|Learn how and why communicating and modeling hopefulness about the future can strengthen both positive individual and community behaviors.
This and other sections in the Tool Box chapter on Spirituality and Community Building (Chapter 28) have been written with the support and contributions of experts connected with the Charter for Compassion. For more information about the Charter and its work, visit www.charterforcompassion.org.
Our aim in this section is to draw a connection between community building and the fostering of hope. Why is this connection important? Because one of the biggest challenges for community builders is the wavering of hope and the specter of failure – the risk that enthusiasm will wane and obstacles in organizing will feed discouragement and withdrawal.
That peril is real; but in this section we will explore how some community builders have maintained their efforts through a deeper understanding of steadfast commitment, fueled by a deep assurance that long-run change is possible – a characteristic that is fundamental to hope.
What is Hope? Some Definitions and Qualities
Hope is More than Wishing for Change
We begin our discussion by noting that hope is more than wishing for change. In daily conversation, hope is often likened to a wish, as in “I hope the sun shines today.” In this casual sense, hope has hardly any substance; it holds little expectation or promise. The sun might shine, it might not. If the weather forecast indicates sunshine, then what follows is mere prediction. If rain is likely, then are these “hopes” ill-founded? This is the “if wishes were fishes” understanding of hope: If hope simply amounts to wishing for a certain outcome, what value does it hold?
Thinking of hope in this way raises the question of whether fostering hope, let alone spreading it, is setting the table for disappointment, maybe even despair. For “hopes” like these could be discounted for failing to recognize the world as it is, and could be charged as foolishly ignoring signs that things will stay the way they are – or get worse. As you work for change, you certainly don’t want to be labeled a naïve and soft-headed optimist!
In the pages of Eleanor Porter’s 1913 book “Pollyanna,” the title character plays a “glad game,” finding something positive in every miserable occurrence, brightness in pain and death, even finding joy, after losing the use of her legs in a traffic accident, in the realization that she still had her legs. Pollyanna has come to be associated with simple-mindedness – a sunny attitude clung to against reason or compassion. This kind of commitment to the proposition that things are not as bad as they seem is not what we are supporting when we talk about spreading hope.
Etymologist Ernest Klein suggests a connection between “hope” and “hop,” as in a hop, or leap of faith; but we will define and explore hope as a chosen perspective that envisions and acts upon the potential for positive change, even in the face of presumed impossibility.
Hope is Substantive
In ancient usage, hope was often a synonym of trust, as when the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah says to YHWH, “Our hope is in you.” (Jer. 14:22). Here hope is a deep trust in the unseen, in what is not evident in the present. It also is an expectation that a positive future is possible, even if contrary to current conditions.
In this section, we plan to show that hope can also be substantive. More than a desire or wish, hope can be seen as a bulwark against what might at times be daunting odds. To support your work as a community builder, we will review examples of individuals and communities envisioning a future and beginning to take steps to make that future a reality. Hope is not a companion of pessimism. As our examples will show, many times what looks like a “realistic” approach can turn out to be narrow-minded.
For instance, self-described “realists” and hopeful people can both see world economies reliant on consumption and the destruction of natural resources for accumulation of wealth. But where a “realist” might legitimately foresee environmental collapse, starvation, disease, and the acceleration of already mass extinction, a hopeful outlook would not deny that “reality,” but would also envision the opportunity for actions that could forestall, ameliorate, or even reverse these processes.
If hope were merely a wish, then its expectation of a positive future is unjustified, untenable, and a delusion. However, as we plan to demonstrate, hopeful individuals and communities certainly see things “as they are” – but “as they are” also includes the potential for things as they could be.
Hope in Action Has Common Characteristics
We plan to outline how there are common attitudes and steps that people can take – even when they feel hopeless – that might be called “hope in action.” In other words, there are some characteristics – including perseverance, ignoring conventional wisdom, cultivating observation, and strengthening community – that are associated with positive outcomes. The hallmarks of hope in action are the development and demonstration of those characteristics.
The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner has written that “the worst thing isn’t the last thing about the world.” He suggested there’s a power “that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring.” It’s this power that rejects the worst thing as the last thing that we intend to call out as hope – because with the exercise of that special power, a more satisfying “next thing” is likely to follow.
Hope Is a Way of Being
Maybe it helps to think of hope as “a state of mind, not a state of the world.” Those words are Vaclav Havel’s, from his essay “Orientation of the Heart,” included in Paul Rogat Loeb’s anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Havel goes on to call hope “an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”
This is the perspective we as community builders want to develop: to keep looking beyond the horizon at what is possible, much the way a good driver keeps her eyes shifting between the near roadway and the edge of her sightline. While Pollyanna’s optimism may be naïve or shallow, it shares a substance with the vision that Havel is describing – a conviction that one brings to the world rather than a point of view derived from it.
Further, Havel says that simply abiding with the attitude of hope allows one to live with “dignity and meaning” in situations where both are in short supply. An example is his experience of the Soviet suppression of Prague Spring – the period of liberalization and reform in Czechoslovakia in early 1968. (In 1989, Havel was elected President following what has been called the Velvet Revolution.) Hope can endow those who hold it with a sense of power, providing, as Havel adds, “the will for the ‘hopeless enterprise’ which stands at the beginning of most good things.”
Two examples, both about housing: Suppose you are trying to set up temporary housing for the homeless in your community, and city officials tell you that your plans violate city housing codes. Then think outside the box, as did one congregation in Philadelphia: They staged a 24-hour revival meeting instead. Temporary shelter: not permitted; shutting down a church revival: out of the question.
In another case, a student in one of the Editor’s classes wanted the local City Council to change its policies toward the homeless during winter months. She was not a housing activist, but she had hope, as well as creativity. After recruiting others, she and her sympathizers packed the gallery of the Council meeting room, wrapped in blankets. That got wide media coverage. The Council acquiesced.
Hope Doesn't Avoid Despair
In his essay “Love, Eternal Life: Theology of Hope—the Personal Side,” Jürgen Moltmann writes that engaging with life, fully living, means opening oneself up. “Only a life to which we have said yes is truly a lived life,” he writes. Hope is the action of saying yes rather than accepting no. Saying yes feels like an act that makes one vulnerable, but it also contains an incredible power of creation, of possibility. As community builders and organizers, we need to respond to the explicit or implicit no we encounter with a commitment to yes.
But for Moltmann, the phenomenon of hope only appears after saying “yes” to life – and accepting our vulnerability – and the possibility of death. He suggests that we have to accept the “worst thing” before we can truly exist in the present. Stay with this idea for a moment, as we take a short trip into his observations; though they have a religious context, they may prove helpful in our community building work.
Moltmann says that if we concentrate on a vision of our souls as immortal, for example, we can see ourselves as untouched by the present moment – and thus hang back from entering into life. We can’t love life if we don’t embrace it – and it is love’s poignancy that spurs us to action. He quotes the New Testament passage “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it stays alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those, who would save their life will lose it and those who would lose their life will find it.” (John 12: 24-25)
In other words, Moltmann is suggesting that you need to consider hopelessness to get in touch with hope.
As a community builder, here’s how this might play out: Often it is tempting to recognize current societal failures but hang back because alternative approaches are imperfect, flawed, or unpopular. Or to hesitate because the problem seems too big or the next step is uncertain. Much easier to recognize your moral superiority, step back, and see how things play out. This “saving your life” actually is stepping away from life; it’s losing hope.
This suggestion and acceptance of hope’s dark prerequisites embraces a lot of the darker circumstances cited by so-called “realists.” But, in a bit of contrarian jujitsu, it turns the darkness into light: instead of the darkness being the end of hope, it is the door to its beginning. Through recognizing and acknowledging the fragility of our situation as mortal beings, we become more open to the possibility of change. And change is what community building is all about. “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change,” as writer and activist Jim Wallis has said.
Let’s bring home this point from another perspective. Bob Sitze, in his little book It’s Not Too Late: A Field Guide to Hope, writes that “despair-avoidance is one of the swamps where your hope might get mired.” Sitze suggests that hope and despair might not be the opposites we imagine them to be. “Allow both hope and despair to reside in your mind, holding both approaches to life in tension.” Here’s the trick: Risk failure, admit the possibility of death, and in so doing you also gain the opportunities that hope opens before you.
In other words, hope is the acknowledgment that the potential for multiple outcomes exists, and that among those outcomes are positive futures. This realization opens your mind up to the next step, envisioning what might happen on the way to that sanguine state.
A community-building example: A six-year-old boy died of complications from cerebral palsy a few years ago. As a memorial to him, his mother helped float the idea to build an inclusive playground for all people – embracing visitors of all abilities. The proposal faced many hurdles and obstacles: location, structure, and zoning among them. But when presenting their dream, organizers were surprised to be approached by a member of the local Bainbridge Island, Washington Parks Board, who offered to help make their dream come true.
Despite the obstacles and their occasional feelings of despair, and though many details were uncertain, the willingness of that mother and her friends to advance a hopeful vision triggered a process where numerous people offered money, expertise, and materials – and many other gifts – to make this unique playground a reality. What resulted was the product of a community coming together – and this also included elements not initially envisioned, and not exactly like those in the first proposal.
Hope Is Being Open to Opportunity
Spiritual thinkers have also considered this idea of being open to the unanticipated opportunity; something we think is a characteristic of hopeful community building.
The author Catherine Keller has gone so far as to declare creation itself as open-ended, and hope as a participant in its generativity. In “On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process,” she quotes Isaiah: “[I’ve been sent] to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” This is a call to participate in a future that Keller says is not pre-ordained, but is co-created by the openness of possibility. That is because it allows the spirit of hope – for Isaiah this hope is embodied by God – to be “upon me.”
For us as community builders, the spirit of hope might be described as embodied in the work of people working in community. These can lead to affirmative outcomes: delivering good news to those who are oppressed, helping heal those who are despairing, freeing captives and prisoners. And Keller says when we embrace the potential of a positive future we can become spokesmen and spokeswomen for that voice of potential. In speaking out, we help bring the possibility into being. To translate this into a community building example, if the women on Bainbridge Island hadn’t voiced their dream, the inclusive playground that today provides enjoyment for people every day might never have been built.
Hope Is a Healthy Myth
Let’s conclude our discussion of “What is Hope?” with a little etymology: This is hope as healthy Myth – Myth with a capital “M”; Myth in its original meaning, not as a pure fiction, but as a narrative of a future of promise, reconciliation, and healing. We frame our world with stories – and the overarching stories we tell frame our worldview. These stories are largely in the background of our consciousness, but the influence they exert on us is wide-reaching.
Why is this relevant for us? Because as community builders, this is what we do: tap into a narrative of future promise, reconciliation and healing. Positive change happens in the context of a positive narrative.
Comparative religions scholar Karen Armstrong has argued that “the most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before.”
Community building is also a leap into the unknown: to move from the present to a new thing. Who will join you? How will you build on your agreements and work through your differences? How will the project change others? How will it change you? This process of spreading hope can be empowered by embracing meaningful stories about our obligations to each other: in other words, through powerful myths.
What Armstrong’s observation means for us, in concrete terms, is that there are framing stories that close off possibilities, just as there are framing stories that see creation as full of potential. We create and embrace these stories, or myths. Healthy myth sees the world as open-ended and believes that we can create potential outcomes collaboratively. Let’s include this vision of healthy myth as part of our working definition of hope.
Hope does not discount reason, or the way things are, but sees that there are alternatives that reason alone cannot uncover. Hope is a way of living that is comfortable, maybe even energized, by this apparent paradox.
So how can you foster this ability to live in a way that says yes to myth’s potential? It’s an important question, because as community builders we are often called to put reason into the context of hope. To paraphrase Isaiah, we can also say “the spirit of hope is upon me,” and move forward motivated by the potential that a better tomorrow is possible and our actions can be part of what brings it into being.
We’ve seen some examples of this already, from Havel’s Velvet Revolution to the women who worked for an inclusive playground: They responded to a call to do something, not knowing how it could or would change things. Here’s another: Recently in Natick, Massachusetts, a neighborhood rallied to support Cari and Lori Ryding, a gay couple whose home was vandalized, giving hope to the couple and creating a viral news story of support. After the couple’s house was egged and a rainbow flag stolen, neighbors quickly decided to all hang rainbow flags in solidarity. Kids on bicycles were enlisted to deliver the multi-colored banners door-to-door. In this case, those neighbors chose to take a destructive myth of separation and reverse it into a myth of love and solidarity. Now that we’ve introduced the topic, can you think about how healthy myth might apply to and help strengthen your own community work?
But let’s get clearer on how you can use hope, as we’re defining it, to help transform community outcomes.
How Hope Can Transform Community Outcomes
Hope Transforms through Action
Hope transforms outcomes through action. And more than that, hope is a conviction that our actions don’t occur in isolation. We act, and the universe responds.
Paul Rogat Loeb recounts how a friend of his, Lisa, with her small children in tow, was part of a rain-soaked, ragtag protest against nuclear testing outside of the White House one stormy evening. Shortly afterward, she wondered why she’d participated in the gathering; The soggy vigil had left her with a sense of despair and powerlessness. But, as it turns out, her action itself was opening the door to hope.
A few years later, she heard the famous pediatrician and anti-war activist Benjamin Spock share his earlier doubts about how effective he could be as just one person. As Loeb tells it, Spock was inspired when in Washington, D.C. he walked by “a small group of women huddled, with their kids, in the rain. It was Lisa’s group. .. [Spock thought,] ‘If those women were out there … their cause must be really important.’”
On reflection, what seemed to Lisa to be a miserably meaningless stand had significant and positive consequences, even consequences in precisely the direction intended. In this story, her hopefulness was embodied in her action – her presence outside the White House. Her action was making possible an open-ended future, even as her trust that it could was flagging. Another point worth noting is that Lisa was likely not focused on changing the perspective of the passersby; yet that turned out to be an important effect of her presence.
For community builders – for readers like yourself – to realize that hopeful work precedes us, flows through us, and continues beyond us is a source of great strength: We don’t need to “own” the outcomes, for our responsibility is in the present. Hope is embracing the narrative that our actions can produce change,, not that we are going to single-handedly effect the change. To close off the potential for desired outcomes through hopeful action is in a way to give up on the potential of life and the living. Loeb terms such dismissiveness a form of “arrogance.” Who are we to say what effect our actions may ultimately have?
A related perspective: Bob Sitze, in his “Field Guide to Hope,” shares the story of Sara and Susan, two sisters who wanted to “‘pay forward’ what had come their way,” recognizing that what they had was not the result of their own actions and they were not owed happiness. No right to happiness? For these sisters, recognizing this fact was a source of freedom: Happiness, like hope, is a state of mind, not a state of the world. We may view our actions as being part of a fire brigade, and we can either pass buckets of hope or buckets of despair. It’s a conscious choice.
So a key component of spreading hope in any community setting is a conscious willingness to join the brigade, with the attitude that our effort and our actions can make a difference. Postponing action until a time when a positive outcome looks likely is to shut off the possibility for things to change – even though declaring exactly how they will change may be arrogant and narrow-minded.
Hope Challenges Conventional Wisdom
In describing the healthy, human-scaled Brazilian city of Curitiba in an essay in The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Bill McKibben quotes Curitiba’s then-mayor Jaime Lerner as saying that many cities have “a lot of people who are specialists in proving change is not possible; what I try to explain to them when I go visit is that it takes the same energy to say why something can’t be done as to figure out how to do it.”
Faced with a population explosion – many of the new residents were displaced peasants – Curitiba opted not to take traditional responses and widen streets, control rivers with concrete viaducts, or launch housing projects. Instead, Lerner worked with city planners to create a downtown pedestrian mall, construct small dams backed up by seasonal lakes and parks, and clear hillsides and fields. He also provided support services such as building supplies, architects, and mortgages to enable new arrivals to move in, while minimizing need for private transportation or the destruction of natural habitat.
McKibben notes that as a result, “From every single window in Curitiba, I could see as much green as I could concrete.” This Brazilian town consciously chose to challenge the received wisdom of seeing an influx of poor people as a threat to be managed and kept at bay, instead envisioning them as a resource to be integrated into the larger life of the community. That this option opened up is an example of choosing to see the new arrivals as an opportunity rather than a curse.
In building community, Jaime Lerner was open to hope. Where others anticipated the influx of refugees as a burden on the city, Lerner challenged conventional beliefs and chose to pass a bucket of positivity. He also made his imagined positive future more likely by working to create conditions that anticipated independence and productivity of the new arrivals. Choosing a positive narrative, one where immigrants or new arrivals bring new vitality, ideas, and energy to a community, was a conscious choice. Spreading hope means choosing to envision a positive future, rather than be constricted by fear of what bad things could happen.
Engaging in Active Hope and Reconnection
Psychological researchers find a strong correlation between hope and positive outcomes. The late Rick Snyder, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, defined hope “as a positive motivational state.” Snyder said hope depended both on agency – an understanding that one can effect change – and “pathways,” or envisioning a path forward. Snyder found that “high hope individuals do not react in the same way to barriers as low hope individuals, instead they view barriers as challenges to overcome and use their pathway thoughts to plan an alternative route to their goals.”
Hopeful action, then, also means holding onto the potential for a positive future, and redoubling efforts when confronted with obstacles.
The conviction that hope is most accurately seen as involving conscious activity – rather than simply a feeling or state of mind – is echoed by ecologist and Buddhist Joanna Macy and physician and life coach Chris Johnstone. They frame their book Active Hope this way:
Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.
This sounds like basic planning, but note that Active Hope involves pressing ourselves to anticipate the potential for a positive outcome. Maybe this metaphor can help: Picture yourself before a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel; even though you may hesitate, you know that unless you exert pressure, the clay cannot take shape.
Consider as well Macy’s idea of “Work that Reconnects,” an approach to change that Macy has championed in books, lectures, and seminars. She outlines the process as a spiral – you revisit various stages, but at increasing levels of competence. The stages include:
- Gratitude: An introspective calming of the turbulence that distracts our mind
- Honoring Our Pain: A form of compassion toward self that opens us to our own vulnerability and that, paradoxically, is also a source of strength
- Seeing with New Eyes: Recognizing interconnections and possibilities in nature and community
- Going Forth: Clarifying our next steps to enact change – preferably in community, while recognizing the need to be adaptive and flexible
Active Hope is the engine that powers this spiraling process of reconnecting. It is what encourages us, when we face obstacles, to take the time to be grateful, to appreciate our discomfort and pain, to be open to positive potential, and to envision our pathway forward.
Try imagining this four-stage process in practice, with a community challenge you are working on:
- Gratitude: Be thankful that you are aware of the issue that has called you. Think about how circumstances have brought this challenge before you. Consider that while you have limitations, you also have skills and talents.
- Honor Your Pain: Recognize that the challenge itself may contain elements of discomfort for you.
- See with new eyes: Reflect on the challenge as an opportunity. Think about resources and individuals available to you to help address this challenge.
- Go Forth: What are the steps you can take, now? Think of this as a single step or a finite series of actions, knowing you will circle back through this process several times as you work through your community building project.
Community challenges can sometimes be tough; sometimes they may seem overwhelming. No words on page or screen can remove their real-world difficulty. Our aim in this section is to provide a broader framework, based upon hope, which can help lessen internal obstacles and, in the long run, make your work more effective.
Seeing Hope in the World
Faith writer Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that hope can be unlocked through the practice of noticing the holiness of the world around us. For many or most of us, “holiness” may seem like an unlikely concept to apply in community work. So is this an outlandish claim? How can noticing holiness be a key to nurturing and spreading hope?
Taylor says holiness is a quality of the world that is not always immediately apparent, but she suggests that we can consciously heighten our awareness, to look beyond “the world that is immediately experienced.” By witnessing this sacredness, we see the world with new eyes, and thus see the potential for positive change – a change of perspective that can unlock hope.
Recall too the quote from Havel: hope is “an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”
In her book An Altar in the World, Taylor suggests that things as seemingly ordinary as being aware of your body, walking on the earth, and engaging in physical labor can have profound effects on perception when we do them reflectively. Making the effort to be present can open our minds to a heightened sensation of the world – that is, to its underlying holiness – which in turn can allow us to step away from our anxiety or panic. And as we notice the holiness of the world, it becomes more natural to notice the holiness of our community; that in turn can change our community actions. How might your work be different if you regarded all of your community members as holy?
Another opening to holiness, and hope, that Taylor suggests is the pronouncing of blessings. She notes that “a blessing does not confer holiness. The holiness is already there, embedded in the very givenness of the thing.” Taylor says that what we do when we bless something is to see it for what it is, something she cautions is not always readily apparent to us. She counsels that we are quick to write our own stories about things, rather than letting them tell us what they are. To pronounce blessings is to temporarily quiet our internal voices. And this offers us a challenge: Can you consider using blessings in your own community setting? Would it be of value? How would you go about it?
Setting aside judgment is not always easy; Taylor suggests that one way to get started may involve tricking the mind. She tells of asking a class of graduate students to read Wendell Berry poems – first to themselves, and then to step outside and recite them to a nearby tree. One student said “I felt completely stupid … standing there in the quadrangle reading to a tree,” but after a couple of lines the reciter shifted focus to the tree and “I realized the tree was really liking it.” Another student said that the experience revealed that “words had an inside and an outside and I had only read the outside.” As before, can you identify a community application here?
It may be possible to step outside of judgment on one’s own. But many writers have observed that to open the mind and heart to the possibilities of hope often depends on the strength of community. As Buddhist texts put it: “We find refuge in the Sangha [originally, a community of monks], whose members are wise and compassionate.” Similarly, we as community builders can find refuge (and strength) in our communities.
This prayerful proclamation is perhaps both an observation and a cautionary guide, for – as Rebecca Ann Parker, writing in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century observes – communities of faith are not always sources of wisdom or compassion; they can harbor exclusivity that justifies ill treatment of outsiders, structures of authority that can hide abuse of a community’s vulnerable members, and doctrines that embrace violence.
Still, being together with one’s community can by itself prompt us to see and act upon the hope embedded within it. Here are some examples of how you could put this thinking into action:
- Include guided meditation or a centering activity as part of the opening of a strategy session
- Imagine what a positive future might say to us about how we helped call it forth
- Consciously reflect on the humanity of your adversaries; read their statements aloud to each other; then seek to express what worldview or fears lie behind their words
The combination of an explicit call to attend to that which is outside of us and to embrace perspectives other than our own can foster positivity and hope. Journalist and writer Ben Greenman has tweeted another suggested activity: “For a few minutes a day, try to believe the exact opposite of what you believe. It won't hurt and it might help.”
Putting Hope to Work: Three Stories
To demonstrate some of the ideas we have been describing, we’ll now take a look at three individuals who acted on their visions of a more positive future, and in particular consider how hope enabled them both to see the potential for change and fueled their steps toward realizing it. These brief profiles are offered to present personal applications of hope and to show how embracing hope can give birth to a vision of a positive future and inspire action to bring that vision about. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Farmer, and Kay Nakao each had very different life journeys – but each looked beyond a present despair to a positive future, and took steps to realize that hope through action.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The Beloved Community”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the practice of change through nonviolent protest not as an end in itself, but as a doorway into a new way of living. To describe this vision, he adopted the term Beloved Community, originally coined by early twentieth-century theologian Josiah Royce.
King saw this hope-based interpersonal, compassionate community as a real-world possibility. As the King Center notes, “The Beloved Community was not a lofty Utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, the Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be obtained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”
And as Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp Jr. write in the online essay “Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community,” King’s vision was beyond race—it was not a quest for desegregation but for integration, a world with justice for all. They write “In speaking about the possibility of actualizing the Beloved Community in history, King attempted to avoid what he called ‘a superficial optimism’ on the one hand, and ‘a crippling pessimism’ on the other.” As evidence of this future community’s potential, King looked around him. In 1966, as several thousand marchers who had just completed the March to Montgomery prepared to travel further, King saw what he described as “a microcosm of the mankind of the future” – people of different races, economic circumstances, and faiths enjoying a camaraderie that King saw as a “moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.” This is how it comes together, not by waiting for something to happen but – as King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail –“through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God.”
Again, we have an image and lesson of positive social change, grounded in hope, which precedes our lives, flows through our actions, and continues on after us. King points to Christianity as the source of this vision, but hopeful beliefs and actions may also have entirely secular grounding.
The takeaways for us as community builders and organizers are three-fold: first, to draw upon and utilize hope to form a broad future community vision; second, to fully imagine what that positive future might look like in practice; and third, to look around us for examples of how that vision may already be present. “Beloved Community” may fit your vision exactly. If so, appropriate it. If not – think about another way to frame your hoped-for positive future.
Let’s next consider the example of health-care worker Paul Farmer.
Paul Farmer: “Mountains Beyond Mountains”
In his influential and compelling book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder writes of Dr. Paul Farmer’s indefatigable efforts to stem health crises in Haiti, Peru, and Russia. The book recounts Farmer’s efforts to combat tuberculosis, untreated wounds, and other health problems that could be easily solved in industrialized nations, but frequently lead to death in poor areas of the world.
While the book highlights Farmer’s tireless, single-handed efforts to effect change in the world, Kidder ultimately insists that Farmer’s efforts should not be a step-by-step model for how those supporting him should work, but only proof “that seemingly intractable problems could be solved.” (p. 244). Farmer’s work is the essence of hopeful action: embracing the possibility of change, envisioning what the steps toward that change would look like, and beginning to take action.
The title “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is evocative of the idiomatic “hope beyond hope,” and this is the lesson I think we learn from Farmer’s tale: Hope can emerge even in circumstances of despair. Farmer – like some others we’ve mentioned in this section – found what appeared to be an impossible situation, but freed his imagination to envision a positive future; then he began to take actions to make that vision more possible. His hopeful actions carried him on despite great obstacles that might have dashed others’ efforts.
Under the next heading, we’ll talk about how social science might help us break this approach into practical component parts. But now let’s look at one more example of how to envision a more positive future and take concrete steps toward it: the story of a young Japanese-American woman facing racism.
Kay Nakao: Re-establishing a Community
Kay Nakao was forced to live in internment camps in California and Idaho during World War II. But in an interview with me, she described her commitment to fully rejoin her childhood community on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Sometime after her release and return home in 1945, Nakao was hired as a checker at a grocery store; she made it a personal goal to engage civilly with one of the island’s most vocal anti-Japanese racists and proponents of internment –Lambert Schuyler, who had called the Japanese-Americans “criminal aborigines” who should not be allowed to return home. But Kay said her conviction was that through politeness she could win him over, and eventually a tacit peace was achieved.
Kay credited her personal success in this to a resolute hope that things could be made better. (In 1985, Schuyler’s son Ethan wrote a public apology to Japanese- Americans.) A resolve that difficult and challenging things can be achieved through perseverance is a hallmark of much hopeful action. What Nakao and others all displayed is a commitment to a hopeful vision, and that vision can give strength to long-term action toward an improved future.
The ancient Chinese poet Lao-tzu is credited with saying “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” In pursuing our hopeful vision through perseverance, Lao-tzu’s saying is apt. Hopeful action can yield incremental gains that can expose supposed “realism” to be, in fact, narrow-minded cynicism.
Nurturing and Spreading Hope
We’ve been discussing hope by example and reference, quoting hopeful leaders like Vaclav Havel and sharing stories of individuals to see how hope empowered their actions. Now, we’ll turn to social science to see if it can guide our thinking about how to nurture hope in community efforts. That is, if hope is genuinely valuable, how can you as a community-builder nurture and spread hope for yourself and others? Because we are teasing out several concepts you may find particularly useful for nurturing and spreading hope, we’ll spend some time exploring this framework.
Organizational consultant Harry Hutson and cultural anthropologist Barbara Perry focus primarily on business environments in their book Putting Hope to Work: Five Principles to Activate Your Organization’s Most Powerful Resource; however, their observations – backed by extensive social science research – are useful in breaking down what hope is and how it can flourish.
Their five principles for nurturing and spreading hope are possibility, agency, worth, openness, and connection. As we look at each, consider how it might relate to your own community situation.
Possibility refers to the ability to see a different, more positive future, maybe even one contrary to the evidence. Rick Snyder at the University of Kansas found that “people with truly high hope … ‘occasionally alter those seemingly absolute failure situations as to obtain the impossible.’” Hutson and Perry say possibility also includes the flexibility of multiple potential solutions. “The principle of possibility joins stretch goals with the prospect of many ways to accomplish them,” they write. “Hope rests on knowing that a system can find new ways to discover and mine new opportunities.”
What are the possibilities in your situation? Let’s return to the example of finding housing for those without homes: How might that goal be accomplished? You might begin by visualizing a scenario where everyone in your community was safely and comfortable sheltered. You could then consider private, public, faith-based, and community-based solutions. Or you could imagine multiple positive outcomes: new development, renovation, new housing forms, previously-unconsidered funders. Or you could think of every structure in your community as a potential housing asset.
Agency follows from this idea of multiple solutions. Agency means recognizing that we are positive actors in our own lives, as are others working with us. In an organization or political/social movement where multiple paths toward a challenging possible future exist, recognize that the next step can come from anyone. That is, multiple solutions suggest multiple agents.
Developing this kind of agency involves cultivating mutual trust and promoting decentralization of power and decision-making. Hutson and Perry say that “the principle of agency unleashes not only our hope but also our commitment and willingness to think creatively and work hard toward goals we really care about.”
For organizers and community builders, it’s key to remember that control needs to be decentralized, while at the same time clear lines of accountability are necessary. These authors note that in the face of a highly directive leader, others will stand back, or “get out of the way”: while in a setting where “everyone is responsible but no one is specifically accountable,” disengagement is likely.
So in our example of a shelter project, consider all the people who might be agents of change: volunteers, neighbors, retirees, business people, public employees, those seeking housing themselves. To open up possibilities while moving forward, think about ways that you can foster “buy-in” by all involved. Can you include a wide range of people in planning? Can you put people on equal footing, thus minimizing hierarchy, but also maintaining accountability? And can you spread hope by finding ways for all these change agents to envision the future together?
Worth is the value of the enterprise itself – both for the individual and for others. This means recognizing that volunteers have personal goals (for example, a sense that they are substantively assisting – perhaps as empowered agents), and that volunteers want the outcome of their work to make a difference, both for the organization but, more importantly, for the community.
Hutson and Perry say it’s important to meet the needs of participating individuals and the larger project and the other in a particular sequence. “A leader whose vision takes in the world but ignores what’s in it for individuals or the [organization], risks being seen as ‘too idealistic’ or ‘out of touch.’” The writers state that questions of worth fall into this pattern:
- First: Is the job worth doing? Is my work acknowledged and appreciated?
- Second: Can my work have lasting impact?
- Third: Am I supporting a good organization?
- Fourth: Does the overall project effort sustain hope – will its value endure?
Hutson and Perry hold that hope “never violates the golden rule or bankrupts the commonweal.” In short, hope is never about something that is not of worth. In our housing example, and in just about any community effort, it is important to identify why the stakeholders are participating, so as to ensure they feel the project’s worth. That feeling sustains hope. So, what is the volunteer’s connection with homelessness?; how does the person seeking shelter see housing as part of larger goals?; what concerns and objectives do neighbors have? By validating the worth of the project, you energize hope as an engine for change.
A fourth principle for activating hope is openness. Openness marries two related concepts: organizational transparency and personal honesty about your limitations. This principle holds that while it can be risky to be open about perils or problems, it’s much more corrosive not to confront them at all.
Hutson and Perry cite the dramatic story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale, as quoted by author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, said it was the optimists who didn’t survive the ordeal of captivity because their “faith wasn’t built on a realistic appraisal of the circumstances.” Perhaps the same applies to hope. Collins sums up Stockdale’s lesson this way: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
One person Hutson and Perry interviewed (quoted anonymously) suggested that there is a very close linkage in openness between hope and surrender:
Most people would agree that the two words are interrelated but in a different way than I do. It is a common belief that when you give up hope, it is time to surrender. I believe that you surrender because you have hope. You surrender to the life you are given, you surrender to the present moment, you surrender to a universal plan that you are unaware of, knowing and trusting that all things are working together for your highest good at all times.
This form of surrender is akin to what we were discussing earlier: Don’t have a false view of the gravity of the situation, but also recognize that actions have value – even when one doesn’t immediately see the results. All you have to work with is the present moment, and in the present you have the option to choose an open-ended, generative world. You surrender to your vulnerability, and act with your best judgment: This combination can activate hope.
In our housing project example, imagine you are beginning without a clear sense of what’s the best action to take. You can surrender to the possibility that through shared agency and starting to act, the next step will be clearer. Acknowledge a setback – say a violent episode in a tent city – but also see if it opens new avenues: Perhaps as a result of the incident you can renew a dialogue with the police department, or new housing activists may come to the fore.
Connection is the fifth principle these writers mention, noting that “our most cherished hopes are pointless outside of community.” Connection means the commitment that we are in this together, that we are involved in hopeful activity for each other. Another person the authors interviewed (again quoted anonymously) said that connection is based on the established common ground of shared values. This person said that because of these shared ideas and values “agreement is not necessary. We can disagree yet understand.”
This is what King was suggesting of the Beloved Community: We sustain each other through mutual respect, through granting each other agency, through embracing the Golden Rule in our relationships. The very nature of connection engenders a hopeful attitude. In your work as a community builder, you can best activate hope through building and strengthening connections.
Hutson and Perry say that “hopeful leaders find ways to connect where they want people to go with where people are and what they really want.” In elaborating, they outline “Seven C’s of Connection,” progressing from the most personal to the most universal. Attending to these elements can ensure that you can sustain hope as your efforts face inevitable challenges:
- Core: Does your community building effort build on the strengths of individuals? Do you recognize different contributions?
- Colleagues: Do you share resources and ideas? Are you part of a larger community of people working on goals similar to your own?
- Company: Do you build connections inside your group? Do your volunteers like the company they keep? Is the team mutually supportive?
- Customers: Are you working for your customers? Do you have a direct “line of sight” to the people and projects you are working for?
- Community: Do you think about how your work resonates across cultural divisions? How does your effort appear to those outside your organization?
- Common Ground: Do you foster shared values and ideas? Do you encourage strong and ethics for everyone?
- Cosmos: How big is your worldview? “Hope connects here and now and future possibility,” according to Hutson and Perry. How does the community-building work you’re doing help bring about a positive future?
These principles, taken together, reflect the power of connection: As we come to respect and empower each other to be agents, as we respect other organizations in our field, and as we articulate our values and ethics, we come to see that hope is not about specific objectives or outcomes. Hope is instead a way of being in the present that opens the door to a positive future – and we become open to the possibilities, rather than being tied to specific expectations.
Hutson and Perry illustrate how these principles work in practice:
In the impoverished Stung Treng province of Northeast Cambodia, a hospice for terminally ill AIDS patients was opened in 2001. However, organizers came to see that it would be more useful to educate women to prevent the disease’s spread, as well as to give sex workers alternative, sustainable ways to make a living.
That hospice is now known as the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center; its mission has expanded, now providing basic literacy and health skills along with career training. It also supports children’s education to break a continuing cycle of poverty. The women who are aided by the Center are viewed as members of the organization as much as beneficiaries of it. Everyone involved is mutually invested in the success of the organization.
How did this come to pass? The specific expectation of caring for the dying shifted because of an openness on the part of director Chantha Nguon and others to shift course in pursuit of a positive future.
Some Challenges, and Questions for Reflection
Nurturing and spreading hope in community settings is not always simple or uncomplicated. If you are building community, you may find that challenges to applying hope can easily arise; below we mention two of them, and offer some thoughts about how to respond to each.
What about False Hope?
Hope is positive, hope is powerful, hope is essential. But should you be hopeful at every opportunity? To put it directly, some desired outcomes are highly improbable, or even less likely than that. In those cases, to base your actions on hope alone may ignore the realities of your situation. It can get you into trouble. It can make your work less effective.
You can hope you’ll pick the million-dollar lottery ticket, but it’s unwise to get your hopes too high about winning. Similarly, you can submit that long-shot grant application, or hope your political opponents have a change of heart, but you wouldn’t want to stake your future on either outcome. Hope can be seductive. Yet false hope, or perhaps better “unwise hope,” can lead you to make poor decisions, and to inefficient use of your time and resources.
Here’s the challenge, then: On the one hand, hope can lift your spirits; it can spur you to positive action; it can give you a reason for continuing to act, rather than yielding to the inertia and apathy arising from hopelessness and despair. But hoping against all odds – false hope – can not only lead to wasted energy and disappointment, but can also prevent you from following a different course of action that might work better for you in the longer run. Rather than apply for that long-shot grant, you could seek another type of funding; rather than hope your opponents see the light, find new allies instead.
It’s important, we think, to keep hope alive – but not always at all costs. It’s important to nurture hope and act hopefully, but important as well to be closely tied to the realities of your situation, and to the real prospects you face. False hope, reflecting a hope that’s too divorced from the facts of the world around you, will rarely lead to the outcomes you desire.
So it may be best to find a middle ground, a balance point, between these two alternatives. Yet just how do you find it? We won’t tell you this question is easy, nor can we give one single answer. Your own answer will depend, among other things, upon the content of what you are hoping for, the wishes of your supporters, the particular barriers you face, the opinions of trusted others, and your best realistic estimate of success. As this Tool Box chapter argues, a community builder should possess spiritual assets, and hope is surely one of them. But hope and hopefulness should also be accompanied by the sometimes-hard-earned skill of good judgment.
All of this discussion leads to a related challenge:
What about Giving up Hope?
There are times when – despite your very best efforts, and your repeated efforts – all available evidence suggests that the outcomes you want will not come to pass. That hoped-for donor is just not going to come through. Try as you might, the new community center is not going to get built after all. Your competitors are simply doing a better job than you are. Or you may just not have enough resources, or enough time, or – sad as it may be to admit – enough ability to succeed in this particular case.
What’s your best course of action then? We’ll offer the possibility that it might be better not to keep on hoping, to hope against hope, but rather to abandon both hope and effort in those cases. Or, to put it in plainer words, to give up.
Hope, and its by-products of determination and persistence, are admirable. And psychologically speaking, it can be very hard to quit. Yet nothing says that hope must be kept alive at all times and at all expense. Hope takes energy. To keep on hoping takes more. To keep striving on the basis of hope alone takes more energy still. But even the very best community builders have limited energy. The task is always to invest it wisely; wise investment is in fact part of the work.
So sometimes, abandoning hope for a particular outcome will cast off a burden, free you up, release new energy for something else. You may be able to act more effectively in other areas, for other activities, with better chances of success. As before, though, the boundaries here are fuzzy. The general question, and the challenge for community builders, is to determine when hoping for a particular outcome is useful to you in a given situation, and when the odds are so strongly stacked against you that your hope, in this case, is misplaced. Few formal rules apply here: This must be an individual decision.
A closing comment to this heading on challenges: So far, our discussions have focused on your own beliefs and actions. But what about those you work with and those you serve? It might be unwise, and it might be unethical, to convey hope to others – much as they might want or need it – when you are personally convinced the cause is hopeless. Here you must balance the projected consequences of your message against the importance of being fully honest. And as we’ve suggested, this type of balancing and deciding is not a hard science; neither is community building itself.
To recap and summarize some of the main points we have been making in this section, here are some key takeaways for spreading hope:
- Remember that your attitude makes all the difference. “Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world;” Havel reminds us that we can cultivate a stance of hope by seeing the world as open-ended and full of potential.
- Hope involves trust: It’s an expectation of the potential for change. But it’s also an acknowledgment that the positive future you seek is unseen. If you could see it, there’d be no need for trust or hope.
- Alongside that acknowledgement is a conviction that working in hope is of inherent value: it’s a recognition that hopeful work precedes us, flows through us, and continues beyond us.
- Hope and hopelessness can co-exist; this may seem paradoxical, but Anne Lamott is quoted as saying, “The reason I never give up hope is because everything is so basically hopeless.” In fact, some would say that powerful hope – “active hope” – may not be possible without despair. When the darkest days hit, these coaches would urge you to accept that while everything is “basically hopeless,” the worst thing is never the last thing, to paraphrase Frederick Buechner.
- To hold open the possibility for another chapter may be the essence of what hope is – and encouraging your community to consider what to do in the present moment is perhaps the best way you can foster hope.
- Anticipate a positive future. Transforming the conversation can be as simple as suggesting what a hopeful future might look like. A potential influx of refugees into the U.S. has been portrayed as a risk to national security and a drain on social services; but how could communities reframe these potential immigrants as a source of economic and cultural diversity and strength? How might you take the challenges in your community and reframe them as opportunities for positive transformation? Doing so is spreading hope.
- Practices and habits can inspire hope. Hope needs to be cultivated; employing some regular practices can jumpstart the process. Whether you employ a specific regimen or look for opportunities to reflect every day, consider how you can be more intentional in your effort to nurture hopefulness.
For example, you might practice slowing down so that you can welcome the insights silence brings. As Leonard Cohen’s lyric puts it: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Recognizing and allowing those cracks, those openings for silence to interrupt our lives and meetings, can help us welcome new approaches or ideas. That “willingness to welcome” might be a key way to nurture and spread hope.
- It takes a community. Remember that while one person can be hopeful, to bring about a hopeful future in your community is a collaborative effort. Respecting and honoring the contributions of all participants, and recognizing that the next great idea can come from anywhere, is the essence of what King meant when he used the phrase “beloved community.”
- Set the table for hope. We presented the five organizational principles of Harry Hutson and Barbara Perry as a framework for understanding and facilitating active hope in organizations. To review, they are: possibility (the world is open to change); agency (a good idea can come from anyone); worth (our mission is of value); openness (we are transparent and honest); and connection (we are stronger together). How can these principles be applied in your own community setting?
- Talk it out. As you work within your own organization, mission, or project, it may prove helpful to address the topic of hope directly. When meeting with your colleagues, you might set aside time to discuss what their views of hope are and how they can be fostered.
We have outlined many conditions for nurturing and spreading hope that you can apply in your own community practice. These conditions are real; and yet hope also has a magical ability to animate change. The magic arises because hope is borne out of embracing the healthy story that creation is open-ended and generative, that there’s always the potential for a more positive tomorrow.
The conviction that there is another chapter, that there is always another chapter, is perhaps the essence of what we mean we talk about hope as a resource deep within us that has the power to transform both ourselves, our colleagues, and the world around us.
New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about the amazing story of Kennedy Odede, whose life started in a Nairobi slum – the victim of childhood beatings, hunger, sexual abuse, and drug use. Yet Odede came to see that “no situation lasts forever,” and – fueled by his exposure to thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela – came to envision a more positive future; in other words, to cultivate hope.
Odede then bought a soccer ball and started a movement he called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which in turn began a journey that has since led him and his now-wife Jessica Posner to open a school for girls, and work to provide clean water, health care, and more. Brooks quotes an email he received from Odede where he says that starting SHOFCO put him in touch with “the power of ‘ubuntu,’ feeling connected to a universal humanity.” According to Dr. Frank Lipman, a physician and best-selling author who has worked in South Africa, ubuntu “represents a world-view that sees humanity as a web of family, rather than a mass of individuals. This philosophy affirms that a person is a person through other people, that we are all related, interdependent and connected to each other.” The confidence there is a deep unity among us, and that we are interdependent and influential, is a powerful and very hopeful image that can only be affirmed through the experience of it.
You, as a community builder, can help build lasting change by cultivating and spreading hope. Of course, hope is not something you can will into being. It arises from an honest awareness of the challenges that lie before you, a willingness to grapple with things as they are, and a trust that our wisdom and potential is multiplied when we join hands and work together. When you incorporate these qualities into your own community work, we believe you will then find yourself fostering and spreading the hope that is so necessary for community building to succeed.
Reed Price volunteers with the Charter for Compassion and is Executive Director of the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center in Washington State. He supports the Compassion Games, the United Religions Initiative, local interfaith projects, and community organizing. Earlier, he worked as a producer and editor with The Associated Press, MSNBC.com, and MSN.com.
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