#DareToDream is inspired by the 2015 #DareToImagine campaign sponsored by the people-powered U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. Arlene Goldbard is their Chief Policy Wonk. She is a writer, social activist and consultant whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics, and spirituality. Thank you to Arlene for writing this blog in support of our storytelling campaign 2016.

Outside it’s cold and gray
People don’t get in my way
The margins are wide enough, to hide all of us

Who don’t belong in the light of day
Who look like we started from far away
Who were born and raised without a break, and bruised ever since

Inside shines like a dream
Of freedom and time to breathe, of safety
Ways, and means and justice indivisible

These stanzas by Bethlehem & Sad Patrick are excerpted from the 2016 Poetic Address to the Nation, an account of the state of our union in the form of a collaborative poem inspired by hundreds of stories contributed by people of all ages, backgrounds, and circumstances across the United States. They are part of a national story-based civic ritual called the People’s State of the Union created by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, where I have the honor and privilege of serving as Chief Policy Wonk. (The USDAC isn’t a government agency despite its official-sounding name. It’s a people-powered department—a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging.)

I am drawn to this poem because it illuminates the deep truth that imagination is a human right. No matter how unwelcoming everyday reality may feel, no one can take away our capacity to dream a different world, exercising social imagination.  

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But as we said a year ago when the USDAC launched another national action—#DareToImagine, which inspired the Scottish International Storytelling Festival’s #DareToDream—there are obstacles:

Imagination is our birthright: everyone owns this power and everything created must first be imagined. But too often, we’re persuaded to believe our voices don’t count or that the future is determined by a powerful few. In these times, social imagination is a radical act, affirming that all of us make the future. When we have the audacity to dream in public, when we begin to turn imagination into action, we can move the world.

Whether we know it or not, all of us are storytellers. Without the story that gives it shape, a human life is just one incident after another. We are born, we learn to speak and walk, a series of accidents and choices—our own or others’—carry us from one circumstance to the next for the span of a life. But randomness doesn’t sustain us. It’s intrinsic to human nature to turn this jumble of incident into a meaningful narrative, a story that has themes, highlights, and direction. Whether we do it consciously or not, the way we shape our stories shapes our lives.

Think about something we’ve all seen many times: two individuals describe similar experiences in remarkably different terms, yielding opposite meanings. One individual living with a dire medical diagnosis tells a story of suffering, but suffering that refocused her attention on her most meaningful relationships and pursuits, leading her to drop whatever seems trivial. Another with the same diagnosis can’t stop complaining about how unfair it is that she was singled out for punishment she didn’t deserve, lapsing into resignation and despair. One story makes life bearable, however short. The other makes it an unceasing punishment.

Everyone has a story, an autobiography: which story will you choose?

Through #DareToDream, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival is inviting “you all, as citizen artists, to join us in the collective act of dreaming a better future. What are the stories that are yet to be told?”

The same dynamics apply to this collective challenge, dreaming together of future possibility. The way we shape our stories shape our communities, our hopes, and even our fears.

There is no shortage of ready made stories powerful people expect us to accept as our own. I first came to understand these forces through Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator. I found Freire’s concept of “internalization of the oppressor” hugely illuminating. This phrase describes the process whereby individuals and communities are subtly persuaded to worldviews and self-images that serve interests contrary to their own.

If we are continually told by authoritative voices—textbooks, politicians, business leaders, and others—that the group we belong to is inferior, it can come to feel natural to mistake that for the voice of truth, taking it into our own hearts and minds. Accepting disempowering stories encourages passivity: if we believe that others are smarter, better-informed, more powerful, or better-suited to rule, we may as well stand back and let them get on with it.

Working with landless farmworkers in Brazil, Freire developed an antidote: a kind of storytelling that helped people learn to speak with their own voices, in their own words, thus moving from the role of history’s object—the one who is always acted upon—to the powerful role we can all inhabit, that of a subject who makes history.

In the many decades since I discovered this work, I’ve had countless opportunities to see these dynamics in action. I meet people every week whose personal stories of possibility haven’t been told. They’ve internalized the idea that they have no say in shaping the future, so they resist dreaming. “Why should I waste my time? It’ll never happen.” This is internalization of the oppressor. A simple reality-check contradicts it,  revealing that we who desire a future of justice tempered by love vastly outnumber the few who benefit from our hesitation to dream a world in which we matter. “In these times, social imagination is a radical act, affirming that all of us make the future.”

The first step? #DareToDream. What stories of the future would you tell if you took your dreams one hundred percent seriously? I can’t wait to find out!