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Home > About > News and Events > News > Field News > GET FREE: Why Creativity & Imagination Are Essential Elements of Social Change

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GET FREE: Why Creativity & Imagination Are Essential Elements of Social Change

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Nov 09, 2016

By Dr. Bettina Love

In The Idea of Civil Society, Adam Seligman writes, “social movements and not political parties have been the chief form of articulating and furthering demands for social change in the United States – the uniquely American response to social crises” (p. 111). One of the most consequential social movements of America’s history, particularly for people of color, is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The movement was a comprehensive campaign built on civil resistance and civil disobedience to not only stress to the world America’s refusal to grant African Americans full citizenship (i.e., voting rights, housing discrimination, economic and human rights), but a social and political space to imagine the possibilities of justice. When discussing the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, we overemphasize their tactics of resistance, such as boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches, and we fail to interrogate the creative processes that were the catalyst for the movement. For example, the freedom songs of the movement (e.g., “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “The Times They Are A Changin’,” “People Get Ready,” and “Freedom Highway”) represented a sonic window into the dreams and imaginations of freedom fighters, and provided strength and solidarity.

Social change does not happen without the critical components of creativity, imagination, and ingenuity. If you want to change the world, you have to first imagine what is possible. In the book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, the author draws an important distinction between creativity and imagination: imagination is thinking of something that is not present or real, while creativity is doing something meaningful with your imagination. Dreaming and imagining are interchangeable verbs; however, the real doing happens when you get your head out of the clouds and turn dreams into reality.

I would argue that enslaved Africans were some of the most imaginative and creative people in history; they simply had no other choice. From the outset, imagining freedom was a daily function of life. Freedom was not present, nor was it real. However, the space they used to imagine freedom led to creative modes of resistance and civics that would inspire generations to come. The Underground Railroad epitomizes the process from imagining to creating. For example, enslaved Africans embedded coded messages for freedom in spirituals. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” described the constellation of stars known as the Big Dipper, which contains the North Star, an important compass guide needed to travel North for freedom. Enslaved African women also used hair-braiding techniques to relay messages concerning escape.

Similarly, the Black Arts Movement (1964-1975) was a group of politically and socially conscious poets, musicians, artists, dramatists, and writers who created work dedicated to justice (i.e. Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Thelonious Monk, and Gil Scott Heron). During the Civil Rights Movement, the work of artists such as Romare Bearden, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Marie Johnson-Calloway, and Gordan Parks all capture and document the racial bigotry and inequality of Black life, while beautifully celebrating the traditions and customs of African Americans.  

I am arguing that art, which cannot be produced without moving from imagining to creating, is not only part of the movement, but is the movement at its core. Social change is only possible because of the space that is created when you dream and are moved to create by the possibilities of those dreams. Getting free starts with imagining.

Freedom Dreaming: A Civic Project
Writing, drawing, acting, composing, spittin’ rhymes and/or dancing help individuals explore their world, while developing the confidence and life skills to be agents of social change. Therefore, art instruction provides more to communities than just the art itself: it is the key ingredient to a better world. Art that inspires for a better world is a civic project rooted in intense design, research, and musings for justice filled with new world possibilities. Social movements move people because they ignite the spirit of freedom, justice, love, and joy in all who engage with the work. Art helps people remember their dreams, hopes, and desires for a new world, which is also a civic project. We do often confine civics to activities like voting, working on an election campaign, or food drives; however, civics, especially for oppressed people, is built on a radical imagination of collective memories of resistance, trauma, survival, love, joy, and cultural modes of expression and practice that push and expand the fundamental ideas of democracy. Civics is freedom dreams turned into action. Robin D. G. Kelly (1994) writes that, “[p]olitics is not separate from lived experience or the imaginary world” (p. 10). The imaginary world creates new worlds that push democracy, which means politics and economics are reimagined for a just world.

Can we even begin to imagine the freedom dreams of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Harriet Ann Jacobs, James Baldwin, Cesar Chavez, Pauli Murray, and Umi Selah (formely Phillip Agnew), Alicia Garza, Dolores Huerta, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Malala Yousafzai’s?   

Creating Freedom Dreams through Arts Education
Imagining, but also having a space to create, is essential to social change and civics.  However, as our public schools dismantle art education, particularly in communities where folks are freedom dreaming endlessly, community art-based educational programs sow the seeds of social change, progressive ideas, and our future. This is why the community arts education organizations supported by the National Guild are so fundamental to the mission of realizing radical change: they create spaces for our young people to develop the creativity and civic competency that is so often oppressed and ignored. It is also why I am thrilled to be a featured keynote at this year’s 2016 Conference for Community Arts Education. 

There is no better place to host the National Guild’s 2016 Conference than Chicago, a city that is internationally known for blending art, resistance, and civic action for a better tomorrow. Chicago is home to Louder Than A Bomb, one of the largest youth poetry festivals in the world. Chicago is home to Kuumba Lynx, an urban arts youth development organization that is committed to restorative justice practices and cultivating community through the history and elements of Hip Hop. Chicago is home to Jessica Disu a.k.a. FM Supreme, a humanitarian rap artist who spits about dismantling system of oppression. Chicago is home to artist Hebru Brantley, whose mix-media illustrations show the power and exuberance of youth. Chicago is home to Chance The Rapper, a young man whose raps are so well-defined and vivid, they teleport his listener into his dreams for tomorrow from his understanding of today. These organizations were started with a dream. Before artists create, they imagine. Chicago’s art community, along with their youth, has been dreaming of new worlds for a long time. Those dreams unite us all at the intersection of imagination and creativity. Chicago stands with countless cities, towns, and communities that are creating art for a future rich with justice.  

GET FREE
My imagination, background in Hip Hop Ed, and creativity have led me to create a Hip Hop civics curriculum: GET FREE. GET FREE is a multimedia Hip Hop civics curriculum for middle to high school students. Its goal is to introduce students to a national network of young community leaders, artists, and activists who advocate for social change and democratic inclusion driven by grassroots organizing. GET FREE is inspired by the exuberance, ingenuity, political energy, resistance, love, and DIY model of underground Hip Hop. Its aim is to push and extend ideas of democracy, citizenship, freedom, community, and civic engagement. The online, free civics curriculum can be found at http://getfreehiphopcivics.com.  

For over a year, I have been traveling around the U.S. documenting the work of some of the most amazing and influential young community leaders, artists, and activists of our time. Their dreams and creativity are the engines of this generation’s Civil Rights Movement. For that reason, I interview young leaders, artists, and activists about their work in their communities, their ideas about justice, how art (i.e., Hip Hop) impacts their work, and issues in their city they would like young people to learn about. After the interviews are over, some amazing teachers and myself turn interviews into curriculum. We also create three to five minute movies from the interviews that are posted on the site. GET FREE is intended to be hyper local just like Hip Hop. Hip Hop’s look and sound is different depending on the city, town, or street corner. However, Hip Hop culture is the foundation for each city’s sound and style.

The curriculum is broken down into seven sections: GET Somewhere, GET Right, GET Deep, GET Healed, GET To The Future, GET On, and GET Current. In GET Somewhere, interviews are broken down by city with critical thinking questions that follow the interviews and extend students’ knowledge-base on issues impacting their city and cities across the U.S. In GET Right, youth can find music and videos that inspire and educate them about social justice issues. GET Deep extends youth learning beyond their city to learn how individuals and social change theories from the past have been critical to social movements. The section is also committed to highlighting women and queer activists who historically have not been recognized. In GET Healed, youth can find self-care methods to help them remember that justice work is also about love, hope, and joy. GET To The Future invites youth through the literature and cultural aesthetic of Afrofuturism to interrogate present-day issues using fantasy, science and historical fiction, African mythology, art, Hip Hop, and politics to design a future where boxes do not exist and identities are fluid. In GET On, youth can reach me or send a video, and questions that follow the video, to have their city featured on the site. Finally, in GET Current, youth learn about present-day news stories concerning justice, injustice, and how leaders, artists, and activists are fighting for social change around the world. The site will officially launch in January of 2017.  

My hope is that all individuals who are concerned about social justice and youth development will use the site as a platform to connect youth to local leaders, artists, and activists who are focused on social change. The site aims to help youth understand the history behind the issues facing their communities and how advocating for change means being a critical thinker who can imagine and create new categories of human experience. Even if you do not use this curriculum directly in your classroom, I hope that the principles of my approach—including hyper local civics, Afrofuturism, and the radical imagination—can help to strengthen your work as an arts educator and civic leader.

Freedom dreaming is a restless task for people on the margins of society; however, they create. They refuse to be invisible. Their art makes them visible and their intentions for love, peace, liberation, and joy clear. South African writer and Afrofuturist Lindokuhle Nkosi proclaims that, “[i]magining yourself in the future is not revolutionary, it's survival." I would add that creating from your imagination is not revolutionary or surviving, it is thriving.  


Resources
GET FREE Curriculum: www.getfreehiphopcivics.com

The Idea of Civil Society, Adam Seligman, 1992, Princeton University Press

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson, 2009, Penguin Books

Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin D.G. Kelley, 1994, Free Press

About the Author
Bettina Love is associate professor of educational theory & practice at University of Georgia. She delivered the opening keynote at the 2016 Conference for Community Arts Education.

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This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education. www.nationalguild.org