Five orientations to envision and evoke better futures
For my Design dissertation, I am exploring the idea of clarifying and engaging people in the long-term outcomes of social justice work — visions of the worlds we can achieve. Walidah Imarisha (2010) writes about this as she defines Visionary Fiction. In Design we want to make these visions tangible and experiential (FoAM, 2008, Candy, 2010). In efforts to achieve social justice, visions of the future we might achieve could help communicate WHY the work is necessary and worth the struggle. In addition to describing the current actions and current demands, activists and organizers can share visions of the world we are building toward.
To create a vision for change, “we take on the responsibility of stretching beyond the now.” (Imarisha, 2020:1).
Here I propose five possible orientations for evoking ideas about the future that go beyond simply describing those visions. I draw from the many different ways that activists, artists, ethicists, political scientists, theologians, rhetoricians, and many others engage in bringing the future into the present. These orientations are intertwined and stackable but I believe it is still useful to define them separately.
There are innumerable possible futures shaped by small and large decisions and accidents that are constantly evolving (Amara, 1981, Dator, 1986). Protopian describes the “preferrable, possible” aspects of futures theory. Not as impossible as utopia and not embracing the doomsday aspects of dystopia (Kelly, 2001). There is power in describing want we want the future to be, beyond the absence of today’s problems, by actively imagining what we will create when progress is achieved. The term protopian speaks to the better world we realistically, but hopefully can manifest.
Prolepsis is a literary and rhetorical term describing language that brings an element of the future into being in the present. Rhetorical scholar Marc Redfield defines prolepsis this way in his analysis, “In the aiming or speaking or imagining, the addressee comes into being as a future” (2003: 77). Cultural psychologist Ignacio Brescó de Luna focuses on events in his definition, “narrating or evoking a future event in advance” (2017: 280). For example, a teacher might do this when addressing new students by saying, “Scholars, let’s open our books.” The label scholar evokes the people the teacher hopes the students will become (Cole, 1998, Little, 2008, Verity, 2018).
Proleptic speech can evoke visions of the future we are working toward more viscerally than a straightforward description of our objective. For example, Dream Defenders, a youth-led organization founded in response to the 2017 killing of Trayvon Martin, uses prolepsis well in their visionary document titled, The Freedom Papers. Through echoed statements, they call forward a future that is more just: “By virtue of being born, each of us has the absolute right to live free of violence.” And “To move is to be free. To stay and have the right to return home is to be free” (Dream Defenders, 2020). These statements describe the world they are fighting for, and their conviction is magnified by stating that future in the present tense.
Like prolepsis, but including criticism of the present, prophetic imagination describes the past, present, and future through speech. It is a practice that comes from theological scholars but can be found in politics and social justice. Theologian Walter Brueggemann defined the term in 1978. He identifies how “ The prophetic task begins with grief that names the realities within such a social situation of pain, loss, fear, resentment, and antagonism” (2018/1978:10). He prescribes a reckoning with the pain of the struggle today but also an insistence that there is room for hope as well, which he proposes requires “acts of imagination” which “offer and propose ‘alternative worlds’ that exist because of and in the act of utterance” (2018/1978, p. 19). Scholars Groves & Hatch distill prophetic imagining as “the tandem discourses of criticizing (lamenting the corruption and inevitable demise of the present order) and energizing (casting a vision of hope in God’s future amid despair)” (2020:6). Prophetic imagination mirrors truth & reconciliation processes, requiring recognition of current wrongs to move forward. A confession, to make space for a new justice.
Nikole Hannah-Jones at the New York Times is doing the work of prophetically imagining racial justice opportunities.
The 1619 Project (2019) positions African Americans as leaders of democratic change throughout US history. Hannah-Jones is reframing a past representation of Black Americans as victims of the system and therefore indifferent to political structures. Instead, she shows us that Black residents have often fought for all Americans’ rights, leading the charge for America to be the country it has always claimed to be. In that way, she creates a path to her vision of a more just society, one that is, of course, shaped by the strength and wisdom of African Americans.
Let’s look again at the vision of the future presented by Dream Defenders. The full statement contains this prophetic style. “By virtue of being born, each of us has the absolute right to live free of violence — freedom from violence by an imperialist nation, police, a partner inside the home, a peer in their classroom, or a person on the street” (Dream Defenders, 2020). They call forward the future they want to see and then remind us how it is not yet true today. Essayist Claudia Rankine reflects on the need to reckon with the past and present to find space for Black lives in the future, “This other world…would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here” (2016:151).
With that reminder of how important it is to be grounded in the present, we can move from language to activity. Buckminster Fuller claims, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Prefigurative politics is a term developed to describe the anarchist practices of building alternate worlds in the present day. Prefiguration has two aspects: 1) fighting for change through methods that have “ends and means alignment” (Boggs, 1977, Maeckelbergh. 2011, Yates, 2015, Raekstad, 2018). Those who ascribe to prefigurative politics refuse to believe that the ends justify the means — refusing to accept the idea that beneficial ends could justify unjust or incongruent means. And 2) demonstrating alternative values, which challenge the status quo, through tangible action. When Civil Rights protestors sat at lunch counters, they prefigured a world where Black people would freely sit in a public space. It was performed as a protest and came to be a reality after a hard-won struggle (Baker, 1960). Occupy Wall Street is often described as a prefigurative movement (Smucker, 2014, Gordon, 2018, Raekstad, 2018). They acted in anti-capitalist ways and performed experiences like People’s Libraries and “mic checks” that gave audiences a taste of an alternative economy and alternative power structures (Smucker, 2014).
Similar in its focus on creating an alternative world, pre-enactment is an emerging practice in Futures Studies. It has teams of people create full-scale interactive experiences that allow people to experience a glimpse of the future for themselves. It differs from prefigurative in its orientation toward learning rather than demonstrating. Kuzmanovic and Gaffney describe this concept of pre-enactment or prehearsing as this, “Participants can explore what their life might be like in a specific, plausible near future…it can help you to imagine who you might become and how you might behave in a possible future” (2017: n.p.). Primarily the focus is on what the individual learns through their experience of a physical enactment of a future. Francesca Laura Cavallo (2019) used pre-enactments to help people pre-experience disasters to lessen their anticipatory fears. In the same way, I can imagine using pre-enactment to reduce anxiety and fear of significant social changes.
To enhance the learning experience within pre-enactments, we can draw on the practice of prototyping from the field of Design. The term prototyping means many things in different contexts, but what is consistent is the idea of making to test and learn. Prototypes help us to test our assumptions about how things will work. To get out of our heads and into something that we can interact with, the earlier, the better.
Experimenting and understanding are already happening with concepts of reparations and police reform. The alternative policing program in Oakland, California, has been set up as a prototype to learn from the experience of responding to 911 calls differently. In the report detailing the process they describe how, “Activists, advocates, and service providers from across many communities and OPD [Oakland Police Department] leadership were excited by the long-standing CAHOOTS model in Eugene, OR” (Urban Strategies, 2020:1). Many stakeholders were involved in adapting the Eugene model to the community of Oakland. They describe community tables, working groups, and community conversations. After roll-out, the program collects data, providing reports every three months, and continued conversations with communities (ibid. 3). A key benefit of pre-enactments is to test out the idea at a small but experiential scale before fighting for larger budgets and more comprehensive implementation. Prototypes and pilots can gather data about the usage and also lead toward essential improvements. Pre-enactments are a way to gain a shared understanding of the problem space and the proposed solutions. It may be a way to incorporate concerns from opponents– trying out different approaches early before scaling to larger populations.
If we think of the long-term goals and outcomes of social justice work as future visions, we can propose ideas about the future we are working to create through social change. If we can practice imagining the stronger, healthier, more just world that would be created through this long, hard work, it could make the work seem more worth while. Overall, these five orientations serve as prompts for trying on, and trying out, different ways to engage future visions to bring us closer to achieving the better world we want to create.
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