Fiction for social change: Dreaming a better future

January 25, 2018

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“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K Le Guin

I first saw this quote Monday night, at a Portland State University tribute for Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Educator and writer Walidah Imarisha shared it during a keynote titled “Afrofuturism and Possibilities for Oregon.” The following day, Le Guin passed, and the quote appeared all over my Facebook newsfeed, shared by friends and family members across the world that connected with her message of hope.

That is just one of the gems from Le Guin’s National Book Awards acceptance speech in 2014. She also said, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.”

I was first exposed to the idea of fiction as tool for social change at Web of Change in 2015, shortly after the publication of Octavia’s Brood, a collection of science fiction stories written by social justice activists and co-edited by Imarisha. Inspired by the book, Amanda Kloer and Gibran Rivera led a session that invited attendees to imagine, and embody, a different way of relating to others. The idea was to push us beyond the boundaries of what we know, to dream a new way to be in community. Because we can’t create what we can’t imagine.

Imarisha has spent years helping people here in Oregon understand our history, and then throw off its shackles by dreaming collectively, or engaging in what she calls “visionary fiction.” She reminds us that we have never experienced a world without poverty, war, prisons or borders. So when organizers commit themselves to liberating their communities, that is science fiction. The changes they are working towards seem utterly improbable. But so did an end to the divine right of kings.

On Monday night, Imarisha talked about how the future we envision is often seen through a dominant culture lens. For generations, there has been a drive to colonize, industrialize, extract and develop. Social justice groups have long rejected that vision of progress, but many have replicated the hierarchical, individualist ways of being that led us there in the first place. That leads to a failure of imagination, Imarisha says. We might win small reforms, but real transformation will require more—and more radical—ideas.

Changemakers have long understood the power of stories. They help people make sense of the world, and tap into powerful emotions. But much of the storytelling we do as a movement is focused on what we’ve done, not what we’re reaching for. Discussions about goals and vision tend to be more businesslike, prizing expertise over inspiration. But why? We know pragmatism doesn’t ignite a fire in the belly. And planning processes that center the voices of traditional “experts” narrow, rather than expand, the field of ideas.

I am going to challenge myself and my partners to dream a little more expansively, and I would love to hear your examples of using fiction to support social change. Drop me a line at nicole [at] resource-media.org.

Nicole Lampe