New Learning

Prophetic imagination in end times

I teach bachelors and masters social work students, who by and large enter the profession with eyes wide open to the challenges our profession manages, which they encounter daily, while face to face with clients who are involved in a Sisyphean struggle against the forces of capitalism, racism, colonialism, etc. that place a person in a desert valley trying to push a rock up an endless hill. My students know, and yet they come anyway. Perhaps they are called, in a vocational and/or religious sense. Regardless how they end up with us, there is a common and rising refrain: we’re learning about all these problems (and we know we need to), but what do we do about them?

This isn’t only an academic question. It’s practical. Moral. Existential. Knowing they are there and playing our small part in addressing them while we work at our jobs might have been acceptable practice in the past, but everyone realizes they need to do more. But we are brought to a sudden and complete stop by the question: what do we do about it?

I feel as though I ought to have answers. Isn’t that my job? And I do have ideas. All sorts of folx are out there doing the work, and though none of it is perfect, a lot of it is creatively, consciously, courageously moving things forward. Bit by bit. I try to share these with my students. But still the existential dread drives dissatisfaction: it isn’t enough. The problems are too big, even for the collective action. Nothing seems to change, not fast enough.

Walter Brueggemann writes about the prophetic imagination. Brueggemann demonstrates that prophecy in the bible, if we take it in its social and cultural, rather than only deific context, is a two part activity. First, critique helps us distance from our current space of imagination for what’s possible. It distances us from the reality that “was.” Prophecy then requires an energization, which helps move us toward something new. The story of Moses and the Exodus is a very strong example of the prophetic imagination, that moves out of the mindset of being a slave and then toward a new horizon of possibility in freedom.

adrienne maree brown echoes this when she writes:

“We believe that shifts can emerge from collective “aha” moments when social movements awaken the popular imagination to new possibilities and spark social action. And we are arguing that the coming shocks and slides—if we anticipate and prepare for them properly—can be key opportunities to spark these “aha” moments”

adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, 2017, p. 49

I’m always on the search for things that can help awaken my imagination – both toward possibility and hope. I often read science fiction for this very reason. While critical, incisive scholarly critique helps me distance myself from the habits and ideology of “what is”, science fiction helps me imagine what could be.

Unfortunately, much sci fi deals with “the future” by pretending racism and misogyny no longer exists, by pretending queer folx are invisible, etc. Probably a result of publishing being dominated by white men. That, thankfully, is changing. And with it, we are getting many wonderful new horizons to manage.

I recently discovered Solarpunk, an aesthetic and practical movement to envision and enact environmentally sustainable futures, partly by creating art that helps us imagine them, and inspires us to believe in their possibility. The inspiration comes partly from the commitment of the movement toward utopian and optimistic futures, rather than the dystopian ones of our standard imagination. That, and the progenitors of this movement are invested in creating inclusive futures – and the stories, art, and so on reflect that.

I’m currently working my way through the essays in Sunvault and am a newly minted subscriber to Solarpunk Magazine. The truth is, I need some imagination and inspiration too. And I’m already finding some wonderful stories to share with my students. One example from Sunvault is a short entitled The Boston Hearth Project by T.X. Watson, which describes the attempted takeover of a corporate building to provide community and shelter to unhoused people. I won’t ruin the rest of the story for you, but it is ripe for inspired conversations about the role of social worker in maintaining vs. changing the status quo. And in case it starts to feel far-fetched, let this case reveal your own deeply seated skepticism about change: Workers who have occupied an Italian factory for two years are on the verge of owning it.

We’ve all got work to do. We can start by listening to our BIPOC communities, imagining futures without state violence. Or the member- and/or worker-owned cooperatives around the world who have long been fighting back against disaster capitalism. Or, the not-so-far-fetched imagination of futures where we might survive, perhaps even thrive together on this beautiful planet we call home.