MAZI Articles

Inviting—Not Requiring—Social Change
by Karen Greiner and Arvind Singhal

In this essay, Karen Greiner and Arvind Singhal explore two successful programmes using communication for social change—one in Senegal and the other in the United States—that invite people to be agents of their own development, to be the change they wish to see. Karen Greiner is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Studies, Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, United States. Her interests include creative communication and social change. Arvind Singhal is the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor in the department of communication, University of Texas, El Paso, United States, where he also directs the Social Justice Initiative. A longer version of this piece recently appeared in the Journal of Development Communication under the title "An Invitation to Social Change."

Se hace camino al andar.
We make the road by walking.
- Antonio Machado1

Can Social Change Be Invitational?
Consider the following: The scene is a public square in Oakland, California. The date: early December 2008. Two hundred citizens of Oakland have heeded the call of a local theatre company to create a “theatrical re-enactment” of the 1946 Oakland General Strike 62 years ago, when Al Brown, a streetcar driver, stopped his streetcar to express solidarity with a picket line of women retail clerks protesting low wages and dismal working conditions (Maher, 2008). When Brown stopped his car, the streetcars behind him stopped in cascading waves of solidarity. Another 100,000 East Bay workers joined in. The strike lasted three days, leading to recognition of workers’ rights, a more progressive city government, and better living conditions for working families2.

The Web site for the “site-specific” 2008 performance invited participation:

We need YOU–actors, citizens, performers, musicians, activists, regular folks–to take to the streets as part of a site-specific performance project about the 1946 Oakland General Strike. If you can hold a picket sign, carry a tune, dance in the streets, project your voice, or just want to be involved, we want you! (

In response to the question “What is a theatrical re-enactment,” the creators of “Oakland 1946!” answered: “It is what you make it!”3 Two performances of Oakland 1946! (Dec 5-7, 2008) took place outdoors in Latham Square—the site of the 1946 strike—and were free to the public. Local union leaders and workers were invited to take the stage after each performance to address the audience. In a newspaper article covering the event, 19-year old resident Gabriel Vieira responded enthusiastically to the event: "I loved how it [the performance] started with this fascinating historical story, and they brought it all the way up to the present. A lot of this stuff is still happening” (Maher, 2008).

This performance, part theatre, part activism, commemorated a historic civic event, and by openly inviting citizens' participation, wove the audience into the fabric of the story itself. People participated in this performance not only as “spectators,” but also as “spec-actors” (Boal, 1974; 2004: 39, emphasis added). The creators of Oakland 1946! not only dramatised and recounted the events of 1946, but also they invited average citizens to become a part of it. After citizens had joined in the action—chanting slogans, holding picket signs, marching around the square—upcoming union organising events were discussed, inviting the “spec-actors” to participate in future activities as well (Maher 2008).

Individuals from the organization “Art for a Democratic Society” (A4DS) present at the 2008 performance, described the event as successful in “bring[ing] art and politics together.” (2009, para. 9). The performances’ director, Max Bell Alper, said the purpose of the interactive performance was “to make it as engaging as possible so people will remember this [event], and then connect it to current struggles" (quoted in Maher, 2008). Some 300 “spec-actors” participated in the performances over the two days (Maher 2008). By invitation, Oakland 1946! enabled citizens’ transformation from passive spectators to active “spec-actors” and, potentially, future social change agents.
In this essay we explore two strategic communication for social change interventions that invited individuals to be agents of their own development–to be the change they wished to see. We propose the term “invitational social change” to unite these forms of communication under a single theoretical umbrella. To illustrate what invitational social change can look like in action, we travel to Senegal, West Africa to learn how a storytelling contest launched in three African countries in 1997 has grown in a decade to involve close to 150,000 young people in the fight against HIV AIDS in 47 countries. Next, we arrive in the United States city of Carbondale, Illinois, where we discover how “eco-feminist humour” invites action and raises awareness about global warming and toxicity in consumer products.

Each case has unique attributes: No formulaic recipe exists for invitational social change. Nonetheless, we hope the cases we present will inspire the recognition and re-telling of other stories of invitational social change across the globe. We begin by providing an overview of how communication has been traditionally used to foster social change. Then, we introduce our understanding of “invitational social change,” followed by the case studies as examples. Finally, we offer some lessons and conclusions.

Communication for Social Change
After the Second World War, the role of communication in social change was aligned closely with theories of modernisation, privileging persuasive, top-down models of communication promoted via mass media (Lerner 1958; Melkote & Steeves 1991: 55). The role of the mass media (considered “magic multipliers”) was viewed as “bringing what is distant near and making what is strange understandable [in order to] bridge the transition between traditional and modern society” (Schramm 1964: 129).

In this mass media-cantered discourse, diffusion of innovations theory evolved as a local-level framework to guide communications planning for modernisation (Rogers 1962). It emphasised the ability of media messages and local opinion leaders to create knowledge of new practices and persuade "target audiences" to adopt innovations in agriculture, health, and education. The widespread adoption of the Green Revolution technologies in developing countries was viewed as emblematic and solidified its dominance as a widely-used framework of intervention.

However, disappointments with the diffusion model emerged. People did not relinquish old habits and traditions just because an “expert” believed it was good for them. Rogers, the chief proponent of diffusion theory, acknowledged the model’s limitations over the course of five editions of his book (Rogers 1962; 2003); however, expert-driven development practice found it hard to shed its attraction for the top-down diffusion model.

The diffusion model, as it evolved over the next several decades, revealed the problems with the pro-innovation biases that came with outside expertise, as well as the inequities inherent in adoption and outcomes. Over time, it increasingly recognised the fallacy of viewing adopters as atomised individuals not influenced by their social kinship networks, and called for “wider participation” of communities in determining their own futures.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, alternative views of development gathered momentum. Rogers defined the “new” development as “a widely participatory process of social change in a society, intended to bring about both social and material advancement (including greater equality, freedom, and other valued qualities) for the majority of the people through their gaining greater control over their environment” (1976: 12). For Goulet (1973), development was holistic and included a clean environment; growth with equity; provision of basic needs ,such as food, shelter, education and medical care; meaningful jobs and relationships with others; and a harmonious relationship between culture and change.

Wang and Dissanayake (1984) emphasised the improvement in the quality of life for the majority and protection of nature and local cultures. Jan Servaes (1996) and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron (2001) strongly advocated for the role of participatory communication in development. And there were many more scholars and voices in a similar vein. The common theme was that traditional societies no longer needed to be modernised nor “developed." Instead, they had to be involved and mobilised. Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar called for paying more attention to grassroots movements, focusing not on “development alternatives” but rather “alternatives to development” (1994: 215).

The discourse about direct participation of people has become increasingly strident in recent years. Rural sociologist Robert Chambers has dedicated his career to promoting increased participation of the poor in development efforts. In his book titled Whose Reality Counts, Putting the First Last, he recommends sustainable development approaches, which are “bottom up” rather than “top-down with blue prints” (11). Chambers conceded, however, that the popularity of participatory approaches has created a “fad” that has led to occasions when participation is “co-opted and contorted” by donors who “demand” an inclusive approach. Agreeing with Chambers, Uma Kothari emphasised the danger of participation becoming a form of “inclusionary control,” which, she argues, can serve to induce conformity rather than inviting new voices (2001: 143).

To address induced conformity aspects of “participatory” interventions, we propose the notion of “invitational social change” to supplement, rather than supplant, participatory communication approaches. The term is meant to describe a new orientation, one that both encompasses and reframes participation.

Enter “Invitational Social Change”
“Invitational social change” refers to communication interventions that invite, rather than require, participation. Rhetoricians Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin contrast invitation with persuasion, the latter being a form of communication used to change others and embedded in the “desire for control and domination” (1995: 3). Rather than control over the other, invitation appeals to what philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls the “narrative imagination” of the other (2006: 390).

Appealing to the narrative imagination of the other, Nussbaum writes, means “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have” (2006: 390). Nussbaum contends, and we agree, that a particularly effective mechanism for cultivating narrative imagination is through creative activity, including theatre, dance and other forms of entertainment (391). “Entertainment,” writes Nussbaum, “is crucial to the ability of the arts to offer perception and hope” (2006: 392).

Thus, invitational forms of social change seek to substitute interventions that inform with calls to imagine and efforts to inspire.

Invitational social change interventions employ “pull” rather than “push,” to borrow terminology from Internet expert Peter Morville. According to Morville, push and pull are “interdependent opposites” in relation to the flow of information (2005: 99). Pull is in play when we willingly seek content of interest and quality. Push, on the other hand, is the equivalent of spam in our email inboxes: “unwanted messages” thrust upon unwilling recipients (2005: 118).

Put in terms of communication for social change, a highway billboard or a radio campaign with the message “AIDS kills!” would be the equivalent of push: The message is unavoidable and unsolicited. A “pull” approach, in contrast, relies on creativity and functions only by consent. In each of the cases we present in this essay, participation, reflection and new action are “pulled in” via various creative forms of invitation.

Scenarios from Africa4: Creating Channels for Creative Participation
Scenarios from Africa, launched in 1997, is a communication process5 that involves three central components: (1) A scriptwriting contest for young people (age 15 to 24) on themes related to HIV/AIDS; (2) a juried selection of winning scripts, and (3) production and distribution of short films created from the winning script ideas (see Winskell & Enger 2005: 3).

The Scenarios from Africa process, from contest, to jury to film production and distribution, is implemented by hundreds of non-government organisations (NGOs) and community based organizations (CBOs) across sub-Saharan Africa. Since its inception, there have been five completed “editions” of the Scenarios contest (1997, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007/8), with a total of 55,000 scripts submitted by young people from 47 countries. The number of young people participating as contestants in the five contests to date is 145,875 (Global Dialogues, 2008).

Figure 1: Participation Totals
Adapted from “Contest Participation, 1997-2008,” (Global Dialogues, 2008)
*Note: These figures include contestants who may have submitted multiple entries or
those who may have participated in multiple contests.

The Scenarios contests are “designed to help break the silence around HIV AIDS and to generate dialogue and debate between young people themselves, as well as between young people and a range of other interlocutors in their communities” (Global Dialogues 2005c: 2). Scenarios co-founder Daniel Enger offered this comment on the intentions of Scenarios organisers:

The contest is ideally a moment for young people to explore, learn and express themselves on their own terms, and for the massive and diverse Scenarios contest team to listen to the young participants and to learn from them. The focus is on learning, not teaching – a mindset that might not come naturally to many who occupy leadership positions in education, health, the media and government.6

There is widespread agreement that efforts thus far to contain and mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS have been inadequate because interventions have “treated people as objects of change rather than the agents of their own change” (Panos, 2001:10). If one accepts this argument, the importance and relevance of youth agency in the Scenarios process is clear.

Figure 2: Scenarios Contestants and 2005 Grand Prize Winners at the Galee Nanon Diral community center in Yeumbeul, Senegal. Photograph reproduced with permission.

The innovative results of youth agency are most apparent in the films created from the contest participants’ scripts. The story lines reflect the humour, compassion, perceptiveness and ingenuity. (View the films at /Films.htm). Contestants pushed the boundaries of what formats script ideas could take, submitting comic strips, poetry and songs, to complement their submissions.

Here we highlight two films, “Iron Will,” and “The Shop,” to illustrate the creativity of the young script writers and the generative potential of the Scenarios process. Participating in the first Scenarios from Africa contest7 an 18-year old Senegalese youth named Malick Diop Yade and his team submitted a prize-winning script, which became the film “Iron Will.” The five-minute film playfully documents a misunderstanding about HIV prevention between friends, showing what happens when young Moussah takes literally his friend Aziz’s advice that he needs “iron underpants.” Moussah has a local blacksmith make a pair of steel underpants for him. When Moussah proudly shows his “HIV prevention solution” to his friends, they burst out in laughter, telling him that “iron underpants” is a figure of speech–a way of saying “mind over matter.” This film was so popular that "iron underpants” entered Malian youth culture as a euphemism for strong will (Winskell & Enger 2005: 409). The film also inspired an “Iron Underpants” film festival the year after it was first released (Winskell & Enger 2005: 409).

For Olga Ouédraogo, the young writer of the short film “The Shop,” participating in the Scenarios for Africa contest had an unexpected benefit: Seven years after submitting her prize-winning script, she became co-director of two Scenarios films (Winskell & Enger 2005: 404). In Olga’s script, a young man enters “The Shop” to buy condoms but loses courage. Too embarrassed to ask for condoms, he ends up purchasing several packets of biscuits, until he watches an elderly man enter the shop and calmly ask for condoms. Shedding his embarrassment, the young man purchases the condoms and arrives at his girlfriends’ house. “It’s too late!” she tells him and rides off on a moped. The film has proven so popular with audiences that it was dubbed into 19 languages and has been broadcast in dozens of countries, including Fiji, Cyprus, Sri Lanka and Haiti (Winkell & Enger 2005: 404).

As is evident from films like “Iron Will,” and “The Shop,” when young contestants had an open invitation to be creative, they rose to the challenge. Furthermore, the products of their creativity generated unexpected outcomes: new vocabulary and an international film festival, in the case of “Iron Will,” and a new professional opportunity for the creator of “The Shop.”

As Brazilian communication scholar Cicilia Peruzzo notes, one of the most important, yet often overlooked, means to foster community involvement is as simple as the creation of multiple avenues and channels (1996:175, emphasis added). Since its inception in 1997, the Scenarios from Africa contest has created channels for young people to lend their energy and talents to the HIV AIDS communication process. These channels served as an open invitation to African youth to participate, one that was heard and responded to in 47 countries across the continent. Undoubtedly, these numbers will continue to climb.

The Composters: Can Feminists be Funny?
Performance activists Janet Donoghue and Alison Fisher have crafted a different form of invitation in the United States in the small university town of Carbondale Illinois. The two women have turned to comedy to invite audiences across the United States, both in person and over radio airwaves, to think about environmentalism in a new way. Donoghue and Fisher are “The Composters,” a satirical performance duo featuring “Glenda Greenhouse” (Donoghue) and “Mary Mercury” (Fisher). Donoghue and Fisher first joined forces during a battle to overturn a city ordinance banning open compost piles in Carbondale. Fisher recalls being chastised by a neighbour for her “illegal” compost pile. She was told that she needed to buy an expensive storage container for her organic waste:

I went to City Hall, and the staff I spoke with there weren’t even aware of the ordinance. I brought a picture of my pile to the next city council meeting and they agreed that night that the ordinance was outdated. After that, people started talking about composting more; and attitudes began to change.8

Eventually, Donoghue and Fisher succeeded in having the ordinance changed, and the result of their successful collaboration was the formation of the “The Composters.”

Donoghue describes their collaboration as an “eco-feminist activist performance duo.” The Composters’ approach to activism uses “humour, irony, satire and sketch to present environmental information and to ask some really important questions” (Warters 2008). The Composters turned to humour to provide a counterweight to what Donoghue calls the “doom and gloom” scenarios presented by most environmentalists. “Most environmental rhetoric is we call the ‘Apocalyptic narrative’… and yet research has shown that when using that kind of negative language, people tend to tune it out after a certain period of time” (Warters 2008).

Fisher adds that the characters of Mary Mercury and Glenda Greenhouse employ humour to make environmental issues accessible. “In our act we use the ‘straight man and funny man’ approach, like Laurel & Hardy. Our process is very dialogic–we try to show several sides of environmental issues. People make their own connections–they can reflect on what it means to them when one of us [in the performance] is saying ‘global warming is just liberal baloney.’ The Composters stress that, while they aim to entertain, their main goal is to invite audiences to think about environmental issues. “What separates us from comedic double acts is that we’re issue-based first–we didn’t get together just to do comedy.”9 The Composters have taken their act to several communities across the United States and have also shared their “eco-feminist active performances” via their weekly show on Carbondale’s public radio station.10

Figure 3: Composter Alison Fisher in the radio booth during their “eco-feminist” show-laced-with-humor, “Take a Look at What Mother Nature is Wearing” (

For Donoghue and Fisher, compost is more than a name, “it’s a metaphor for activism” (2008: 232). They write:

Compost is movement—it’s waste—the death and decay that you normally would just throw away. And the beautiful thing about compost is that it is literal transformation, so death and decay become a nurturing component for new life” (Donoghue & Fisher 2008: 232; Warters 2008).

After many performances in which the Composters use comedy to invite reflection about environmental issues, they receive questions from audience members about composting or stories of personal experiences advocating environmental causes at city council meetings. After a recent performance about the toxicity of women’s make-up, several students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill approached the duo to inquire about how to research the toxicity levels of the make-up they wear11.

Audiences, it seems, are converting what they learn during Composters’ performances into new action, suggesting that the compost-as-activism metaphor, that is, turning something old into something new, is appropriate. The duo has also experimented with new media, complementing their Web site and blog with a Facebook page to share videos of their performances and communicate with “friends & fans.”12 When viewing the videos they The Composters have posted online, we found this self-definition: “We use humour to subvert the way we look at environmentalism. We do skits, music numbers, and a lot of research: we put everything on the pile.”

Their latest videotaped performance for university students was a surprisingly funny look at toxic cosmetics that ended with a request that audience members “check out the ‘campaign for safe cosmetics’13 to verify the toxicity levels of their own beauty products. In this performance, the Composters not only rendered a frightening topic accessible, they also used the “pull” (Morville 2005) of humour to invite audience members to take action and provided them with enough information to do so.

The playful invitation means the potential for new thought and action is in the hands of the audiences. Unlike traditional, persuasive and “pushy” methods of communication, their communication strategy respects the creativity and agency of their audiences. By employing an invitational form of social change, they accept that it is up to audience members to “be the change” they wish to see in the environment.

Lessons and Conclusions
As suggested, there is no easy recipe for social change. Nonetheless, the invitational approach to social change seeks to increase the amount of willing shoulders to help carry the burden of action. The underlying assumption of invitational social change is that all community members—ordinary citizens, radio listeners, and others—can be agents of change for themselves and others. There are no experts implementing invitational social change—only facilitators, catalysts and occasionally, partners in mischief.

We do recognise, however, that there are contexts for which an invitational approach to social change is less appropriate. The effort to eradicate polio, for example, requires timely and systematic vaccinations which might require some “pushing” to accomplish. Natural disasters and health epidemics like the H1N1 virus are also better served by centralised decision making and the diffusion of information. The invitational approach, therefore, is one among many tools at the disposal of practitioners and policy makers seeking to encourage social change.

As we point out in our essay, the organisers of Scenarios of Africa created a highly participatory structure in the form of a script writing contest, which provided a forum for hundreds of young to create HIV/AIDS messages rather than being simply targeted by them. The Composters in Carbondale, Illinois created several structures to invite others to join them in sustainable environmentalism. Through performance, they demonstrate that toxicity can be funny if the fun is had while learning how to combat it. The individuals and organisations featured in this essay engage in invitational social change by first trusting that community members have something to offer. Then they asked others to get involved.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” “And invite others to join you,” we add.


Art for a Democratic Society (2009) “Oakland 1946! - Street Theatre from the Labour Movement.” Retrieved from
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[1]Antonio Machado, "Proverbios y cantares XXIX" Campos de Castilla (1912); trans. Betty Jean Craige in Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (Louisiana State University Press, 1979)

[2] For more on the Oakland General Strike, see

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all information about the Oakland 1946! performance is taken from the website:

[4] This section draws upon Greiner, K. “Participatory Communication processes as ‘Infusions of Innovation’: The case of “Scenarios from Africa” (pp. 267-282) in T. Tufte and F. Enghel (Eds). Teens Changing the World Youth, Communication and Social Change: 2009 Yearbook of the International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media. Gothenburg, Sweden: NORDICOM.

[5] We use the term “process” rather than project for several reasons: 1) Scenarios founders Kate Winskell and Daniel Enger give preference to this term (See Winskell & Enger, 2005); and 2) the Scenarios process is deliberately decentralized in nature, with many collaborators but no central project office.

[6]Author correspondence with Daniel Enger, February 22, 2008.

[7] The first (1997) and second (2001) contests were held under the title: “Scenarios from the Sahel.”

[8] Author interview with Alison Fisher, November 18, 2008.

[9] Author interview with Alison Fisher, November 18, 2008.

[10] This information was current at the time of the interview (Novermber 2008), but may have since changed.

[11] Author interview with Alison Fisher, November 18, 2008, regarding The Composters’ performance at the University of North Carolina in October, 2008.

[12]The Composters appeared in three online locations: Webpage: Blog: and on Facebook: 25099057563?ref=ts Note: as of the revision of this essay, these links, and the one below, appear to be defunct.

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