Conversations with the Future: Reflections on Hope, Change, and the Power of the Imagination

 

‘Hi, I know you think it’s impossible to make a difference. How can one small person in a big world impact change? Well I want to thank you because even though you didn’t think you could help, it is the baby steps that help us reach the big strides.’ 

                – “A letter to my future self”, written by a ‘Future Calling’ participant. May 2020.

Welcome to ‘Future Calling’, a 4 week climate change and arts project by Eco Drama. During lockdown 2020, I had the privilege of audio calling 150 12 and 13 year olds from Boclair Academy, all at home, all wondering what the future had in store for us. After being given the provocation of a video I made in my garage of a dystopian 2050, we used discussion, visioning exercises, games, nature activities, arts and media to creatively reconfigure climate change as a symptom of much bigger issues around the way we relate to each other and the natural world. In response, they recorded their own visionary future messages to share with each other. Despite the strangeness of leading such a big project in isolation, they tuned in, engaged, and did amazingly. What a boost of hope it has been to hear the courage, eloquence and clarity in the messages they sent. Take a look at some of their responses if you haven’t already.

Below are some reflections that emerged through the process, along with some tools for speaking to young people about the uncertain future we face. 

Enjoy, and go well into the future of your dreaming

Ben Mali

“Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together. I suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories. It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.” – Adrienne Maree Brown

 

I was 12 years old when the depths of inequality hit home. As I emerged from the magic garden of childhood I began to understand more deeply the ways that race, physical ability, gender, sexuality, nationality, faith, economic background and other elements of identity gave advantage to some more than others. I was privileged to not have to find out much earlier. These systems of oppression entangle us in webs that reach back centuries, and for many years since then i’ve felt overwhelmed by the levels of trauma and injustice that surround us. 

And then there’s the climate emergency. The looming cloud overhead as our world anxiously emerges from an epidemic, still tangled in the suffering of generations. How can it be anything but a massive inconvenience?! Through the years of engaging in creative action i’ve come to see environmental issues as in fact woven into the fabric of all these other forms of suffering. It is said that hurt people hurt people, but it could equally be said that they hurt our planet too. I’ve come to see the climate crisis as a call to change, as if the earth itself is calling for accountability, and for a different way for us to relate.

 

But when our media is saturated with political inaction and dystopian futures… it can feel like a radical act to have hope. 

 

In ‘From What is to What if’, a brilliant book on the power of imagination, environmental community activist Rob Hopkins describes giving talks on the climate crisis. He watched as audiences sitting through doom-laden science intended to shock audiences into action instead did the opposite. It switched them off. It’s just too much to compute. Fear has the power to awaken us, but we need vision if we’re going to move forward. And to do that we need to be better at telling stories – In his words, ‘when I say we need to become better storytellers I mean we need to become willing and skilful tellers of visionary stories of how things turn out ok… And work back from there’.

The reality is that we are always in the process of creating the future. Every word and action is powerful. It makes me start to ask myself – what kind of future do I want to see? How much am I committed to it? And are my choices today moving towards that future? These kinds of questions have led me away from trying to make other people care by scaring them, and towards working with what could be possible if we open our imaginations. Away from fear and towards hope. Just as those extraordinary leaders at the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests reframed resistance to a message of unity – ‘Mni Wiconi = water is life’ – we too can turn every struggle into a call to hope worth standing for. This doesn’t mean turning away from what is difficult… it means facing it head on whilst also holding the potential for change. If young people are supported to vision a better tomorrow then they will not only be more likely to make it happen, but they will also be more empowered to do so.

Through the workshops, seminars and discussions i’ve led in recent years with all ages, i’ve seen again and again the power of this approach. What’s more, the more attention I gave to positive futures, the more I saw groups able to settle into the present. To enjoy the wonders we have today, whilst holding a commitment to future generations with every word and action. The young people involved in this project reflected learnings including “I learnt just how important hope is”, “I learnt that we can’t give up even when fate isn’t on our side” and “we can’t just rely on other people to fix our mistakes but we have to take them into our own hands and do our bit even if it’s just a little thing”. There is no way there would have been this outcome if i’d just bombarded them with climate science.

 

Fast forward to April 2020. Working in lockdown, recovering from an injury, I found myself grappling with my own fears of the future – how could I possibly support these 150 young people to look something seemingly inevitable right in the eye and give it another name? Rebecca Solnit writes that ‘The apocalypse is always easier to imagine than the strange circuitous routes to what actually comes next.’ Clearly what was needed was to give space for them to give their visions a voice. But how best to support this ‘what if’ mindset? How can conversations across generations be a tool to engage, empower, resource and support young voices? Que 5 top tips!

How to Talk to Young People about Uncertain Futures 

1) Be Curious

Young people have so many ideas about the future. They often see what’s to come more clearly than those of previous generations. However, older people have the insight of experience. Creating the future must therefore be an act of intergenerational collaboration. Be generous with your contribution and support them to be constructive with their thinking, but don’t let it cloud the fact that the future can and should be different from the past. Model a humble questioning attitude that is flexible and open to ideas that are different to yours. No one will share their ideas if they don’t feel safe, and it is those perspectives that we need to hear the most.  ‘Dialogue cannot exist without humility’ – Paulo Freire.

2) Be Honest

There’s no point sugar coating the realities of the world. Beyond a certain age (around 12/13) it’s important to speak to young people with integrity about the state of things. But this needs to be done with awareness of it’s impact. There are 3 rational responses to learning about social and environmental issues – shutdown, breakdown and burnout. If we’re going to support young people beyond these three and into joyful, sustained, creative action we need to provide strong structures of support. Only then can they work through these feelings and find renewed hope and a deeper purpose. Share your experiences of awareness from the heart – Yes, that means your emotional response. If young people see you are affected, they see that it’s ok to care. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you do need to be willing to keep learning. Which leads us on to…

3) Be Brave

What does courage look like? Sucking it up and carrying on as usual? Young people won’t let you get away with that… and it sure isn’t doing our planet much good. Young people around the world are standing up and calling for another way of relating. A way that doesn’t pretend everything is ok (because it isn’t) and we can fix it alone (because we can’t). Often the most courageous thing we can do is to show up with humility. As Brenee Brown writes – ‘We need more people who are willing to demonstrate what it looks like to risk and endure failure, disappointment, and regret – people willing to feel their own hurt instead of working it out on other people, people willing to own their stories, live their values, and keep showing up’. How different could our conversations with young people be if we held ideas like that in mind?

4) Be Hopeful

If the writing above doesn’t convince you, try reading ‘Hope in the Dark’ by Rebecca Solnit, ‘Octavia’s Brood’ edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, and ‘Active Hope’ by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Huge inspiration and valuable tools for using hope as a tool to inspire positive change.

5) Be There

I feel that what young people need now more than ever is adults who are brave enough to show up and face life with joy and humility. Model doing what you love, model messing up and trying again, model not knowing. Most importantly, model presence. As we emerge from an age of hierarchy and oppression, of ‘lone wolves’ and ‘heroes’, show young people that if there is one thing we can know for certain in these times, it’s that we need each other. The future won’t be free of challenges, but we’ll never make it through on our own. For many young people who feel isolated in their concerns, technology can be a powerful tool for connection and solidarity, but we need people to stand beside them too. When you step in as a peer mentor for young people with curiosity, honesty, hope and courage, there is no limit to what can be achieved.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of the hugely inspirational poet and activist Audre Lourde. Let it be a seed to all you teachers, artists, dreamers and people who long for a beautiful tomorrow.

“Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?”