Civic Action

Arguments for Radically Better Futures

March 4, 2024  • Erik Gross

The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides – not by papering over them but by helping people have better arguments. Tameka Vasquez participated in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive, fellowship-style program designed to equip participants to bring the project’s approach to dialogue to their communities. Tameka is the Founder of The Future Quo, a consultancy that helps socially-conscious leaders to imagine and design radically better futures for people and our planet. She sat down with the Better Arguments team to discuss how she is leveraging lessons learned in the Ambassador Program.

Can you tell us about futures thinking – what it is and why it is important?

There’s a practice called strategic foresight that focuses on the challenge of getting leaders to think more systematically about what is happening in society in order to more effectively plan for a future with a wide range of possibilities. The challenge with strategic foresight is that it was popularized after World War II and designed with the assumption of crisis and upheaval. It’s very useful for avoiding the “worst case scenario,” to equip leaders to mitigate risk and to maintain control.

Futures thinking is a bit more expansive than that. It’s more about shifting your mindset to actively consider a range of pathways and many futures. Rather than perceiving changes as potential risks, we can be energized by the possibilities to design for better. I want us to be able to conceptualize a future that is vibrant and that truly excites us and creates resiliency through deeper meaning and purpose as opposed to merely activating survival instincts. 

Futures thinking is also interdisciplinary in nature, pushing leaders to become students of history, culture, people, and more. At The Future Quo, the spin I am trying to bring to this work is to double down on exploring the intricacies of the human experience, and to help organizational leaders be more human-centered in their practices and roadmaps for the future.  

What does “human-centered” mean to you?

Being human-centered really means coming back to the fundamentals of what makes us distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. What are components of the human experience that, if we start to unpack them, will help us to better understand ourselves? The human-centered component is so critical in futures work because I am personally not convinced that producing more or fueling more consumption will necessarily create a pathway for more human flourishing. Instead, it’s about deepening our understanding of who we are, why we are where we are, and starting conversations about possibilities of where we can and should be.

I believe that a human-centered approach also necessitates a focus on preservation and restoration. We have a lot of conversations about climate and sustainability happening right now. And I’m super excited about those conversations but we can sometimes talk about these things as distinct from ourselves. The planet is our home. As far as we know, this is the only place we can occupy and all the life that inhabits it contributes to the ecosystem that has kept us for over 300,000 years. And so, a conversation about the future of humanity inherently includes a conversation about the symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature. 

Given your focus on futures thinking, why were you drawn to the Better Arguments Project’s mission regarding constructive disagreement and open dialogue?

There is a very direct connection. When I found out about the project, I was super excited because I was working on a methodology to bring people into a conversation about the future. But I was not sure what elements would go into that; for example, I didn’t know what specific topics  I would be having conversations around because “the future” is pretty nebulous. I didn’t know what kinds of people or industries might be of interest, so I was in an exploratory phase. Regardless, I knew I’d need tools to facilitate imaginative and additive dialogue.

Alumni of the Better Arguments Ambassador Program convening in the Aspen Institute’s Washington, DC office.

The Better Arguments Project is a space for futures thinking because it creates shared authorship – we are all writing the story of the future together. And opting to challenge the status quo means we will be sitting in the tensions and discomforts that come with the uncertainty of where those stories  are going. To have a conversation about the future, you must have a conversation about a range of possibilities and you must be open to building a future collaboratively. Even with the deepest subject matter expertise in a given area, you can’t predict where things will go and you shouldn’t want to because that could be disengaging and non-inclusive. For example, some people who specialize in future forecasting and strategy will stand up and say “This is what the future is going to be,” based on facts, figures, and patterns. I’m proposing to move away from that and towards a methodology that offers an invitation to insightful and healthy debate, as well as a focus on collective creation so that we can reap the benefits of innovation that happens from a place of equity and care.

The Better Arguments Project is a space for futures thinking because it creates shared authorship – we are all writing the story of the future together.

Everyone is inevitably going to have blind spots. There is no way that through a singular lens or a singular lived experience anyone could effectively tell others what they should be doing to prepare for a changing world. And we don’t want to activate confirmation bias, where we fail to consider alternate realities. For me, engaging in the work of Better Arguments is about building a culture where constructive and potentially divergent dialogue is habitual and where we are constantly working to engage with new viewpoints to expand our horizons.

Why is it necessary for us to engage opposing and diverse viewpoints to forge a better tomorrow?

What other choice do we have? We must be able to engage each other with an acceptance that we are not going to see the world in the same way. We must understand that we’re not going to see anything the same way. And frankly, that is great. I don’t believe in this world of rigidity, hierarchy, and pre-made solutions. I think there’s a wide range of alternate solutions to a wide range of challenges, and they get overlooked all the time, because we tend to default back to what has worked before almost as a security blanket. But what feels familiar won’t always feel right.

We need to build a society that can not just survive but thrive through unpredictable circumstances. By engaging with people who have faced different realities already, we can generate greater wisdom. Sometimes, the prospect of having conversations across divides is met with pessimism or anxiety. But I want to infuse reframed perspectives to create a sense of optimism: The fact that we come from different perspectives inherently means we will be more prepared.

We need to build a society that can not just survive but thrive through unpredictable circumstances. By engaging with people who have faced different realities already, we can generate greater wisdom.

What aspects of the Better Arguments approach resonate with you most?

What I love about this program is that it is rooted in the agency an individual has. Empowering people with the tools and skills they need to go into their respective environments is so critical. Additionally, the action-oriented nature of Better Arguments is important. The Better Arguments Ambassador Program includes an explicit call to action. Often, we engage in educational or professional development opportunities, and we are not quite sure what we are supposed to do with lessons learned afterwards – that is not the case with Better Arguments. As a participant, it pushed me to take the tools out of the toolkit, so to speak, and actually activate this new knowledge.

In terms of the principles of a Better Argument, I pull from “Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately” a lot. It is a useful reminder that no matter who I am talking to in my work, they are human and I have to create a space where they can feel seen and heard. Another principle that has really stuck with me is “Embrace Vulnerability.” When I’m conducting interview-based research projects, it can be very difficult to get people to open up about their notions of the future or where their hopes or fears derive from – futures work can be incredibly vulnerable. By modeling vulnerability, by being transparent about my own limitations or my own point of view, I have been much more successful at generating insights and useful narratives that can bring stakeholders to the table more effectively.