- Collaborative Imagination:Earning Activism through Literacy Education
The students in my spring 2017 graduate Literacy and Community Issues class developed a new term as part of our classroom vocabulary: starfishing. They coined this term in response to Paul Feigenbaum's Collaborative Imagination: Earning Activism Through Literacy Education, which makes a hopeful yet nuanced case for how networked efforts within institutions might create change. The book combines deep illustrations from the civil rights era with contemporary efforts in community literacy, layering perspectives as it moves forward and backward in time, to explore how different practices of literacy education shape notions of citizenship and how activists in literacy education go about pursuing social change. Laying out a parable to ground a key idea in his book, Feigenbaum retells the traditional story of the starfish savior: a man walking along a beach notices thousands of starfish washed up on the shore, and he sees another man throwing the starfish back into the sea, one by one. He tells the man throwing the starfish that this is a waste of time, as there are thousands of starfish—he cannot make a difference. The man throws another starfish into the sea and replies, "I made a difference to that one." This story is meant to be inspirational, but Feigenbaum, drawing on Buzz Alexander's Freirean interpretation of the parable, points out that this story is an individualistic myth that limits the potential for activism: rather than running into to town to gather others to help, or researching the cause for why the starfish are being washed up along the shore, the man exemplifies the idea that good citizens act alone. As Feigenbaum writes, "The starfish savior's willingness to sacrifice time and energy toward a good cause makes him appear to be morally righteous, but in failing to enlist aid in resolving the macroproblem, he ensures that the vast majority of starfish will perish" (9). Acting out of a starfish savior mentality—or, as my students termed it, starfishing—means blending romantic naiveté and individualism in ways that are ultimately ineffective in forwarding activism.
In contrast, Feigenbaum champions the concept of "collaborative imagination," "communalist hybridizations of utopian thinking and practical action" (5), which involves a group in collectively envisioning a society that offers first-class citizenship [End Page 104] to all and working together to move toward that vision on the ground. As Feigenbaum explains, activism must be earned—and activist rhetorics tend to "decay" into adaptive rhetorics, losing their ability to challenge the status quo, over time. Therefore, activism must be continually re-earned in literacy education.
This acknowledgement of both the potentials of activism and the very real forces that erode it allow Feigenbaum to offer a nuanced vision of community literacy, navigating between naïve hope and the despondency that often comes with critical awareness, between calls to tactically disassociate community literacy projects from institutions and service-learning's often-unexamined push toward greater institutionalization, between commitment to the ideals of critical pedagogy and recognition that the concepts of critical and false consciousness can counteract those ideals, between utopian dreaming about what community literacy should be and paralysis from the realization that this vision is unattainable. It is this nuanced approach that Feigenbaum takes throughout his book that equips community literacy practitioners with theoretical and practical agility to maneuver in fresh ways within constrictive systems and frameworks. Calling our attention to small but significant openings in theories and institutions that may seem ossified, Collaborative Imagination: Earning Activism is, frankly, energizing.
The introduction sketches out the key concepts and terms of the book in theoretical prose brought to life with narrative reflections from Feigenbaum's time in the Peace Corps, making this chapter especially useful for those wishing to understand or teach Feigenbaum's core ideas—it makes a great reading for a graduate or upper-division class on community literacy. Feigenbaum introduces his concepts through the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, describing how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee challenged the system of "rigged citizenship" with collaborative imagination. In Feigenbaum's words, "[C]ollaborative imagination emerges from the premise that earning...