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Imagination infrastructures

Reflecting on the Community of Collective Imagination

In this blog Grace Barrington, of the MAIA Group, looks at what's been achieved in hosting the Community of Collective Imagination, and how the group can move forward this year with its shared commitment.

Written by:
Grace Barrington
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7 minutes

The Community of Collective Imagination throughout 2022 brought together individuals and organisations practising social, public and/or collective imagination. Each month, Mikayla Jones facilitated space on Zoom, where the community shared and learned from one another’s practice, making connections and supporting each other with the challenges that emerge in these contexts.

The range of perspectives within the growing community were broad; made up of representatives of charitable foundations and nonprofits, theatre makers, scientists, fiction writers, and frontline community workers. The degree to which they expressed or understood imagination as a practice rather than a tool varied, which offered some dynamic challenges to holding space while seeing ourselves as part of a growing field.

The first few sessions made space for this community to build trust with each other, as they introduced the context of their work and shared examples of how they were practising collective imagination. We heard from community organisers who had curated week-long programmes in which participants learned about and reimagined economics; and micro-publishers who were committed to documenting local voices and had established mutual aid groups in their town. We heard from artists who had used textiles as a way of threading different experiences felt by a community over a period of time, and folks who spoke of reimagining their personal relationships to be the starting point for transformation. There was a frequent return to the importance of pairing so-called “non-creative” practices, like science and economics, with art and imagination, in order to battle the systemically perpetuated belief that there is no alternative to this current paradigm.

There was a slight divide between community members who equated imagination with innovation, and others who saw imagination as deeply connected with liberation, both in terms of fighting in the struggle for “who gets to imagine” and, as Jake Garber from Canopy said, observing and celebrating “the imagination embodied in everyday life”.

As the sessions developed, we introduced an anchor point to ground conversations and ensured the sessions were as generative as possible, by spotlighting a different practitioner each session. This enabled the capacity to explore specificities around their practice, the challenges they were experiencing in their imagination work, and open dialogue with a question for the community to reflect on. Examples of these anchor questions included:

  • What are the collective skillsets we hold in imagination work?
  • If your work is a garden, what seeds have you planted? What are you growing and how does it tend to your community?
  • What have we experienced and wondered about balancing artist outcomes of imagination work and activist outcomes?
  • How do we keep imagination work going when ideas aren't immediately realised?
  • What tools and technologies are you building with your communities in your work towards liberation?

As a shape-shifting peer space, the more our conversations focused on deep-dives into practice, the more tight-knit and intentional the community became, finding nuanced ways to support each other. There was lots of discussion around the challenges of working with funders in delivering collective imagination work; while the concept of ‘reimagining’ appealed to funders more recently, they still wanted deliverable outcomes which felt too rigid or trivialised the scale and depth of the work. Furthermore, the amount of resources allocated often left little space for the emergent, or sometimes did not properly recognise the time it takes to collectively sit with ideas, imagine and practice alternatives.

Lack of capacity became an integral talking point; many in the community doing collective-oriented work were increasingly feeling burnt out or unable to develop their imagination work in the ways they had hoped for at the start of 2022. Alongside there being a growing concern that the appetite for resourcing imagination work was dying, as it felt as though funders were returning to pre-Covid metrics, people were also finding it more difficult to deliver the work, as the world “returning back to normal” was demanding all of their time. Most people in the group were having to hold multiple roles and responsibilities, and the energy and commitment needed to carry the momentum of imagination work became harder to maintain. The dwindling community numbers seemed also to reflect this.

At times, then, the Community of Collective Imagination felt akin to a grief circle. For the participants who were trying to practise imagination work whilst simultaneously working in large, high-pressure organisations, this felt particularly valuable. Smaller organisations grieved frustrations around projects being pulled, funding announcement deadlines not being kept to, and relationships breaking down inside organisations due to burnout or trying to push through work too quickly without appropriate processes or boundaries in place.

In the final session, where we reflected on ‘Lessons and Learnings of Collective Imagination Work in 2022’, it is telling that much of the session was spent collectively grieving - for personal losses and bereavements, for projects not materialising in the way people had hoped, for the failing optimism which many had felt during the upheaval of Covid, and for the fact that resources for this deep cultural work are so sparse. While the early sessions had spoken about imagination as a tool to bring about new ideas and new infrastructures, the later sessions felt more concerned with collective care, depth of ideas and relationships. The space did not become negative or hopeless, but there was a noticeable collective disappointment and fatigue. The tonal shift felt reminiscent of adrienne maree brown’s reflections in ‘Murmurations: Accountable Endings’:

We are in a long arc of releasing that world in myriad ways…But because the shift is gradual, and occurs while we still exist in a world where regressive values manifest in pervasive and unique ways, it can feel like we are not the spark of change. Even as we divest from power structures that are predicated on the denial of any group’s humanity, the pace of our evolution and the ongoing struggles, the backlash, and the egregious acts of continuing harm can make it feel like nothing is really changing.

adrienne maree brown

Moving forwards, it would be valuable to consider how the format of this community can best serve the individuals and organisations involved. Monthly meetups over the course of a year gradually start to feel like check-ins, in which case, maybe this community is a way of practising care for folks who feel frustrated, misunderstood or undermined by the wider context their work sits within and/or alongside.

Or, is this a space where imagination work and change can be recorded and documented, a place where seemingly small shifts and ideas can be woven into a tapestry which overtime negates that overwhelming feeling that “nothing is really changing”? Is this a place which helps ideas get mobilised faster, where emergency resources are available, and where knowledge and feedback is accessed? If it’s the latter, does there need to be a way to share these ideas outside of the Zoom calls, so that the community and resources can grow outside of the ‘check-ins’? Given so much can shift over a year, the intention of a peer space for collective imagination must be held knowing what it takes to sustain relationships oriented towards a shared horizon, from different vantage points.

Paying close attention to the grief which surfaced also feels crucial to this next stage. As adrienne maree brown reflects towards the close of her article:

Covid and climate catastrophe aren’t the only things we are surviving as the systems we’ve been socialized into become obsolete and explicitly regressive all around us. How can we move through this period of endings, this anthropocene, with grace, rigour, and curiosity?

adrienne maree brown

It feels as though this space could be an opportunity to harness all three of those: grace, rigour and curiosity. We succeeded this year in creating a space where ideas could be worked through; where grief was held, and counsel offered, acknowledging our interdependence and shared commitment to collective imagination. As we move through a new year, the focus should be on how to gently and generously bring more rigour into the space, through curation, connecting back to the wider field and finding ways to build momentum between each session.

Volunteers tidying a school garden.

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