know, dance to it, move to it, stretch to it, or, or listen to it.

And yes, definitely the walking, the walking in the woods, which is an almost daily practice and, you know, while I’m out there, I don’t touch my phone at all. Or maybe one in 10 times, I’d, you know, I take a picture or something, but I will not have phone conversations or be checking on things. It’s really my time to just be connected to my body and to the woods. And, you know, I do think through some of the things I’m working on.

And then finally I’d say that my favorite chill out activity is reading science fiction and fantasy. So very imaginative forms. Currently I’m totally in love with Nnedi Okorafor, and Nora Kay Jemison, who goes by NK Jemison. And of course, Octavia Butler. All three of them amazing women of color fantasy and sci-fi writers: highly, highly recommended.

ROB: Wonderful. This has been– I feel like we could just talk for hours and hours and it would get deeper and richer and richer. But I wonder if there’s anything that you’d still like to share, any reflections in relation to my question of what if imagination were a human right that I haven’t yet asked you the question for.

ARIANE: I had a thought which was sparked when I read your book, Rob. There’s that quote from Ursula LeGuin, where she says she had abandoned the word “creativity,” because corporations have had co-opted it. Only blessings towards her spirit–hopefully she’s listening in on this conversation. I bet she’d like it—but I think rather than take a stance of demonizing corporations that have recognized the value in things like creativity and innovation. (I mean, I have to say I’m totally irritated by this word “ideation”) But rather than, you know, hate on them, we could look at what happened when they’ve prioritized it.

And I think Google famously gave its, or gives still, its employees one day per week, where they get to work on whatever creative project they like. And of course they do it with a bottom line in mind, because of all sorts of cool Google products have come out of that process, but we can tip our hat to them and then apply the same practice, not for the sake of the bottom line, but you know, for the good of all of us and for all of us thriving. What if all our workplaces gave our employees the same, the same freedom?

ROB: Thank you so much. A delight.











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