Liberatory Futures: Freeing the Imagination through Writing

May 26, 2021

How can creative writing empower us to reimagine systems of injustice and envision an environmentally just future? 

Community members and students explored this question through a University of St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership Arts workshop with award-winning author and educator, Shannon Gibney, on April 29, 2021.  During this virtual creative writing workshop, Gibney guided participants through reflection and writing about the intersections of narrative, environmental justice, science fiction, and our role in shaping the future.  (For more on the intersections of narrative and environmental justice, watch this discussion).   

Participants reflected on their own visions of environmental justice and the power of creative writing to free the imagination to envision an environmentally just future.  Participants explored passages from the Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler and Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.  Discussion lingered on Brown’s statement that “Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together.” 

Participants also had the opportunity to write.  Gibney offered two writing prompts.  The first prompt was the organizing principle of the workshop:   How can narrative empower us to reimagine systems of injustice and envision an environmentally just future?   The second prompt was to write a sci-fi piece inspired by a local environmental justice issue – Enbridge’s Line 3 and the policing of protests against it –  and the questions and complexities it demands. 

Writing participants shared with each other was the heart of the workshop.  

Thank you to na'im madyun for sharing his pieces here!

Prompt:  How can narrative empower us to reimagine systems of injustice and envision an environmentally just future? Ideas, questions, responses, stories, experiences.

By na’im madyun

I’m stuck on the connection between reimagining and systems of injustice. I think systems of injustice feed off a lack of imagination or maybe control the imagination. I think systems of injustice even provide the list of reimagined possibilities. There is something that leaves me stuck when trying to connect the magic, beauty and freedom present in the word reimagine with the word injustice. 

What’s there?

Why am I stuck at that crossroad?
Why am I stuck not crossing?
Is it because I don’t know what is on the other side?
Imaginations don’t worry about the other side
Is it because I don’t trust the other side?
Imaginations only trust the process of imagining
Is it because I don’t feel it’s the best use of my time and energy?
I think there is something there.  That might be the “what’s there?” I’m looking for.

Imagination, we have been taught and told, must be efficient, coherent, focused and tied to outcomes that are measurable, productive and generative or else it’s a waste of valuable time.

It’s like I want proof of the impact of my imagination before I began to imagine.

Let’s test this.
Without proof at this moment, if I don’t worry about proof,  what can I try to imagine right now? 

I can imagine toddlers suffering from life-altering health outcomes if their caregivers and the newborn baby packets that hospitals provide are not equipped with environmental justice wisdom. 

I can imagine those with the means to invest, perhaps not investing unless or until their great-grandchildren are diagnosed with the life-changing health outcomes years in advance of them being born.

Systems are daunting, but systems are human informed, human-led and human responsive. Correct?  Yet, we are taught to accept that the system can only manages us.

Prompt:  Take 20 minutes to write a piece of sci-fi inspired in some way by this "actual" issue and the questions and complexities it demands.

By na’im madyun

Twelve Board Chairs have been called together for an urgent meeting.

“We need to find alternative energy sources immediately,” says the youngest Board Chair.

“What do you mean?!” asks the eldest Board Chair 

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to build more pipelines close to those Native people.”

“Well that’s where all the oil is. Don’t tell me you’re becoming afraid of the protesters”.

“Well not exactly. It appears as though the problem is more complicated. There are certain parts of those people’s land that if you build on it…. uhmmmm…..It makes you feel, love. And it’s even on the land that’s not even theirs anymore”

“Feel Love? Did you say, feel love?”

“Yes and I mean all types.….empathy, compassion, tough love, critical love, puppy love, popcorn love, companionate love, self-love, nature-love, romantic love, enduring love, lusty lust love…”

“I get it! I get it. Well, if a worker starts to feel love, why can’t the worker just start working in another direction?”

“Well, it appears as though as soon as the worker feels it, the worker quits working and calls their mom on their cell phone or uhhhmmmm…..looks for another worker to…..uhmmmm, not work with. It’s instantaneous and uhmmm permanent.”

“Just ask those Natives where the spots are? How hard can this really be?”

“It seems like whenever we ask them about it…… gets more intense.”


“Yeah….So, if we ask a Native about it, it immediately, I mean immediately becomes more intense. Sometimes if we think about it for too long and look at them, it can get even more intense. And when I say intense, I mean....”

“How do you know all this?”

“We tortured about 7 families over the last 3 weeks. Whatever this is, it has something to do with them dying off or something like that.  You know the weirdest thing?  It’s almost as if they would rather die than tell us what we need to know. Those people can be so selfish and stubborn. I mean, it’s not like….”

“Where’s our project superintendent?”

“The super left two weeks ago”

“Well, what about the head foreman or the construction manager?”

“The foreman now lives in a tent behind the AT&T store and the construction manager left with the super. We really shouldn’t have blocked that equal pay amendment. It’s …”

“Who all knows about this?”

“Just you, the rest of the Board here, myself and a worker down there who married into a Native family.”

“Listen!.  Buy 500 of those infinity cell phones. Buy 500 of those fully liveable tents. Get some food truck contracts going and then round up all the homeless people we can. Put those diabetic chips in their arms, make sure those cell phones are completely trackable and let the homeless live out on those lands.  Tell them we will pay them whatever they want and send money to their families too.  Tell them we need them to plant Greens and then wink at them, but don't say anything beyond that. In a month, we will be back to business with some great PR to boot. Oh and make the worker who knows all this the new Superintendent and kick in a few college funds. That will tie up the loose ends. What’s next on the agenda?

About the author, na’im madyun:   I am a K- 12 instructional coach with Intermediate District 287.  Writing has become a way to work through hope, healing and hard truths. I believe in the just distribution of hope and that requires the existence of a social eco-system that can allow for and support that just distribution.  I am new in my learning of environmental justice, but am not new to trusting interdependence and wherever trusting interdependence might take my continuous learning of how to work through hope, healing and hard truths.

For more information or questions about the University of St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP), learn more here, or contact Maria Dahmus, SCP Director.  Thank you!