Naomi McDougall Jones
Imagining Our Way into Beloved Economic Futures
What We Learned About the Future While Making The Light Ahead Podcast.
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I remember precisely where I was when the idea for The Light Ahead podcast emerged. I was sitting on the floor of my office in the home I was renting in Atlanta, leaning against a shabby gray couch, idly plucking stray fuzz out of the carpet, on the phone with my recently-met friend Jess Rimington.
Jess, as I understood at the time, was some sort of visionary trying to bring about a different, kinder economy in the U.S. I’m a filmmaker and had little-to-no-knowledge of economies at the time, so was sort of humming along in the conversation, more-or-less keeping up with what she was talking about, when she began to describe this difficulty that the next-economy movement was having. “We’re finding that most people in the U.S. struggle to even imagine something different than our current economy,” she said. “It’s like we’re so trapped by what is that our brains can’t conceptualize what could be.”
Hearing this, the hair on my arms leapt to attention. “Wait a minute!” I said. “That’s what storytellers do! We stretch people’s minds, imaginations, and emotions out beyond their lived experiences! What if we brought together storytellers and next-economy activists and had them create stories together that could expand people’s imaginations?”
With an alacrity that I have never before experienced on a project, in one week’s time – with the additive brilliance of Joanna Cea’s fundraising and the rest of the Beloved Economies team’s guidance and enthusiasm – The Light Ahead was happening. We set out to pair 13 Hollywood screenwriters from my network with 13 leading next-economy activists, thinkers, and organizations from the Beloved Economies team’s network and invite them to co-create a fictional audio story – a radio drama, essentially – that answered the question, “What would 2030 look like if the U.S. had an economy that truly worked and cared for everyone?”
And we invited our valued participants to dream BIG. “Don’t worry about what’s plausible in the next ten years,” we said. “For the purposes of this podcast, dream into what’s possible. We want to stretch people’s economic imaginations further than they thought was possible with these stories.” Okay…go!
There were all sorts of things about making The Light Ahead that we expected to be difficult. None of us had ever made a narrative podcast before, for instance, and there were a whole host of complicated technical and medium-specific pieces to be worked out. But we were humbled to find that what was most challenging–for every single one of us involved – was the imagining part. For myself and the other screenwriters involved, this often felt like a surprising challenge – after all, a screenwriter’s literal job is imagination! That’s what we have been trained for and have spent our careers doing! And these brilliant next-economy activists spend all day every day thinking about how to fix the economy! They are in the trenches, strategizing and organizing and moving the needle forward. Surely, we had anticipated, imagining a different economic future for these folks would be a snap!
Except, it turns out, this part wasn’t easy for any of us. I lost track of how many times activists shared the sentiment of: Dang, I work to make change every day, but actually imagining the details of life if this change happened? Hmm, I realize now that I haven’t actually spent enough time thinking about that before.
The initial Zoom calls between the writer and activist – which we had the privilege of sitting in on – often ended with tears of inspiration on one end or another. Many of the activists seemed to feel moved and expanded by the rare invitation to imagine into hope, rather than wrassle with immediate obstacles. Most of the writers were like me, and came to the project having thought little about the economy previously, and many of us were transformed by the conversations with these brilliant thinkers and advocates. In the midst of the darkest days of the pandemic, these conversations became shining rays of possibility for a country that could be more beloved for all.
Our eyes moist with tears, Jess, Joanna, Beloved Economies team members Sonia Sarkar and Lauren Ressler, and I would leave these calls certain that we were about to have our minds blown by the worlds that would emerge from these stunning collaborations.
And we were, to be sure – but it often surprised all of us, as well as the activists and screenwriters involved, how many steps and iterations it took us all to get there. We were working with wildly talented screenwriters and they would return wonderful, imaginative, moving, hilarious stories – but, often in those first drafts, the future-world (the backdrop, if you will) would fall flat. There might be one thing better about the economic future represented – say universal healthcare or a new form of profit-sharing – but the rest of the world would still be pretty, well, business as usual. We started wondering, why is it so hard to imagine a future that is fundamentally transformed? To imagine a world in which the DNA of our economy is benevolent, reparative, sustainable, replenishing to those of us who work in it?
Well…to underline Jess’ original point, that act of imagination is this hard because most of us have almost no practice stretching our minds in that direction.
Looking around at the futuristic stories coming out of our Hollywood collaborators, there was almost nothing that wasn’t an apocalyptic dystopia. From Black Mirror to Westworld to The 100 to 3% – piling onto endless other shows, movies, and books – nearly everything our industry is churning out is a look at what will happen if the darkest pieces of humanity, our worst impulses win out. As storytellers, we seem to be in a period of almost manically force-feeding our audiences the narrative certainty that the human race will end in catastrophe. In this context, most of our screenwriters had almost no practice ideating in the opposite direction; had never been asked to imagine, what if we actually get things right?
On the activist and movement side, many of our collaborators were startled to realize that they had also rarely been asked the question we were posing to them: what would the day-to-day details of the dream actually be like? What could a day in the life of that future feel, look, and smell like? Once they did deeply ponder these questions, many of the changemakers reflected back to us what an invaluable process it had been for them and their team.
As one director of an organization remarked to me after our initial call, “I can’t believe we’ve never done this before! This is an exercise we should be doing every single year!”
The revelation about the deep imagination gap that exists around possible, positive futures left me thinking about something that my ballet teacher used to say as we practiced our pirouettes: “If you look down, you’ll fall down.” If our brains literally can’t even imagine or conceive of what a better future might look like – down to the details of how everyday life would feel and flow – how on earth are we ever going to find the clarity, endurance, and hope to do the transformational work now so that we might arrive there?
I learned from some of the movement leaders and activists involved about a similar ethos that many bring to the work of next-economy building, encapsulated in the Spanish phrase championed by social movements across Latin America: de la protesta a la propuesta. From the protest to the proposal. In other words, we can’t get stuck in fighting against; we have to focus on proposing the beautiful other worlds we envision. And what our co-creative journey to produce The Light Ahead taught all of us, I think, is that it’s harder than we might think to fill in the concrete, everyday details of what our “proposals” would look like, if brought to life in vibrant, living color.
So, here’s the thrilling news: we did eventually get there with our stories. Some scripts took more drafts and co-creative conversations than others, but every story eventually envisioned a radically imaginative, inspiring possible economic future for 2030 in the United States – futures that not only fixed a couple of things around the edges, but that truly reimagine the way we live, work, and care for one another. We were deeply moved by the dedication and hard work put in by the changemakers and screenwriters – many of whom took the initiative to connect for hours worth of additional calls beyond the steps we’d planned to fully flesh out their visions and grapple with how best to tell the story.
What we thought would be a six-month project became a journey of over a year and a half to fully arrive at our date of release. But we got here – through the co-creative genius of over 120 collaborators from the storytelling and next-economy communities and all the care, passion, and vision they brought to the endeavor.
And now we can offer these visions to you – to, perhaps, expand your economic imagination in the direction of: what if we get things right? Through the eight stories released each week as part of Season 1 of The Light Ahead – available wherever you get your podcasts – as well as five special bonus episodes that we’ll release in December, you will each time be transported for 15-30 minutes into what daily life would feel like in a more beloved economy.
None of these episodes are hard and fast prescriptions for a specific economy we want to build – each experiments with a different combination of factors, what if we change X and Y? Or A and C – and there are infinitely more combinations than those we present. But across the season, we offer you 13 possibilities so that you can begin practicing your own what if’s? What if the U.S. did have an economy that truly worked and cared for everyone? What would that look like? How would everyday life feel and flow for you?
As we sit here today, still embroiled in the most devastating global pandemic in a century – one which has even more deeply exposed the fault lines of our economy; as things feel hard; as we are burnt out and angry and sad and just plain exhausted; as we re-evaluate the role that work plays in our lives – we can think of no better moment to spend 30 minutes a week nourishing our imaginations with these offerings of a light ahead.
We hope you’ll listen and dream with us.
Naomi McDougall Jones
Naomi McDougall Jones is a 15-time-award-winning storyteller and changemaker. She is an advocate and thought leader for bringing gender parity to cinema, on which subject, she gave a virally sensational TEDTalk and had her first book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, published. More at www.naomimcdougalljones.com.
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