On “Visionary Fiction”

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” – James Baldwin

“All organizing is science fiction” -Walidah Imarisha

My 2017 New Year’s Resolution: Practice Imagination

As a student of politics and religion, I’ve always been a pretty serious person. In the last few years especially, I have almost always opted for the non-fiction over the novel, or podcast over music. It just feels like there’s so much to learn, and I would think to myself, who has time to live in fantasy worlds?

But last year, I heard an idea that really stuck with me. Someone said, and I can’t remember who, “Social justice work is really science fiction… we’re trying to imagine a world that does not yet exist.”

We spend so much time in social justice movements working toward a reality that so few of us can imagine in any clear way. What does it really look like to have a equal, just society? What happens after liberation? How would we maintain these systems? In my opinion, we’re not taught to imagine these things, because we’re taught to accept the status quo, and thus live into the status quo.

So that’s why for my resolution, I wanted to exercise this muscle that I lost sometime around the age of 5, I’d guess. My imagination.

My strategy is to read more fiction, or as this article from Geez Magazine says, “visionary fiction.” After all, in the words of Walidah Imarisha, who coined the term visionary fiction, “I realized how incredibly important visionary and fantastical spaces that we can imagine beyond what we’re told is possible and real, how fundamentally vital they are to social change. Because all real substantive social change is considered to be a fantasy until it happens.”

To go further, as Imarisha points out, “We can’t tear down systems until we can imagine we can tear them down.”

With that in mind, I want to imagine the infinite possibilities of a better future. Whether it comes through comic books, fantasy novels, or science fiction, I’m committed to using ‘visionary fiction’ to live in realities that do not exist to learn the lessons of what realities might yet exist in our world.

For the love of Public Space

Public parks and shared spaces in cities are an opportunity to reveal the community’s values – and I love what this quote, taken from Rosa Parks Circle’s bench/plaque, says about downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan:

“Welcome to Ecliptic: this public space… is dedicated to the citizens of Grand Rapids and all who gather to celebrate civic progress, entrepreneurial spirit and creative excellence.”

Media literacy plays critical role in 2017

This originally appeared in The Rapidian on January 10, 2017.

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One year ago, Catalyst Radio was relaunched with a new team of hosts and fresh eyes on its goal to catalyze change in the community through conversation on social issues, public affairs and media literacy.

As one of the hosts of Catalyst Radio, which is a 30-minute, weekly interview-based program on WYCE 88.1fm, I have been able to hear endless of stories from Grand Rapidians making a positive difference. Whether it was in our own community or having an impact around the world, people shared their experiences on everything from addressing racial equity to helping Syrian refugees, promoting youth creativity to fighting for justice in Standing Rock.

Over the past year, we have seen firsthand how community media can stand as an alternative to the ad-based, profit-driven mainstream media, as well as be a resource for local narratives around culture and society. Also over the past year, however, we have been witness to a national climate of increasing volatility and polarization. As we now enter into a new year, with it comes the latest challenges in our media landscape.

The challenge at the top of my mind is the increased urgency of media literacy.

Media literacy is defined, by the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute, as the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” In an updated definition from the Center for Media Literacy, they go on that media literacy should promote understanding of the “essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

Media literacy is more than a tool for understanding, then, it is a civic duty. In an era of fake news and distrust of media, a lens of critical media literacy skills might help us better understand and engage with the community issues and world around us.

So what are the challenges that we are facing?

The 2016 presidential election, in the words of Chris Jackson of Ipsos Public Affairs, may mark “the point in modern political history when information and disinformation became a dominant electoral currency.” According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News, “fake news headlines fool American adults about 75 percent of the time.” Further, those using Facebook “as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on the platform for news.”

While fake news is a newer reality of our media landscape, a trend that has been building for years is the distrust of mass media by the public. According to Gallup, trust in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” sunk to an all-time low in 2016, down eight points from previous year alone. Only 32 percent say that they have “a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”

In order to combat these challenges, we must not only hold media institutions accountable to uphold these principles of critical media literacy, we must also hold ourselves responsible as consumers. We can each adopt an attentiveness and mindfulness toward what we consume and absorb, noticing themes such as authorship, format, audience, content, and purpose. Questions to consider, therefore, as suggested by the Center for Media Literacy’s pedagogy are:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in; or omitted from, this message?
  • Why is this message being sent?

There is no easy solution to fix or improve the media landscape, but there are steps each of us can take to improve our own awareness and engagement. At Catalyst Radio, we plan to continue to ask these questions of ourselves and our guests, and thus feature stories that challenge dominant narratives and create opportunities for informed, inspiring action.

Our episode this coming Friday, January 13 will explore fake news and its implications, previewing an upcoming panel at the Grand Rapids Public Library on the topic. The episode airing on January 20th, Inauguration Day, will provide an essential historical context to the national moment we find ourselves in.

Moving forward in the year, we will continue to feature perspectives to deepen our own critical lenses, building on last year’s interviews like the basics of media literacy, the importance of civil discourse, and the way people can build democracy into online platforms.

I am a firm believer in the power of stories and media to shape ideas and shift culture. As Charles Blow reminded readers in his recent New York Times op-ed, “When politics seem out of your control, remember that community and culture are very much in your control.”

While the Community Media Center can continue to live into our mission of building community through media, particularly with this lens toward media literacy, all of us – programmers, readers, consumers alike – need to adopt our own critical perspective from which to read, write, listen, and speak. The challenges of 2017 require it of us.

The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, January 5, 2017.

PART 1 of 2. READ pt 1 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 1: Creating Community in New Ways

Last week, I wrote on the trend of “The Rise of the Nones,” a phrase that points to the increasing amount of people leaving institutionalized religion, “Nones” being an umbrella category that includes everyone from atheists to believers who left the church. In the article last week, I showed that while “the Rise of the Nones” may cause concern and paint a picture of spiritually-empty young people, the reality is that the rise of non-religious and unaffiliated has actually led to exciting, creative, and even spiritual ways of building community. 

But another part of this conversation is how those of us within religious institutions can learn from Nones in order to enrich the religious traditions that they originally left.

It might seem counter-logical for institutions to try to learn from those who are leaving their houses of worship, but in order to sustain their organizations moving forward, it seems essential to listen to the desires of these emerging generations.

One such voice to listen to is Nathan Schneider, a journalist and young public intellectual who has covered religion for publications including America Magazine and more. Schneider visited Grand Rapids to discuss his own millennial faith story: raised in an interfaith family, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 18, and has thus constructed an identity that holds a tension between the inclusive desires of millennials and the comfort of particular tradition, something that spoke to many of the students who attended the event.

One theme of discussion was how institutions, such as his own Catholic tradition, can meaningfully and authentically center youth voices into their religious life. He suggested that one way to sustain religious communities, particularly religious orders that are diminishing in numbers, is to connect the currents of youth culture to the needs of religious communities.

This alignment of trends has occurred across our country and in various communities. At Catholic Abbeys in Virginia, monks and nuns were able to employ sustainable practices and renewable energy sources to save money and live out their values in new ways. Additionally, at a formerly abandoned convent in New York City, a lay woman worked alongside Catholic Workers and Dominican Volunteers to create Benincasa Community, which houses lay community members and homeless guests.

These holy spaces, open to change, were able to re-create themselves and live into their religious principles while responding to the needs of their community and engaging the emerging generation. 

These stories caused Schneider to then pose the question to the students in attendance: if you had the ability to determine the future of a religious space, a house of worship, a plot of land, what would you do with it?

He asked us to be creative, and thus empowered us to re-envision our own roles within seemingly unchangeable religious institutions. How could we “hold and transform the charisms” to help move religious communities into the future, alongside those who have carried the traditions to where they are today? 

 From responding to housing needs in an increasingly expensive city, or pointing to the power of community gardens to utilize land and promote sustainability while building relationships, there was no shortage of inspiration in imagining how our local religious institutions can respond to needs and engage new trends.

 As Krista Tippett has suggested, young people who are passionate about social issues have the potential to bring fresh perspectives into houses of worship, helping point traditions back to their own “untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.”

 The questions for our communities, then, have increasing importance. How can our religious institutions consider the issues that young people raise within and outside of religious communities? What would it look like to center and empower the emerging generation’s voices? When will we allow re-visioning to take place, and where will that re-visioning take us? Finally, how can we do this inter-generationally – learning from our elders, listening to our youth, and led by our collective community?

 The potential for these conversations to grow our communities, and thus ourselves as individuals, is unbound. But it first requires that we ask the questions, and welcome the answers.