Stories to grow the social imagination

By Hannah McDowall, Canopy, Sept 2021

For those that are tuning in, the last year has seen a flurry of chatter about the role that social imagination, collective imagination or just plain old imagination might play in bringing the social, economic and environmental change we so desperately need (just a few examples From what is to what next, The imaginary Crisis, Untitled, Why do we need a social imagination?). And this is one of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Whilst tramping the Peak District on holiday in August, I listened again to the wonderful book Staying With The Trouble, by social theorist Donna Harroway. There I found a strong and flexible net to scoop up the writhing shoal of reflections I had been trying to land since May. These reflections were about the imagination-based Emerging Futures Fund (EFF) launched by the National Lottery Community Fund in 2020 (more details below). My reflections asked:

Why does the practice of social/collective imagining feel like such an edgy thing to do? And why is it also difficult to bring the imaginings of the public into their fullest potential for change, even when we are given permission and resources to do so?

In this reflective piece I will use Canopy’s experience of designing and delivering an EFF project to explore these questions and think about the implications for growing the practice and impact of social imagination.


The hope of imagination practice

So here’s the net; Donna Harroway says, “it matters what stories tell stories; it matters what worlds world worlds.” Turn it over and suck on it for a moment.

The growing curiosity in imagination practice is an urgent plea that the capitalist world of ‘progress’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘objective’ measurable outcomes, is not the world which “worlds” what comes next. Because we know what happens when it does, the powerful get more powerful, the maginaised remain there, and the planet is progressively damaged.

Instead, we wonder. What may happen if stories from the margins of power get to sit in the storytelling chair. Stories from people in the Black community, from the economically precarious, from children, from people of different gender identity and sexual orientation, from people of different religions, from disabed people and indiginous communities, from people who have experienced migration. These are some important examples, but there are more, what also of the stories of the rivers and soil and trees and critters? They don’t get much say I’ve noticed. I’m not talking about putting data about them in the storytelling chair, with all their aliveness scrubbed away, but their stories; warm, multifaceted, emotional, paradoxical, grubby, playful and highly specific. 

If these stories can speak the future into being, what new worlds might open up?


A fund for imagination practice

This question was picked up by the National Lottery Community Fund’s Emerging Futures Fund (EFF) in response to the great surge of social creativity and care, which welled up during the first wave of the COVID 19 pandemic in early 2020. The EFF invested in the creativity of civil society to help amplify the voices of communities through stories, narratives and public imagination projects that could lead to new ideas, questions and visions of the future. 

What a delicious invitation! 

For those of us working in communities to address inequalities, encourage creativity, and to make life richer and more joyous this is the call of our dreams. Because the story inviting us to tell the next bit of story is different. We are used to funding calls which flow from that capitalist story. They tend to include pre-defined outcomes and outputs which align with an efficiency-improving imperative to alleviate pressure on public services, they often foreground ‘best practice’ and require reproducible evidence of impact. These have become the guiding stars of the work we design whether we like it or not; they shape even how we think about what kind of social change is ‘good’ and how we go about achieving it. 

With these constraints in place the creativity of the communities we work with is limited, because the futures they want aren’t shaping the work, the future ‘the system’ wants is shaping it. Meaning we get something very similar to what we had before, although when projects are done well things might feel better for a bit. It matters what stories tell stories.

But, that old story, with its constraints, wasn’t in the EFF storytelling chair. 

Which was great. But also somewhat unnerving. Unnerving because we know that old story, and we know how to tell the next bit of it, and because we’ve been telling it a long time we have the toolkit with which to tell it, the language and the metaphors and even the plotline (because it’s mostly been worked out ahead anyway). But, the new story needs new language and methods and approaches, and, unlike so much of the funding out there, it asks us to imagine the future from the margins. That’s new.

Many of us who applied for the fund have experience of community development, artistic engagement in community contexts, wellbeing projects which draw on creativity, codesign and listening to the stories of community members. Some also have experience in social innovation and system change. But until now we have brought our creativity and design in service of the old storyline (of improving efficiency of the established story and predefined impacts from that story). For the most part our work is shaped and constrained by the priorities of those holding the purse strings, both regarding the questions we are allowed to explore (e.g. reducing isolation and loneliness amongst older people) and what funders believe are valid methods to explore their questions. 

That matters too. It really matters, because creative practice and storytelling is generally accepted as a valid method of improving personal and social wellbeing, and not a way of imagining and then shaping the future. There aren’t many of us with experience in bringing the full imaginative potency of creative practice to actively and collectively imagine a future with others in our community, because we haven’t been allowed to.

Despite this newness and edginess, EFF projects did wholehearted and courageous work which can be explored here, and do explore them because if you can get away with sucking in this much juicy delight in your working hours then it would be wrong not to! And if not, then a good dose over breakfast will set you up for the day.


Our EFF project: The Dark is Bright

At Canopy, growing the social imagination is the heart of what we do. We are always developing and deepening practice to support this, but we are also grappling with finding the assemblage of ideas and stories that belong in the storytelling chair. We need these stories so we can explain why we do what we do, to ourselves and others, but also so we can test whether what might look like good opportunities on the surface will really allow imaginative potential to flow. 

We delivered an EFF project called The Dark is Bright in partnership with two other organisations, The Loss Project and Rooted by Design. The project focused on people who had experienced a loss or bereavement significant enough to affect their ability to imagine the future (without someone, or perhaps a job, a home, a community or whatever it might be). This offers a provocative and important route into imagining the future. Our culture lacks ways and rituals which honour the loss and grief which visits all of us. Without those ways we can get stuck in the loss, unable to move into the possibilities of an abundant future, one seeded by the loss itself. Given society’s increased exposure to social and environmental losses in recent years, which we are unsupported to process, we decided to start from there.

The Dark is Bright was a 10 week programme with weekly digital sessions taking participants through a process of storytelling about their own experiences of loss and then, using their individual and collective insights from loss, they made films which told new stories, of and for, the future.


Our learning about imagination practice

The easy bit: telling our stories

In our project it was the storytelling part at the beginning which came most easily; creating a safe and appreciative place for stories to be shared; offering traditional stories from around the world to accompany and comfort us in our grief; offering image and metaphor-based ways of exploring these stories. I’m not saying it didn’t take a lot of courage, or even that for some it was really emotionally stretching, it was all of those things. But participants felt confident about what they were being invited to and as facilitators, we felt confident in holding the space generously and supportively for those stories to be shared in a way which felt safe to each person. 

The part we found most difficult was to transform that story-speaking and story-listening into future imagining. 


The first tricky bit: Stepping over an emotional threshold

About week 4 into the programme, we asked participants to step over a threshold from centering their personal loss which lives in the past/present to centering the generative and new life they wish to live in the future, not just for them but for others too. So the two halves of the project carried very different emotional vibes. Participants joined the Dark is Bright at different stages of ‘processing’ their loss, for some it was very recent, for others not, for some it was a personal bereavement for others it was the loss of something else. We had no clear way of assessing at the outset whether they were ready to make the move. All we could do was to explain carefully our intention to go over this threshold and encourage participants to consider carefully whether they thought it was right for them.  But hearing something explained and actually doing it are not the same, and we were anxious about how it would go when the time came. If they were not ready what would we do? 

In the event, almost everyone was ready, and we learnt that you can be present to the new whilst still grieving the old. Those that found they weren’t ready when we came to the threshold point either chose to stop participating (two people), or took a more supportive role. Rather than building imagined futures themselves, they helped others to realise imagined future films offering encouragement and tech help, this supportive involvement was also something they felt enlivened by.

We need to appreciate that those who are ready to tell a story of what matters to them, will not necessarily feel ready to imagine a new future. That bit might take time to get to, or may never come. We need to create approaches which allow people to go as deep as is good for them in the time we have together; flexible practice which neither pushes people beyond what they are emotionally ready for, or, denies future-focused imagining to those that are ready.

Which leads on to the next point of trickiness.


The second tricky bit: Building creative confidence

Describing what has happened is not the same skill as describing an imagined future. Even if everyone is emotionally ready for it, creating a bridge in which the insights, emotion, empathy and learning arising from the past, can form the rich compost for imagining the new, was something we had to figure out….there’s no handbook for that. Again we were anxious. It seemed to us that the key was to build creative confidence in imagination even in the early sessions so that the jump didn’t feel too big. We provided creative structures and practice which helped participants to gather images and develop collective themes which could move from the stories of loss to the stories of the future. So we were relieved that almost all participants stuck with the course over this creative transition point. Although they expressed finding the shift in creative practice difficult, they also explained that it was an essential part of transforming their loss and for getting unstuck, for finding new creative language with which to walk into their own futures differently.

As practitioners, we have work to do to build the skills and confidence in ourselves to take participants safely over the practice-shift from storytelling what was and is, to storytelling what may come.


The third tricky bit: An honest invitation

Inviting people to participate in future imagining must be done with great care. Living things (people and others) who are positioned on the margins, are separated from the structures of power which influence change. They develop effective strategies to cope with this disempowerment, including a healthy distrust of people, organisations and structures which have caused and colluded in their marginalisation. When we invite them to tell their stories we are in the business of building trust. If done well, they feel heard, seen, understood. Even more than that, they feel creatively potent which is a powerful experience, one of internal connection and wholeness as well as external power, and so do we as facilitators. In the flow of that deep connection, defences, honed to keep them safe from the erosion of their personhood (or tree-hood etc), will likely be lowered. If from that place we invite them to imagine a hopeful future that includes them and others like them, we are saying that their insights and wisdom are valuable and matter. But if we do not have the means to connect their new imaginings to actual change, we run the risk of doing more damage than if we hadn’t started, enlivening hope which then creates no change and withers.

In our project, we asked participants early on about who they hoped to reach with their imagined future films. Mostly they picked people in their immediate circle of friends, family, and community, and beyond that anyone and everyone experiencing grief and loss who might find their creations helpful and inspiring. Participants didn’t live in the same locality, work in the same sector or share a passion about one social or political issue. This meant that there wasn’t an agreed and obvious target ‘system’ we wanted to influence through the imagined futures films.

In a broad sense though, participants wanted to change our British culture around grief and loss. A culture in which many of the community rituals of support have fallen away, where friends feel awkward about talking about grief, where to be progressive and generative is considered good, and to be in deconstruction and sorrow considered bad, where loss is seen as something to fear and avoid and ‘get over’, rather than a healthy and transformative part of being alive. This is a complex system to unpick, and culture change at a national level takes a long time, decades even, changing that would never have been possible within the 6 months of the EFF project.

The films themselves are powerful pieces of art but the container of this project could not support that art in finding its way to reimagining the world beyond the immediate world’s of the participants. When we run this again we hope to apply it to a specific moment or context of loss connected to a system which can take the imaginings and use them for change. That will bring its own new learning, but for this first time, any disappointment about systemic impact is far outweighed by thankfulness that we didn’t ever promise participants that their creative outputs would and could achieve these systemic changes. Their creative confidence remains intact and their own relationship to loss has radically changed for the better. This time round that is enough.

The nooks and crannies where imagination practice will be trusted by funders and by the system governors who can use it for change are not easily identified. The EFF offers some hints about where they might currently be found, mostly in place-based communities where local leaders have got involved, also in social/economic/environmental issues trying to crack a specific and pressing problem. Whilst the opportunities remain few and emergent, we practitioners, who know how powerful the invitation to imagine really is, must take great care that we don’t over-invite, promising a power to change that isn’t possible and so further disappointing those who systems already disappoint.


Growing the social imagination capacity of civil society: Canopy reflections from the EFF

There are some really good reasons why, as imagination practitioners, we cannot realise the full imaginative potential of the EFF invitation. For some of us, because we are so used to the old story being in the storytelling chair, we lack experience and confidence to lead others in the fullness of the invitation to move from storytelling the past/present to imagining a future. For some of us, because we are so used to the old story being in the storytelling chair, we don’t feel confident in creating opportunities for both telling and imagining which will meet people with what they are emotionally ready for (rather than what we want them to be ready for). And for some, because the old story occupies the storytelling chair in the places of power we wish to influence, we are cautious about extending the invitation to collectively imagine to those whose stories are not valued by the story in the storytelling chair. We are care-full of our communities, we do not want to invite them to lower their protective layer without knowing that the creative confidence they find will be recognised and valued.  

These emergent reflections reveal at least two frontiers for concentrating our work to grow the social imagination. 

One is to get really sharp at tuning in to the stories in the storytelling chair of system governors, which includes clients and funders of imagination practice. It’s not just the stories which we support our communities to tell in the hope of informing system change, that matters, it’s the stories all along the chain especially the stories with which system governors see and listen to communities. Collective imaginations are very very rarely invited to the decision-making table. Without the right stories about the value of imagination in the storytelling chair it isn’t ethical for us to extend the invitation to our communities to really imagine, and we also won’t develop experience in how to do it. 

As an emerging community of collective imagination practitioners, what boundaries do we have to hold about offering our practice when those with cash come knocking looking to update their social change work with a bit of imaginification, whilst continuing to position the old story in the storytelling chair? Which leads to the second frontier.

The second is that we need to go back to school (or un-school depending on your perspective) to sharpen our own sense and knowledge of the stories we need to put in our own storytelling chairs. We need stories and language as a community of imagination practitioners which will support us to learn our craft, learn from one another and be accountable for how we use what we learn. At Canopy we are just scratching the surface of finding and centreing these stories. So far we notice that the things that say it best arrive in the form of dances, poems, prayers, play, dreams, mythologies, rhymes and song. Speaking these things feels very alien in the UK civil society and social innovation landscape, a bit ridiculous even. 

As a community of practitioners, growing, learning, and speaking our imaginal languages might help us build more story muscle. And yet I am cautious to put out the rallying cry without first noticing where the stories we need come from. It seems to me that the skill and story-foundation in collective imagining which then leads to system change, is most comprehensively held by the peoples and their interdependent brother and sister ecologies which are often called indiginous peoples/systems. People and other beings who have been pushed to the margins.

If these are the stories which need to be in the storytelling chair then the likes of us, Jake and Hannah at Canopy, and others besides, need to be very very careful about platforming them.