Using Civic Imagination to Resist: Envisioning A Future With Sexual and Reproductive Rights

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2017-2018 Global (Health+Law) Series, April 18, 2018

“Using Civic Imagination to Resist: Envisioning A Future With Sexual and Reproductive Rights” took place on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law. A collaboration between the USC Law & Global Health Collaboration, the Civics and Social Media Group (CASM) and the Civic Imagination Project (CIP), the event was organized to open new ways of ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) within the United States and globally, as political systems are increasingly restrictive. Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova of CASM and CIP served as the primary facilitators for this event, which transcended the traditional academic talk or panel and engaged the audience over several hours to imagine what the future of SRHR could look like without the barriers within which we currently operate. The well-attended event included faculty, staff, and students, from a range of schools across USC, including from Keck, Gould, Annenberg, Peck and Dornsife as well as members of the Civics Path research group.

The event began with an introduction from Sofia Gruskin, Director of USC’s Institute for Global Health, who set the scene reminding the audience of the increasing assaults on SRHR happening around the globe within policy, education, and institutions, and the media. Approaching SRHR as a nonpartisan issue and turning the focus toward a concern for the health and wellbeing of all, she noted the responsibility of Universities to generate respectful, interdisciplinary and evidence-based dialogue for people within the university community, as well as citizens more broadly. In an attempt to reinvigorate support for the SRHR of all people, this event challenged participants to move out of their disciplinary silos and dream big, setting the groundwork for new approaches to interdisciplinary collaboration around SRHR issues in both research and action.


Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova from the Civics and Social Media Group (CASM) and the Civic Imagination Project (CIP) gave an initial introduction to the methodology for the day. This was followed by a group brainstorm in which participants considered what an ideal future would look like in 2060, including but not limited to issues directly related to SRHR. After this collective activity, participants split into groups to create stories surrounding themes named in the brainstorming activity and explored what it would take to move towards these ideas being realized. Participants then engaged with one another through a World Café, an activity where people rotated through different groups to build on the stories presented earlier. Questions prompted dialogue about what could be learned from these stories, and what actions could be taken in the immediate future and by the people participating in the event to reach a world in which the positive themes expresses could become a reality. Finally, Anthony Tirado Chase, Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, and Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs at UCLA, reflected back on the process and themes presented and proposed some action points for the immediate future. A graphic facilitator was in attendance to create a real-time visual representation of the event through colorful drawings and text. This provided another mode of expression to complement and extend the dialogic and performative aspects of the day.

This created an engaging layer of activity and documentation that spurred additional responses within the immediate context of the event, but also created a durable and tangible outcome to be shared after the fact. By providing another way into the proceedings, this also creates additional opportunities for engagement and participation, giving more ways into the work and topics at hand, as well as providing a mode to reach out to those who may be more visually inclined. The sections that follow provide a detailed description of the day.

Civic Imagination and World Building

The facilitators began by explaining that the purpose of engaging civic imagination and participating in ‘world building’ is to encourage participants to re-assess their citizenship and personal involvement in the world, and to reconstitute where each person is coming from in order to break out of our traditional frameworks. This exercise allows people to connect with one another through ideas and values as well as become familiar with different perspectives, networks, and the range of expertise represented in the room. This is intended not only to be personally rejuvenating but practical, as it organizes communities towards action.

Participants were asked to imagine a future world in 2060 where anything is possible; the only requirements are that it is a world in which SRHR are upheld and it is a world in which participants would want to live. One at a time, and inspired by comments made my participants the facilitators named themes – transportation, housing, health, justice, family, technology, and sex – for each of which the participants called out popcorn-style ideas for what they hoped the future would look like in that area. Facilitators acted as scribes for this activity, and as people contributed ideas, the facilitators synthesized themes and asked questions that encouraged people to expand on their ideas in concrete ways. Resonating with a justice framework, affordability, accessibility, availability, equity, agency, and sustainability were common themes for participants’ vision for the future of the world in all subject areas.

Contributions on the topic of health were particularly well developed by participants, with suggestions for improving accessibility and affordability, moving towards a health system that is nondiscriminatory and so embedded within society as to be taken for granted. The future of health more generally would mean longer life expectancy, no disease, with an equal focus on mental and physical health, and pregnancy would always be a choice. The future of family was seen as inclusive, loving, diverse, free of violence and trauma, and free from geographic division by borders. Finally, the topic of sex focused on pleasure, equality, health, safety, and being free of stigma or taboo. The future of sex will be pleasurable, consensual, free from stigma, diverse, not defined by gender, and commercially decriminalized.

After discussing these topics, the room was split into groups of 5-6 and tasked with writing a story about one of the themes above to help gain an understanding of what happened between the present day and 2060 to get to the point where this idealized time would be possible. Stories were to have characters, a plot twist or conflict, and a resolution. Engaging participants in movement and space, asking them to literally embody the topics of their concern and the forms of their imagination, added opportunities for laughter and other affective expression that helped deepen the sense of collaboration and bring vibrancy and urgency to the underlying content.

For some participants, it was difficult to let go of the constraints that contextualize the world at present, while others were very concerned with cultural context that would contextualize the themes being discussed, like religion. Some groups wrote their stories methodologically, focusing on chronology of events, while others engaged with and developed their characters, asking questions of what might one do in this 2060 world. Finally, groups each gave a performative presentation of their stories. The themes that groups chose to write their stories on were as follows: sexual education: pregnancy and gender fluidity: housing and family life: sexuality and contraception, particularly male contraception.

After the five plays were performed, participants were asked to reflect on a series of questions: How does this exercise and your group’s depiction of life in 2060 reflect on where we are today and what it will take to get there? What is the pivot point in your scene prompting action? How relevant is it to considering the relevant issues more broadly? What is the role of academia in building this future? What can be accomplished by the people here, today, to get to where we want to be in 2060? These questions were the focus of the ‘World Café’ exercise that followed.

World Café: How will we get there?

After a short coffee break, participants reconvened, taking turns and rotating through different tables to talk about three of the five stories presented. Groups recounted what they saw in the stories, dissecting their deeper meanings and what key models for change could be at play. They were also encouraged to look at how these stories reflect the present and what if any immediate action steps can be taken towards this new world. In particular, they were asked to consider who one must work with and the different disciplines that can be engaged, including academia and research. Conversations flowed naturally and enthusiastically from the prompts. After three rotations, the facilitators of each group shared back, summarizing the conversations they had had.

Group Reflections

Among reflections about the first group’s story, facilitators agreed that communication and interpersonal relationships are key to facilitating change in addition to the structural, policy and systemic issues more commonly addressed in academic gatherings. Each story identified the crucial roles that teachers, policy makers, community members, health professionals, youth, media, and NGOs have across the issues considered. Facilitators were also in agreement about the role of academia in achieving these advancements: more research on the problems at hand to translate policy and information into action, calling for better translation of academic findings to the public, perhaps using media.


To close the workshop, Lara Stemple and Anthony Tirado Chase provided summaries and reflections with an eye towards research and action steps to take us forward. Stemple began by noting several themes that had emerged throughout the day as key to moving SRHR issues forward: gender fluidity and tolerance at an individual level; attention to the positive and negative role of governmental intervention; the continued need for dramatic medical and scientific advances as lead by the private sector; and political activism. Open dialogue and communication – around sex and other topics – was emphasized as key, at individual, community and societal levels. Effective messaging, and engaging real people can encourage action around commonly held values on tolerance and equity. A rights-based lens as well as attention to choice – in, for example, pregnancy, parenting, gender expression, and sexual partners – are also key to moving forward. As a key action step for the immediate future, Stemple recommended planning for the fall and acting on the inspiring notions laid out throughout the day to support campaigns in the midterm elections and emphasized getting people to the poles to vote. She encouraged people to make room to participate in this election, no matter how busy they are, as this is key to sexual and reproductive health and rights today and, in keeping with the theme of the event, in 2060.

Anthony Tirado Chase began by noting how a moment of pessimism can lead to inspiration and possibility. Chase articulated the fundamental challenges that the global resurgence of social and political hierarchies is posing to progress. However, he noted the power in community evidenced through this activity, the need to find one another, be kind to one another and emphasize the commonality that unites us in plurality against the singularity pushed by current political processes; civic imagination, as demonstrated through they days activities may well be an important pathway to constructing such an overarching framework. Chase’s action points encouraged a shift of focus towards human rights as the glue that can hold together the ideas proposed today. He suggested working in our own domains, but to think about the connections and the commonality that unites us for the better good of humanity and a vision of where we want to be in the future. He noted that human rights matter to connect the community as a whole. Human rights need to be inclusive, not exclusive and broadened as needed to support SRHR now and in 2060. Overall, the field must resist the tendency to think of human rights in a divisible hierarchy, but rather emphasize rights’ interdependence, connecting theory and practice. His finals words were, “resist compartmentalization.”


In closing the event, Gruskin noted that, although we may not know exactly where we are going with what we have learned today or specifically what we are going to do next, it was clear participants were leaving invigorated. The event provided a way to think creatively about scary and intimidating developments that may threaten SRHR. With this sort or approach, we can begin to think about how SRHR can be upheld, moving research and action forward across the disciplines. Gruskin thanked everyone present for their engagement and support towards the world we want for the future, and promised the USC Law & Global Health Collaboration will work actively on SRHR in the year to come.


A sincere thank you to the Civics and Social Media Group (CASM) and the Civic Imagination Project (CIP), particularly Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova for leading the methodology of the workshop and encouraging people to use their imaginations in creating the world we want to see. We would also like to extend deep thanks to Anthony Tirado Chase and Lara Stemple for closing our workshop and synthesizing the day in thought-provoking and actionable ways.

A special thank you also goes to USC the Law & Global Health Collaboration Steering Committee, to whom we are tremendously grateful for the time, effort, and contributions they all made toward making this event a success. Ke’Ari Brooks, Nicole Palermo, Irene Garcia, Alex Nicholson and Larissa Puro all contributed to the success of the event, and a special shout out to Nick Brewer and Eliza Fox who were particularly engaged in documenting this important event. Finally, thank you to all those that attended the workshop and engaged in all aspects of the process. We look forward to further engagement on this important topic in the year ahead.


See photos from the event at this link:

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