by Amanda Dugan
In the late 1970s and early 80s, a bold project attempted to bring together musicians to lead a social movement. The idea was that with their celebrity status these artists could bring much needed attention to neglected social issues and global crises. Ultimately, if people were made aware of these situations and better educated, they would be more motivated to do something about these situations and help contribute to the solutions. No, this wasn’t Live Aid—it was the World Policy Institute’s “Imagine” project.
Originally referred to as the “Musicians Unification Project” or “MUSE” for short, the project was later renamed “IMAGINE”—referencing the John Lennon song, which had become the anthem of anti-war movements throughout the 1970s. Still, it was more than just the message of the song that inspired the change in name, it was the impact of Lennon himself and other like-minded musicians and artists, who had started to take on pressing global issues. Developing partnerships with these artists was a natural next-step for the Institute, which had long believed that art and culture should have a place in policy discussions and had made it part of their mission to develop creative ways of reaching the public through art and media.
In order to tap into the potential impact of media and the arts, the Institute started with short films and radio spots in the 1960s seeking out big names as Dizzy Gillespie and the Hubleys. Additionally, to understand their perspective and discuss how artists perceived their roles as social activists, the Institute held seminars with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, William Gibson, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn in the 1960s. With the Vietnam War coming to an end in the 1970s, the Institute amplified these media efforts, most notably with its project, “Americans Talk Peacekeeping.” Using a variety of mass media techniques, from public service television to spot announcements, editorials, and films the Institute tried to educate the public and create a forum for open debate of issues that affected people’s daily lives.
As with any good campaign, the Institute realized that the information had to be presented in short, attractive, attention-getting material. So, focusing on of the complex subject of “UN Peacekeeping,” the Institute broke this issue down and recruited big names such as Paul Newman and Gregory Peck to serve as the public voices of the campaigns. With their mass appeal, these stars reached groups far beyond the traditional policy, or NGO audiences. And, more importantly, artists and musicians stayed away from technical or complex terms that would only confuse frustrate the public. Instead, they conveyed the seriousness of these situations and basic elements of the subjects in ways that were relatable to the public.
The Institute provided educational materials that could break down complex issues at every level, from grade schools to universities. If they could reach people at every level, the Institute was convinced that they could change the way global citizens understood the world as well as their relationships to each other. Soon, WPI realized that moving through educational channels was insufficient. They needed to get the messages onto television and radio.
What they had realized early on is that in order for the public to accept the material, they also had to be able to relate it to their lives and understand their roles in creating the solutions. Rather than sending people out to blindly tackle these issues, the Institute hoped that the IMAGINE project could provide people with some guidance, introducing them to the organizations and groups that were already working to solve these issues. For the Institute, it was not about promoting their own work or organizations—it was about building a global community filled with intelligent, engaged citizens.
Despite its promise, the IMAGINE project was never able to make it past the development stages. Yet, the underlying philosophies and appreciation of the relationship between media and public opinion has reemerged within policy discussions and practices. And, again, the Institute is at the forefront of this work. Projects such as “Dangerous Speech Along the Path to Mass Violence,” are looking to understand the way people relate to these new forms of media and how they can be used to build sustainable peace. And now, with its newest project—Fireside Research, the Institute is building relationship with emerging artists, such as South Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal to reach new audiences and find new perspectives for the global issues of today.
Amanda Dugan is a Research Consultant for the World Policy Institute.
[Photo via Greg V.]