Image via Chrislene DeJean
As writer Walidah Imarisha (and many others) have argued, “all organizing is science fiction.”
This is especially true for communities living through the daily reality of structurally-inscribed racial and economic inequality. Margaret Thatcher’s famous intonation that “There Are No Alternatives” can appear to bleed into spheres that are not only economic and political, but creative as well. But since well before Thatcher drove her austerity agenda through the Global North, artists and storytellers found their own ways to reframe dominant narratives—from oral histories passed down in spite of colonial erasure, to Afrofuturism, and the works of such writers as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin.
Just as alternative economic models and theories offer us options beyond the economy as-is, science fiction can offer new frameworks for understanding both the world as it is and how it could be—where Black lives truly matter, for instance, and where putting food on the table is a right rather than a privilege granted only to those lucky enough to afford it.
To learn more about this work, NEC sat down recently with two members of the Boston-based creative design lab Intelligent Mischief (IM). Terry Marshall, the IM collective’s founder, is the Lead Youth Organizer in the Healthcare Education Project of SEIU Local 1199, as well as a co-founder of the BlackOut Collective. Aisha Schillingford is an artist, trainer, facilitator and social change strategist who has worked with—among other groups—the AORTA Collective and the Boston Center for Community Ownership.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NEC: To start off, can you tell me about how each of you came to this work and to Intelligent Mischief?
Terry Marshall: I’ve been doing community and youth organizing for the past 20 years. I had this vision for a space for experimentation. I felt like that was one of the biggest things that was needed in the movement, to experiment with organizing using culture, design, and narrative thinking. So I set out to create Intelligent Mischief in 2013. Over the years it became me, Chrislene DeJean, and then Aisha Shillingford and Collique Williams.
Aisha Shillingford: I’ve been organizing for 16 years, primarily in Boston but with links to national movement building organizations. I was thinking about by own art and art practice, and creating a creative community that understood the social justice movement-building space, and was interested in popular culture, arts, and public art in particular.
NEC: Tell me about Intelligent Mischief. What is it, and how did it come about? What mediums do you use?
Terry: A lot of our stuff falls into social practice art, like public art like art intervention. It also falls into narrative thinking and story based strategy, and applying it to working class organizations.
One of my first examples we did is the “What If? Boston” project. We asked 50 organizers to share their vision for Boston in the form of a question what if, asking them to imagine. We used do-it-yourself art stencils on the steps of the statehouse, and were almost arrested even though we had permission to do it. So that was our birth.
Soon after that we partnered with a CoDesign class at MIT and worked with City Life / Vida Urbana, a group very effective at anti-eviction and housing work. CLVU’s narrative was that the housing market is actually sick and corrupt. We wanted to figure out a tool to collect that narrative. We took them through a process using narrative thinking and design and helped them come up with the housing carnival game, which they could use to recruit people and combat the narrative around housing.
Aisha: Generally we operate in the realm of culture making and culture shifting. We work on creative actions supporting movement-based organizations, and helping make their interventions more compelling and more sound and engaging to people they want to mobilize. We call it action logic, making sure action is supported by intervention they’re using to achieve that outcome.
We try to infuse those spaces with creativity. We’re looking at collaborative design, thinking not just about campaigns and actions that often have a short term outcome as a goal, but also thinking about how to design tools for organizations to use, and how to help them design processes and increase access to those tools by communities of color.
NEC: How does sci-fi fit into this?
Terry: Sci-fi allows us to imagine. We see it as a crucial cultural piece. The way that sci-fi can take you out of your current reality and into pure imagination. Einstein has a quote that goes, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s what allows you to bring forth the future.
Particularly for us too, we get into Afro-futurism, another key framework of thinking that allows black folks in particular, but also folks of color, and oppressed folks can write themselves into the future and imagine beyond current conditions. We push for having organizers use this to organize better, to more effectively dream beyond the current state. Most organizers are just in the trenches. You need space to look up, to see what are we fighting for, and how can we get there. If you can imagine it, you can make it happen.
NEC: How does the Black Body Survival Guide come about in the framework of narrative shift and imagination towards the future?
Aisha: The Black Body Survival Guide is a multimedia compilation of tools meant to help people with Black bodies navigate life in the so-called ‘post-racial’ society, where in a parallel universe, people with Black bodies are experiencing racism often in terms of violence even higher than during the Jim Crow era, while others are debating whether racism even exists. And the reality for Black people continues to be death.
Terry: Shortly after I started Intelligent Mischief, I was watching the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Even though I had political consciousness and a finding of ‘not guilty’ wouldn’t have been a surprise, there was an initial shock emotionally.
In an ABC interview with a juror, I realized that the juror basically said that they didn’t think Trayvon did anything wrong, but that they thought George was a good person. They focused a lot on Trayvon’s body. They used this to say that this is what George saw at night and it was really scary. Look how scary he is. He’s 6 feet.
I realized this is so sad. They saw Trayvon as a scary Black body. And that argument was enough, that was it, shoot him and kill him. And the judge as the savior will protect us, what we call white fragility. In the white imagination, Black people are scary Black bodies that are ready to attack at any moment. That’s the basis of it.
What else do people see in popular imagination that’s scary bodies that kill at any moment? The closest thing to that is zombies. What was popular then too was book called the Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. There seem to be these new rules in place because we’re supposed to be a post-racial society, but there are all these new rules that Black people keep violating because we don’t know them.
Whenever a shooting or killing happened, the onus was always put on the person they killed. So it would be helpful if Black people just had a guide to help with all these rules. So we combined that idea with zombie apocalypse guide. We should have a Black Body Survival Guide. We looked at how we get surreal, and we looked more into surrealism as a movement. Political movement is also surrealism, which has Afro-Caribbean roots. We aim to combat the absurd with the surreal to expose the racism. Through our work with HackLab, we realized that a byproduct was also that using humor has been healing for people involved.
NEC: What can this approach offer that more traditional frameworks of organizing can’t? Where does this fit into organizing generally, and more specifically into the Movement for Black Lives?
Terry: Imagination is crucial to social movement. If people can’t envision a greater world, then they can’t fight for it. If people are fighting for piecemeal things, to make how they live a little better, over a long haul it’s not going to sustain the movement or develop something new. And we need something vastly new and different.
Through sci-fi, we can imagine and therefore invent new ways to experience freedom and do better. This has been crucial to every movement. In the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King talked about the Beloved Community. During slavery, religion was used to enslave Black folks, but Black folks then took what they found in religion to imagine world beyond bondage. All this fuels the fire to keep going even through despair. On a grand scale, that’s what’s missing from traditional organizing -- using creative tools to make organizing more effective.
NEC: Is there anything else you would like to highlight?
Aisha: We went to the INCITE women of color conference, where we adapted our workshop to combine it with solidarity economics. In a group that was 99% women of color, we asked people to think about what comes to mind when thinking about the current economic system, and how it really impacts them day to day. We then asked people to imagine a transition and about the components of the economy.
People talked about education, family, business, and what it would look like. It was an experiment for us, and we were blown away by what people shared. People were blown away. We can envision a new society through storytelling, healing, and centering communities of color.
Terry: How we can have control over our worlds, futures, our lives is an important concept for our work. It needs to be engrained in organizing work, for people to be free.
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Aisha Shillingford is a freelance artist, trainer, facilitator and social change strategist who has been living in Boston for the past 16 years. With over 15 years of community organizing and program development experience in Boston, Aisha dreams of a day when we all believe that community really is the answer to every problem and when we are truly prefiguring the community we wish to see in our every day practices as change makers.
Terry Marshall has been involved in youth and social justice struggles for over 15 years and founded Intelligent Mischief in 2013. Terry is superstar facilitator that serves for several national social justice organizations: Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS), Beautiful Trouble, and co-founder of The BlackOut Collective. He also serves on the board for Center for Artistic Activism and Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (BYOP).