What’s the Utopia We are Trying to Build?

A Team Human conversation with Center for Artistic Activism facilitators Rebecca Bray and Rachel Gita Karp

Douglas Rushkoff
5 min readJan 10, 2024

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I am true fan of The Center for Arctic Activism. I’m actually such a fan that I became a member of their board of advisors a few years ago, and try to support their work even a fraction of how much their work supports and inspires me.

The Center for Artistic Activism helps people use their creativity and culture to affect power. They’re a bit like an “artists without borders,” going to different places around the world where people need help finding or making their voices heard. Their work involves surprise, humor, as well as rigorous activist strategy to make incremental or even dramatic change where it has seemed utterly impossible before.

I’m in a pretty intense moment of transition in my own journey from art to polemics to activism and now back again — as if these are different poles or modes competing for my time and energy. But the artists and activists at C4AA have a holistic approach to life and work that effectively obviates such arbitrary distinctions. It’s my pleasure to bring you an excerpt from my conversation with two of the Center for Artistic Activism’s primary facilitators, Rebecca Bray and Rachel Gita Karp.

You can listen to the full conversation by streaming Team Human wherever you get your podcasts. To listen to an ad-free version of the show you can become a patron of the show on Patreon (or this Substack).

Rachel Gita Karp:
We start really big with the question: What’s the utopia we’re trying to build?

It’s easy to get mired in the individual banalities of issues and it’s useful to remember why we’re doing this and what we’re fighting for. It’s what will motivate people more than a very specific referendum on the ballot in a tiny town in Texas. If we’re building a better world, let’s see that clearly and be able to articulate that.

Only then do we get super specific on the objective: the concrete thing we’re trying to achieve. The sex worker example we discussed earlier boiled down to our goal to have every speaker on stage [at a major South African conference about HIV that was ignoring the topic of sex work] mention sex work if they talk about something related to sex work. That’s a tangible thing. It’s a bite-sized chunk of this much bigger world they’re trying to build.

Then you start with impossible-seeming ideas. You don’t let yourself think of the things you’ve done before like rushing the stage or whatever the typical thing might be. With voting it’s a lot of phone banking, text banking, door knocking — all really important things — but we’re looking to find a more creative way.

Rebecca Bray:
For example, with the group that was working on sex work, we did this exercise of saying: What are impossible things that you might want to do?

One of them said, “We want to meet Elton John,” and some of our team asked, “Is that relevant to this? Are you just a fan?”

They said, no, he’s a huge funder and proponent of research on HIV/AIDS and he’s an important player in this. We want him to recognize our group and to work with us. And our team said, oh, well, maybe we can do that. Let’s find a way to meet Elton John.

They decided to make an award for him. Then, they contacted his people and said, hey, we have this amazing award and we’re giving you this award. They didn’t tell him it was made up just for him, obviously. He happened to be in town and he met them and sang a song with them and talked to them and everything. It seemed like a totally impossible thing and yet when you open up that door to people and say, let’s make a list of all the impossible things first, then it just creates these possibilities, which is wonderful.

Douglas Rushkoff:
I guess one of the wishes was that every speaker on the stage will mention this thing.

Rebecca Bray:
Yes. That seemed impossible at some point, but then they did it.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Then it probably starts with someone asking, “What if we can get a giant clock on the back of the auditorium that shows how long have they been speaking without mention the topic of sex work?” It’s like, okay, we can’t do that. But what can we do? Oh, someone can walk around holding a smaller sign with a digital clock, and everyone will notice them. And eventually a speaker will be pressured into saying something about our cause.

Rebecca Bray:
Yes, and creating that space for that kind of creative collaboration among a group of people is also so critical and sometimes hard [to achieve] when you have a group of activists or advocates who are sitting around a table and used to just being in a mode of fighting against huge problems and issues. A lot of it is creating the space and actually allowing the fun and the joy into the work.

Douglas Rushkoff:
It becomes a little bit like an “artists without borders.” You’re almost tech support for activists. They wouldn’t necessarily know to build something with a digital clock or Bluetooth integration. That’s when you bring your expertise to your initiative.

Rebecca Bray:
You don’t have to wait for artists with a capital A. All of us have creativity.

If you are someone who likes to throw a dinner party you already have a sense for how to invite people in, feed them, and have a great conversation. Let people meet each other. These are really good skills for if you want to engage people in something meaningful.

Douglas Rushkoff:
You also learn to gatekeep, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Who is going to contribute? Who is going to be a stick in the mud?

Rebecca Bray:
Absolutely. All of those skills are things that we say everybody has and let’s find ways to cultivate them.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Right, and it might as well be us cultivating them rather than Tupperware, right? Tupperware realized everyone knows how to throw a party. Everyone knows how to exert peer pressure. Let’s use it to sell Tupperware!

Rebecca Bray
Exactly. Yeah. I think really what we’re trying to do when we’re engaging people in social change as we’re trying to have meaningful conversations that move them to take action, right? In order to do that, you can’t just hand them fact sheets.

It’s also about really connecting with their emotions and how they feel and the stories that resonate with them. Then, having something really clear they can do to get involved. And that all involves conversation and really intimate back-and-forth, as well as creativity in terms of welcoming them into a space.

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm