March 18, 2021

Three Scholars Champion the "Civic Imagination”

By Hugh Hart

In the summer of 2016, three USC scholars gathered at an 18th-century castle in Austria to teach 70 college students from around the globe how to dream about the future. The Salzburg Global Seminar likely qualifies as the most glamorous venue to host workshop leaders Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, but it's only one of many places where the trio has championed the practice of "civic imagination" through world-building exercises. Additional to the workshops they've run over the past eight years, Jenkins, Shresthova and Peter-Lazaro have produced two recent books filled with fresh thinking about media activism.  

Popular Culture and Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change (New York University Press) is edited by Jenkins, USC Provost Professor of the Annenberg School of Communication and School of Cinematic Arts; Annenberg Civic Paths Research Director Shresthova; and SCA's Media Arts + Practices faculty member Peters-Lazaro. The anthology collects 30 essays encompassing everything from Harry Potter fan activism and Hamilton mixtapes to activists' use of Hunger Games slogans during the Ferguson, Missouri protests. Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook (Peter Lang), authored by Shresthova and SCA's Media Arts + Practices faculty member Peters-Lazaro. offers step-by-step instructions on how to create workshops that foster community, encourage civic engagement and spark action plans. 

Both publications grow out of Jenkins' decades-long fascination with pop culture's role as a catalyst for imagining a more just society. In 2009, after arriving at USC from MIT, he founded the Civic Paths Research Group with Shresthova, a former dancer and MIT alum. Together they wrote 2016's By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activists. "It was set up by MacArthur Foundation to understand the political life of young people today," Jenkins explains. "Coming off that book, we kept hearing about how youth were organizing around popular culture vernacular rather than traditional political language."

Fictional superheroes, for example, serve as role models for undocumented immigrants, Jenkins says. "During workshops listening to Dreamers talk among themselves, we kept hearing these superhero metaphors, especially Superman. They would say there's no such thing as illegal aliens, but if there were, then Kal-El from the planet Krypton might fit the description of someone who crosses the border at the middle of the night looking for a new world and landing in Kansas. For some Dreamers, that analogy is central to their identity."

When Jenkins and Shresthova started work on the Civic Imagination research project, they invited Peters-Lazaro to co-lead the project. "Gabe had been one of my students," Jenkins says. "He started out as a technical person documenting events with his camera. But it quickly became clear that he was ready for a leadership role so we welcomed him into the Popular Culture research group to work with all those smart Ph.D. students both from Cinema and from Annenberg. From the initial call for papers, to the content that came in, the final articles, the introductory materials - - all of that was edited collaboratively. We mentored students on academic publishing and at the same time, we relied on their insights to create a stronger model for what the civic imagination might look like. Gabe was at the center of that work." 

As contributors from the academic community began submitting papers for Popular Culture consideration, Shresthova and Peters-Lazaro ran world-building workshops all around the country. In Los Angeles, they partnered with the American Muslim Youth Group. She explains, "We'd tell the kids, 'Okay imagine the world of 2040. What would you like that to be?' They came up with flying carpets, lions that spit knowledge, pills you can swallow to do your homework, being able to move around on flying shoes. We freed them from being put on the spot as American Muslim youths. They spent the rest of the week creating stories and at the end, they presented them as a newscast from the future: 'A day in the world of 2040.'"

Collaborating on the handbook and workshops, Shresthova and Peters-Lazaro developed an exceptionally fruitful bond, she says. "Gabe's such a friendly, unassuming, brilliant person, and because the work was constantly going back and forth between the two of us, we never got stuck. I distinctly remember one afternoon in Brussels, he and I sat in a hotel lounge brainstorming ideas for three hours. We'd get another cup of coffee and just keep talking and typing away into our Google doc and looking up things on the Internet. It was magical, something I'd never experienced before with anybody else."

Shresthova looks forward to working alongside Jenkins on an array of upcoming Civic Paths projects. However, Peters-Lazaro, 41, will no longer be part of the team. He's been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. A GoFundMe page has been set up in support of Peters-Lazaro and his family. Jenkins notes, "Even though he's the youngest of the three of us, Gabe always brought a certain serenity to what could be a hectic practice. His leadership on that level cannot be underestimated."