By Njoki Mbũrũ
This piece is part of the Slow Study Storytelling Series that highlights practices and tools that enable equitable, sustainable, and emergent approaches in Systems Transformation work. I want to highlight that the root of my understanding is informed by my lived experiences, and guided by diverse, generational Afro- and Indigenous knowledge systems and Elders. This fourth part of the series will build on previous publications which explored generative inquiry and humility as tools for systems transformation. In this piece, I focus on the role of Imagination and Dreaming in catalyzing systems transformation.
I have loved listening to and dancing to Afrobeats music (also called Afropop or Afro-fusion) as far back as I can remember. According to Wikipedia, Afrobeats is “an umbrella term to describe popular music from West Africa and the diaspora that initially developed in Nigeria, Ghana, and the UK in the 2000s and 2010s.” In recent years, Afrobeats songs have taken the world by storm, with increasing features in Hollywood movies and in social media trends, for example, ‘dancing challenges’ to popular Afrobeats songs on platforms such as TikTok.
In the summer of 2022, one of the ‘Giants of Afrobeats’, Burna Boy, released his sixth studio album. Allow me to pause here and say the following — If you have not had a chance to groove to Burna Boy’s latest album (LOVE, DAMINI), I urge you to set aside some time this coming weekend. In fact, listen to it on your next commute, while taking a stroll around your neighbourhood, or when waiting for that friend who is always late.
While the entire album is, in my opinion, a platinum arrangement of tunes, there is one song I would like to set as the background for this piece. That is, ‘Wild Dreams’, which features a guest appearance by the world-renowned singer and songwriter Khalid. I chose this song because it speaks to the focus of my writing today – that is, the power of dreaming and imagination to enable transformation of our present reality and the creation of new futures. Specifically, I want to reference the end of the song where Burna Boy says:
ROI: Returns on Imagination
The more I intentionally invest in my willingness to hold tension as well as my capacity to embrace uncertainty, I am rewarded with the abundance of possibility.
Like a painting still in progress, I keep returning to my writing. Sometimes to remind myself of the people and places that inspired my writing, sometimes to contemplate on different ways I could have expressed some of my thoughts, and sometimes to simply marvel at my love for words and language. Most importantly, however, I return to my writing as a practice of critical self-reflection. I challenge myself to question some of my assumptions, or to dig deeper into examining the roots of the theories I developed. And over time, I have observed that as my capacity for critical self-introspection grows, so too does the vastness of my imagination.
It is challenging to face my own work knowing that I might reach a point of disagreement with myself which might necessitate an overhaul or revision of my foundational understanding or beliefs. At the same time, it is these multiple roundtrips into and out of my previous publications that continue to refine my practice of inquiry. The discomfort of dissonance between the beliefs I hold now and those that I held 6 months ago requires me to develop a more adaptable and emergent way to work with curiosity, criticism, critical thinking, and transformation. These internal dialogues sometimes spill over into the kinds of questions that I bring to my colleagues, family, and friends or the choice of books and podcasts I pick up.
I find that there is a correlation here between my openness to engage with theories/beliefs/systems that are different from those I have previously held and how big the worlds of dreaming and imagination become with each “yes” that I say. In this sense, the return on my imagination is the expansion of my capacity to lead with curiosity, my willingness to straddle the line of tension, and my openness to engaging with paradigms that are contrary to mine.
Privilege and Power
“The world that we are going to build is one that is built from our grief as much as it is built from our visions. What am I done losing? What am I accepting? What am I dreaming?”adrienne maree brown in a podcast interview with Baratunde Thurston
In an environment that stifles imagination, the norm soon becomes linearity and singularity. Economies and networks built on scarcity often facilitate a process where the fastest win. It is these same economies that fail to take accountability for the harm done and negative externalities imposed on people and the planet produced along the way. In our unexamined patterns to mine, extract, exploit, pillage, etc., some of the costs we pay in the process: loss of meaningful relationships, an inability to sustain respect for one another when engaging in conflict, disconnection from other forms of life, and passing the burden of repair to future generations without resourcing them equitably and abundantly to meet the challenges ahead.
It goes without saying that just as the riches from these destructive practices are not equitably distributed, neither are the costs/harms.
The result of a world that heavily leans on extraction and exploitation to “keep the engines running” is that those who are most impacted are often living in a constant cycle of survival or in an unending ‘crisis mode.’ Within one’s psyche and body is an infinite loop of anxious thoughts, which range from worry about the lack of daily basic needs, unpaid bills, a failed harvest, to struggling to care for a body that is becoming sick because of exposure to toxins at the factory or mine. In my study and thinking of the mechanics of exploitation and colonial extractivism in our world past and today, I am led to conclude that the purpose of such disposability of certain human bodies functions to suppress imagination, and, consequently, deny our individual and collective right to the pleasure and privileges of imagination.
These people, who are otherwise expansive dreamers, innovators, and ‘imagi-neers’, are now disproportionately confined to chronic worry brought about by systemic exploitation and violence upon their lands, cultures, and bodies. Imagination, for these people and communities, is no longer a pleasurable practice but rather, a product of utmost necessity. As the proverb goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” But what if invention was not an involuntary exercise? What if invention and innovation were simply practices birthed from boredom, wander, amusement, and playful curiosity?
Utopias and Delusions
Utopias—which are monolithic and reductive—deny us the opportunity to feel hopeful. How? As adrienne maree brown writes, such utopias “Create a future that is unattainable and has so little to do with present day experience that it isn’t useful.”
As I reflect on my own philosophies and writing so far, I take time to consider the possibility that encouraging ‘imagination and dreaming as technologies of transformation’ might (falsely) imply that the future will be purely utopian and blissful. While such a future might indeed sound desirable, I also find it necessary to ask myself:
- Whose utopia(s) will be privileged?
- What truths must be denied/erased for there to be a unified and acceptable version of future utopia(s)?
By oversimplifying ‘futurism’ and ‘futures,’ we risk replicating patterns of reductionism and singular stories—which have often been the starting points of genocide, erasure, and monolithic societies. Paradox, therefore, in the work of dreaming and imagining our futures, is foundational to our commitment to create more inclusive and sustainable systems and societies. However, having to admit that what feels true for me about the qualities of a desirable future might be in contradiction to another person’s ideas/perspectives is a place of discomfort and tension.
When I reflect on this deeper, I see that this place of paradox and tension, if well-tended to, is an impetus for courage. It is the practice ground upon which we can meet to cultivate a network of relationships that is resilient and capacious enough to contain the diversity of our truths. It is also the kind of place that allows our relationships to be emergent, adaptive, and ever-evolving. You and I are not static, and neither are our dreams. To force ourselves into one unified, banal dream is to trap ourselves in the delusion that ‘quick’ and ‘simple’ fixes, such as underfunded ‘diversity committees’, will meaningfully shift deeply embedded and long-held practices of racism, patriarchy, or stereotyping.
When we are honest with ourselves about how these delusions might be present in our organizational practices, policies, and cultures, we can then move into the space of grounded presence. Our presence is a prerequisite for our future being. This is the liminal space between our desires—which feel too distant—and our dreams which feel necessary and immediate. This is the home of our longing; a reminder that we are not ‘out there’. We are here, now. As such, to only speak about our desires for utopian futures without acknowledging where we are now is to take refuge in a delusion. Such erasure of the paradox we are living in seeks to bypass our individual and collective responsibilities and accountability for perpetuating environmental injustice, racism, stereotyping, and cultural genocide.
What if truth, to yourself first, is how you participate in accountability, reparations, justice, and transformation?
“Dreaming is the chrysalis of hope”Dr. Yuria Celidwen
My journey as a Transformation Storytelling Fellow began in November 2022. Back then, as still is now, I was strong in my passion and love for writing. Writing has been my mode of communication with myself—a tool to detangle the threads of my thoughts. Writing is also my solace, my salvation, and my sanctuary.
Through this Fellowship, I was gifted the opportunity to write for and alongside a community of changemakers, dreamers, ‘imagi-neers’, justice doulas, questioners, and network weavers. What this has done—this communal platform for the gathering of our words—is to embed a kindling of radical hope within my heart, work, and purpose that a future where everyone belongs is possible. While easy to discard or disregard, a kindling is quite significant in what it enables us to initiate. It is the spark that lights our way through the non-linear path of our dreams, the little glimmer that hints at the correct turn we should make in a maze, the soft light that peers through the density of fog to keep us in the energy of possibility.
Indeed, not every day of the past 8 months during this Fellowship has felt hopeful. The ‘spark’, on some days, completely disappeared and felt nearly unreachable and untraceable. What drew me back into the audacity of radical hope are the members of my community who listened and told stories of systems transformation, poets who harvested the beautiful meandering conversations of our gatherings, dreamers who dared to share their bold visions of un-evidenced futures, creators who used the multiplicity of their gifts to amplify the voices and work of those who are marginalized, and teachers whose day-to-day way of being exemplified unconditional love. In no small measure, what also kindled my spirit for all these days and months, has been the prayers of my grandmother.
I am incredibly grateful for the lingering joy that is with me now and as I approach the conclusion of my Fellowship. I aspire to tend well to my hope, to be a good steward of the stories I have and will continue to tell, and above all else, to humble myself before the altar of my dreams in praise of the question, “What else is possible”?
I hope you have wild dreams.
Ijeruka Media → A digital learning community curating online courses and conversations about self, social and systemic change that centre people of African descent
Can I Get a Witness? → Short film series that explores the relationships between ecology, memory, separation of Black and Indigenous relations, and our survival in connection to Earth’s health
Dreaming Beyond AI → Dreaming Beyond AI is a space for critical and constructive knowledge, visionary fiction & speculative art and community-organizing.