The Right to Imagine
“Throughout history, achievers of great change have relied on their imaginations to address fundamental flaws in society. In my country of birth, Czechoslovakia, dissidents against Communism kept their dreams of democracy alive for decades by imagining different futures. In South Africa under apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s followers had to be radical in their imagination to create a vision of a fairer society.”
—Peter Sutoris in Scientific American
An Insidious Scarcity
Many nonprofit staff live with an insidious scarcity. This hardship comes in many forms – burnout, time poverty, and the frustration of time spent on seemingly meaningless tasks. It ultimately manifests as a relentless busyness that, while having the appearance of productivity, robs staff of the breathing space to imagine, to make meaning, and to examine whether their work is truly uprooting social and environmental dysfunctions.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his Hierarchy of Needs framework, lays out what is necessary for humans to thrive, starting with basic physical needs and reaching up to self-actualization, which includes the need to be creative and to exercise our imaginations. International development scholar Peter Sutoris notes that, “throughout history, achievers of great change have relied on their imaginations to address fundamental flaws in society.” The imagination, while it may seem to be the epitome of the fanciful, is also deeply practical.
To be fair, many in the for-good sector, while inordinately busy, are deeply fulfilled, energized, and/or work for nurturing organizations. But we have all seen and experienced enough of the relentless hand-to-the-till work and the dysfunction that manifests in burnout and cynicism, to know that there has to be a better way; the status quo is stripping us of the creativity needed to imagine new futures and the paths to get there. So, we appropriate right-based language here, because the imagination, while in theory, is accessible to all, must be cherished and protected, if it is to come alive.
To reclaim the right to imagine, we must demand it of:
Funders must understand that breathing room for the imagination, along with such program quality-focused tasks like professional development, research and development and organizational learning, needs unrestricted resources. The myth of the low overhead as an indicator of nonprofit effectiveness, needs to be done away with once and for all.
The leaders of our organization must lead the way with their imaginations, creating workplaces where staff are allowed to ask ‘what if’ questions, to fail, and to rest and recharge.
We must ask them for trust, along with their money, to find better and better solutions, even if this takes us on windings paths and some dead ends.
They should ask us the questions that challenge sacred cows and open up new possibilities.
We must continually remind ourselves that future-building starts with imagination, and use what leeway we have to make it so.
To learn more about why creativity and imagination are crucial tools for the social sector, click here.
"Imagination...is the invisible circuitry that connects the world out there to our inner worlds. So we cannot just be critical of oppressive systems without also examining how our own private thoughts and desires reflect and reproduce a dominant imagination that values some lives over others."
—Ruha Benjamin, Imagination: A Manifesto
Imagination is a Right – That’s all there is to this resource. There’s no PDF, no download, just this concept, which we hope will ripple through your mind.
15% Solutions. This facilitation technique focuses on what each person has the freedom and resources to do now.
From Roads to Air: Rebooting the Mind for Creativity. An Ignited Word discussion guide for priming the imagination.
Imagination: A Manifesto. A tribute to the worldbuilding powers of the imagination and a plea for diversity in the imaginaries that shape private and collective action.
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. The eponymic story in this collection describes a people for whom "no amount of hard labor and suffering could suppress their powers of imagination."
Project Unsung - an initiative by the UN Refugee Agency Innovation Service that has brought together creative minds from across the globe to "bring together art and the imagination in response to social crises."