How we Work
Las Imaginistas are a socially engaged art collective working on the US/Mexico border in Brownsville Texas. Their name is a mash-up of the word imagine/ imagination/ imagining and ‘Zapatista,’ a Mayan group fighting for indigenous rights in Southern Mexico. The collective uses the radical act and power of imagining as a tool to build more just and equitable futures.
The group upends traditional planning processes by enthusiastically folding in community insights into every phase of their work. Community members are not just involved in Imaginistas projects, but they are co-designers and co-collaborators of the projects themselves.
Our practice places a strong emphasis on the radical act of Dreaming. We dream, we build bridges, we build community capacity, and we take action to embody and construct new futures. This section is intended to give insight into our methods and practices.
GUIDING QUESTIONS AND PRINCIPLES
Equity: What tools or resources does our region need to ensure that all residents have the potential to succeed?
Justice: When we fail to live up to our ideals as a city what does accountability look like? What channels do citizens have for holding their city/ community partners/ artists accountable? How can those channels be deepened, broadened and made more accessible?
Social Cohesion: Do all residents feel a sense of belongingness in their city? How can we eliminate marginalization and cultivate trust within the community?
Participatory Democracy: How can can we cultivate robust, enthusiastic and meaningful civic engagement in the community?
Antiracist and Decolonial: How do we address systemic and normalized oppressive practices built into the fabric of the city and government? How can we build new systems and processes to not just counter but ultimately adjust these destructive infrastructures?
TYPES OF WORLD MAKING
1) The Public Imaginary: Supporting the community and program participants in their ability to imagine more just and equitable futures. Before we can build it we have to be able to imagine it.
2) The Public Actions: In addition to shifting what the public can imagine we also work to shift how they perform their own identity, especially in relationship to others and in the creation of shared community spaces. We support partners, from community members to city officials, in not only advancing principles of equity and justice, but also in taking actionable steps towards those ends.
3) A Culture of Justice and Equity: It is important to us that we not only shift individual dreams and behaviors but that we also are able to shift the culture of what is expected or normalized.
CORE PRINCIPLES OF PROCESS
RADICAL DREAMING: Strengthening the Community’s Ability to Articulate and Progress Towards Their Dreams: Dreaming, in and of itself, is a radical action. It is a critical tool at and a first step in ending systemic, oppressive systems. Until we are able to expand what we are capable of imagining, we cannot yet build it. Art can be a tool to strengthen the public's ability to dream and imagine equity as a collective. Creative activities can bring fun and magic into spaces that can oftentimes be weighed down by difficult to understand or difficult to change policies.
EXPANDING THE KNOWLEDGE SPECTRUM: Building New Systems for Communication and Community Engagement: We use art to build unusual sites for conveening and communication. This practice helps to break social norms and allow for new types of exchanges. Accordingly we structure programs to incorporate and value the knowledge and skill set of these different populations. Many program activities placed emphasis on knowledge types (somatic, spatial, emotional, lived experience) not normally valued in planning processes. It is important for us to validate these knowledge types on the same field as those normally dominating planning discussions (verbal, technical, white and male). As such a dance about the future of equity in the built environment, conceived and choreographed by 6 young people is just as important to our processes and end result as the interviews conducted with city officials.
DEEP LISTENING: Practicing Deep Listening (Especially for Marginalized Groups): Deep listening helps participants to feel like their presence matters and is valuable for shaping civic outcomes. As a result participants are more likely to engage in our activities and related civic engagement programs on a long term basis. Through our program activities and event pedagogy we work to create environments in which attendees have the opportunity to invest in their ideas. Instead of just writing their response to an open ended question on a piece of poster board, participants have the opportunity to take a deep dive into their ideas with participant partners.
Participants report feeling seen and / or witnessed. Importantly people report feeling that ideas they had had for a long time that no one cared about were finally acknowledged as meaningful and worthwhile. Additionally they could see their ideas having real impact.
STRENGTHENING TIES: In our programing we work to make sure that people leave the events having met listened to and built a new connection with someone new. We intentionally curated new intersections of people in the same space. A lot of our event preparation is spent on targeted community outreach to make sure that we would have a wide range of voices and interests present in the room, who could together inform what equity in the region should look like. People not only shared space together but they also practiced learning from one another.
NON HIERARCHICAL: Questioning Assumed Power Structures: It can be very common for those in power to have a deficit based view of marginalized communities. As we bridge multiple different types of stakeholders in new communication practices we attempt to disrupt and challenge normal assumptions of power through group facilitation processes that emphase the knowledge sets and opportunities for learnings within each group.
The desire to make change at the city level can feel slow and out of the control of residents which can de-incentivise a community’s level of civic engagement: They have been taught that their voice does not matter and so they respond accordingly. We believe every voice matters, but due to systemic and structurally reinforced inequities, not everyone has the tools to make sure that their voice is heard. Instead of creating conveenings that reify normal power hierarchies (across job, race, income, education or positionality) we work to disrupt those systems by making worlds in which all participants and the experience/ knowledge/ reflections that they contribute are valued equally and have equal potential to impact the direction and vision for the project.