The Power of What If

“Everything begins with an idea in our mind, then is created, brought from the abstract to the physical. Just as things are built with our hands, they are built with our minds.”

  • Ernest Holmes, metaphysicist, spiritual leader and New Thought pioneer

“Free your mind and your ass will follow.”

  • George Clinton, composer, philosopher, progenitor of Funk music

Ideas. Arrangements.  Effects.  They move/dance/mingle and organize themselves in infinite combinations of possibility.  Ideas are the critical building blocks of reality yet, most of us are taught to devalue ideas, to relinquish them to “thinkers.” We are taught false boundaries between thinking, doing and the creation of systems that shape our lives.  We are distracted by the “reality”/effects that are thrown at us.  We miss the curtain and who’s behind the curtain pulling the levers/shaping the ideas and the arrangements that make up “society”.

Moving into the realm of ideas means taking part in the project of “building with our minds.”  It is at the heart of authentic democracy.  It is remaking our lives from a series of adaptive responses to the ideas and arrangements of others to becoming architects and co-creators of society.  Creativity is the ultimate power of governance.

What are the organizing ideas behind the arrangements and effects we see in our lives? 

Greed is good.  Women are weak.  Black lives don’t matter.  Schools are pipelines to menial labor and mass incarceration.  Add your own.  Recognizing the organizing ideas or principles that animate the systems and structures of the status quo helps us follow the chain from ideas to effects.  It also gives us clues to how we might imagine new and different possibilities.

What are the organizing ideas that will take us to where we want to go?

It is Aisha LeGrande Day at Audre Lorde Community School.  Aisha and her family are spending the morning with her school support team to learn more about her dreams, needs and ways of learning.  She will be a kindergarten student in the fall.  Her mother, father, grandparents, aunt and oldest sister are comfortably seated in the Family Circle of Appreciation as they and Aisha talk easily with teachers, support coaches and success team leaders.  Aisha often gets up to explore the colorful room full of pictures, blocks and toys.  She shares her favorite color – red – and her favorite animal – zebra – and other insights into what makes her feel happy, safe or afraid.  The support team takes careful notes.   Working with her parents, they will put together a book all about Aisha with pictures, notes, advice, favorite song titles and lots of other things to make her smile.

 On the first day of school, Aisha and her seven classmates are warmly welcomed to class as their smiling teachers invite them one at a time into their shared space.  They squeal with delight as they notice desks, cubbies and walls adorned in their favorite colors.  There are special decorations for each student with family pictures, encouraging words and more as they are encouraged to roam freely about the room and get to know their school home.  At the end of the day, parents leisurely file into the family lounge where they pick up their children along with fresh produce and delicious, healthy meals prepared by the community’s elder council.   Neighborhood elders give out warm hugs, ask each parent how they are feeling today and listen for their answer.  The busy family lounge is so alive with love and laughter, it’s hard to imagine how Ms. Emma is stealing a nap while her kids make full use of the playground outside.

What arrangements change?  What shifts in effects when the organizing idea is school as a place where every child thrives?

This is a small glimpse of what is possible when we start with organizing ideas built with free minds.  But how does a mind get free to build new ideas and arrangements?  How do we create the space for collaborative imagination and play for liberation sake when there is so much anxiety about how to reform the current arrangements to ensure that people survive much less thrive?

Design Studio for Social Intervention has been a central instigator in making this kind of space in our communities.  For the last ten years, they have joyfully pushed us out of our comfort zone and into creation.  This is incredibly important for everyone but especially in communities that have been traditionally marginalized from the creative part of governance; who have been told they have little to offer to the process and that the arrangements and effects that are imposed upon them are just “the way it is.”

Yet, this can turn when we ask the simple question, what if…?

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” 

  • Albert Einstein

“I’ve got to use my imagination, to give me a reason to keep on keeping on…”

  • Gladys Knight and the Pips

Racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, xenophobia, ableism – so many “isms” are held in place by the organizing idea that we are in competition with each other for survival; that somebody must be “on top’ and most of us should be “down low”.  These ideas beget stories, stories beget frameworks and soon whole systems, theologies and ideologies are built to support and manifest these dehumanizing ideas.  Deconstructing the ideas that lie beneath these systems is important – especially if we want to avoid replicating these broken, harmful arrangements.  Yet, instead of using our creative energy to build toward more holistic alternatives, we too often adopt the very organizing ideas that have not been working for us and wonder why we have the same effects.  We have meetings whose organizing idea is that a small group knows what to do and everyone else should follow them.  We play games where we “beat“ each other.  We hold protests where we mostly stand around and listen to a few speakers and not each other.

This is not to say that there aren’t useful tools for transformation in the wheelhouse of the status quo.  We make use of smart phones, laptops, algorithms, cartography, etc., for good.  However, there are too many movements that have lost their way as they become more and more like what they are working to change.  They are hoping for new effects with the same old ideas and arrangements.  We can make the effects less harmful – and some times that is all we can do – but we will not be able to transform ourselves and our communities without changing the underlying ideas that animate our work.  So, this is an invitation to step into liberation play, put on your funky x-ray glasses and see past effects to the ideas and arrangements that drive these effects in our communities.   And then, ask yourself, ask your friends, family and comrades, “What if…love?  What if …joy?  What if collaboration and engagement of every person was the central organizing idea?  What if…?  And see what you build with free minds.

As Albert Einstein observed, imagination is critical to advancing science.  Democracy is more science than we are taught to believe.  It is not a few dusty quotes of old white men who could not even see their wives as citizens much less the African men and women whom they denied freedom and dignity.  Real democracy requires organizing ideas that value our creativity, our dreaming, our wellbeing.  It needs your what if to come alive.

Sometime in the future…

She walked across the stage so regal in her cap and gown that I hardly recognized her as my once gangly granddaughter.  In one hand was her diploma, the other her completed voter registration form — a requirement of graduation.  She was ready to join the community as a full adult.  Her civic classes trained her well on the ins and outs of how change is made.  And she was ready to be a thorn in her representative’s side.  I smiled.  She is her mother’s child.

 I looked back over the years and sacrifices that brought us to this moment.  The patient organizing by so many that helped folk realize that they could make a difference.  Through these efforts came new laws and institutions designed to serve and engage us: schools that taught young people to be active partners in their government; policies that guaranteed equitable funding and social programs; and communities built for people to talk with one another — and with the new labor laws, there was actually time.

It was a long hard fight before we finally got some real democracy.  Not that things are perfect.  No way.  But I can see the difference everywhere and it gives me deep and abiding hope.

Makani Themba is Chief Strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies.  She also serves as Minister of Revolutionary Imagination on the cabinet of the US Department of Arts and Culture.  Find out more at

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Mailing List

Bridging Vision, Values and Strategy for transformative change.

Higher Ground Change Strategy All Rights Reserved © 2020