May 14, 2015

How Envisioning Success Can Help You Achieve It

The Center for Artistic Activism begins its "Imagining Utopia" workshops with a slideshow of how people through the ages have envisioned the future, including flying cars.
A very unscientific survey of nonprofit stories reveals that most take place in the past or, occasionally, the present.

Such stories can have a powerful impact. Stories of voter suppression can stir people to action. Stories of how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults made it through their tough teen years can inspire young people to stick around until things get better.

And yet much of what nonprofits do is focused on the future, whether the near future, such as educating people about an upcoming ballot initiative, or the long term, like ending mass incarceration). But what does the future that we’re trying to create actually look like?

“Most movements from the early days of my activism could be summed up by ‘No, we’re against it.’ There was very little of ‘Yes, this is what we’re for,’” says Steve Duncombe, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism, a group he started with Steve Lambert.

The organization’s goal is to “make more creative activists and more effective artists.” Among its offerings are workshops that fuse arts and activism, an online “Actipedia” of arts-for-change projects, a monthly podcast on using pop culture for social good, and more.

NYU Gallatin
Steve Duncombe, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism
This work makes sense in light of the duo’s backgrounds. Mr. Duncombe is a New York University associate professor, a longtime activist, and the author of a much-lauded book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, now available for free online.

His colleague Mr. Lambert is a socially engaged artist who once collaborated with other artists and writers to produce a free New York Times Special Edition. Published in 2008 but dated 2009, the paper was full of “All the News We Hope to Print,” such as the end of the Iraq war and the passage of a maximum-wage law. Each story provided a scenario about how grass-roots activism could drive such changes.

Mr. Duncombe says there’s a need for stories that conjure what the future might look like. He ticks off examples like the Bible’s depiction of heaven, Plato’s imagining of the Republic, Thomas More’s renderings in Utopia, and Martin Luther King’s riveting dream of the future.

And, yes, some utopian projects have spiraled into tyranny, Mr. Duncombe admits in the insightful introduction to his open online edition of More’s 1516 book.

But there’s a flip side, as he writes in that introduction: “The dominant system dominates not because people agree with it; it rules because we are convinced there is no alternative. Utopia offers us a glimpse of an alternative. Utopia, broadly conceived, is an image of a world not yet in existence that is different from and better than the world we inhabit now.”

But how do you actually go about envisioning the future?

The imaginations of many activists and nonprofits have been constricted by endless meetings, jargon, grant proposals, and all the rest.

“The problem is,” says Mr. Duncombe, “we’re under the tyranny of the possible.”

In an effort to overthrow that tyranny, the Center for Artistic Activism leads workshops called “Imagining Utopia,” which help participants envision the world they desire. They have done the workshops with everyone from schoolchildren to Iraq War veterans.

NYU Gallatin
A group of Pakistani artists at a Center for Artistic Activism "Imagining Utopia" workshop.
The workshops start off with a slideshow of 19th-century images of what the 21st century would look like.

“Flying cars and all that stuff,” Mr. Duncombe says. “This helps participants break out and imagine fully.”

To further exercise the imagination, the workshop leaders ask participants what victory looks like. At a workshop for health-care activists, the immediate answer might be, say, “a cure for Hepatitis C.”

A cure would be a big deal, but Mr. Duncombe and Mr. Lambert dispense with it easily, telling activists, “Okay, you’ve got it. What’s next?” Then the activists might ask for cures for diseases in the developing world. Just as readily, the pair grants that wish and then the next one and the next one after that, each time, saying, “and then what do you want?”

“We want people to be healthy so they can enjoy a good life,” activists might finally say. That’s the point when the duo might ask, “What does a good life look like? Take us on a tour of your neighborhood.” Participants might say, “People are laughing, there’s the smell of food, kids are playing outdoors.”

Even seasoned activists start to cry at this point in the workshop, Mr. Duncombe says, “because they haven’t allowed themselves to think of what they really want.”

The workshop traces things backward from there. This process helps people develop a vision and puts the discrete advances they want to make in the context of this larger vision.

In one Utopia workshop, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War said their aim was to get the Veterans Administration to accept “moral trauma” – a feeling that one’s sense of right and wrong has been altered by war – as a legitimate health problem.

The leaders of the Center for Artistic Activism asked participants to come up with campaign objectives and tactics, including ones that they knew were impossible. The idea was to give participants license to imagine without getting stuck on whether something can actually be done.

After some discussion, the idea emerged to create an alternative Veterans Administration in front of the real one, and the fake one would treat people for moral trauma over the war. That project was never carried out, but it illustrates what the Center for Artistic Activism aims to do. “We wouldn’t have gotten to that point if we hadn’t done this exercise,” says Mr. Duncombe. “And we ended up with the ideal anyway: a VA that treated people for moral trauma.”

In this and its other workshops for artists and activists, the organization now gives participants funds to implement the ideas they come up with.

The purpose of imagining Utopia is not so much to bring this impossible dream into existence as it is to open up new political possibilities.

“The Utopian answer to power is to redefine power and what a good society is,” Mr. Duncombe says. “And those visions, when shared by enough people, actually do undermine power. We throw out these crazy dreams, and they open things up. If we didn’t throw up any crazy dreams, where would we be?”

Paul VanDeCarr writes once each month about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration in this feature via this online form or e-mail Mr. VanDeCarr at


Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social-justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: a Strategy Guide for Grantmakers” and is working on a second edition to be released this year for nonprofits, advocates, and storytellers.