A year ago we heard a lot about the audacity of hope. I believe in it. The problem is that the only people who can really practice it seems to be folks at the grass roots. In the middle of a tough winter is a good time to make an assessment of what we can do with our hope. Read on! This is not going to be a call to do more. Nor is it a plea for unrelenting stubborn insistence that the world would be so much better if it was more like I want it to be.
Living in the audacity of hope from inside the White House may be almost impossible. For the rest of us we can still work to vibrate some of the rafters built into the White House by slaves.
A year after the audacity of hope moved into the White House we are deeper in debt and the rhythm of remembrances to fallen soldiers marches on into the ninth year. Feeling stuck in a period of history is not a new thing. The project of abolition of slavery took many generations and it is still going on. Things looked bad maybe permanently beyond repair in the 10-year depression of the 1930s. At one point in 1971 I concluded that the Viet Nam war would just go on and on and on, that our work maybe would mean nothing. By then it had gone on for eight years or 26 years depending upon your viewing platform, Vietnamese or the rest of the world that got its news from New York.
In times like these the subterranean flow of revision, reevaluation, resignation and re commitment continues. Along the way there are surprises of inward inspiration. Here are a few ideas that have kept me going although if you would have asked me forty years ago if I believed in these principles I wouldn’t have recognized them.
1. I have learned to put my body in places where people are upset because something has gone wrong. That is the geography where I find the energy and imagination to do something about a problem. I need to see the contradictions with my own eyes, listen to what people say, and smell the atmosphere. Recently I spent a week in West Virginia with people who are trying to save their mountains from mountain top mining. Now I have a framework to support them.
Last year I realized that we were going to hear a lot about Afghanistan and Pakistan so I made a trip to Pakistan. I knew things were complicated before I went and going there only made the South Asia confluence of religion, politics and change seem more complicated. As a minimum I now know how to read the news about Pakistan more critically. And when it comes to Afghanistan I continue to be shocked with the placid reporting of embedded reporters but I know how dangerous and difficult it is to get underneath to the place where local listening can happen. I expect to continue to revisit both countries in my imagination if not also in reality. Something isn’t working and the images fester in my soul crying for testimony to truth. This year I know I need to place myself with radicalized Muslims, yes the kind that body bomb, to understand a little more deeply how they think.
In my community in Northwestern Ontario native people are in the midst of renewing their life and governance and are the only people who have a permanent commitment to the area. But, their moral and legal rights are under a constant threat. The other players in the district, outfitters who cater to tourists hunters or fishermen, and persons working in or supporting the extractive industries of mining and timber.
2. Most of us who read blogs are not full time activists. So we have to make decisions about priorities. Making a choice now of what I can do this year is a gift. Trying to do too many things leads to frustration. In our Chicago Synapses office a professor came in once a week for a couple hours to update the data base. I worried that this work was terribly mundane, even insulting to this professor of a prominent university. “Oh,” he said, “this gives me inspiration for literature that I study. I think of the places where all these people come from and unknown to me the drama that is unfolding before them. And then I say a little prayer for them and move onto the next entry.”
When I lived in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I never had very much money but usually just enough. I was tempted to take a well paying half time job and then carry out my activist calling in the left over time. Whenever I tried it, my brain became confused over conflicting priorities and demands. I didn’t do either job well and felt tired. So I slimmed down my financial requirements so that I could get back to doing what those faces in Viet Nam expected me to do, end the war.
3. A working group is more than an endless collection of disembodied issues and meetings. When I decide to work with a group I want to know if there is good energy. Do people support each other, freely share their ideas and listen to each other. I want to know what the framework for decision making is. Is there hidden but powerful matrix of power that shows up as a blocker when things need to get moving? Do people where I want to volunteer occasionally eat together, laugh together, like each other. Are there cliques, or an atmosphere of, “I have to do this.”
4. I also want to know if the group spends an inordinate amount of time fulfilling funder’s demands? When this happens, I know that there is either a funder with an overburdened ego need or, more likely, a worker who is using the funder to escape the common vision of the group. I want to know that the group does not subordinate its vision to a single set of big funders whose disappearance will be the signal for the demise of the noble goal and vision. I really prefer to work with groups who have lots of individuals who give financial support and see big gifts from foundations as special blessings that can be used for a next step.
5. When I volunteer I know that I am looking for something that I may not even be conscious of. It may be that I am hoping to find a place to really work on Pakistan, Afghanistan, native rights or whatever. I probably won’t just come out and say it but I am also looking for connections to other people. I want to learn something fresh, maybe make a good friend. Volunteering is a good way to look for a job. I don’t want to be a burden or bring heaviness to an already overworked staff. But I need to believe I am contributing something even something tiny but worthwhile to the whole.
When I was on the staff side of this continuum I also wanted to make the perfect match between volunteer and the work that they could do. I rarely felt that the matches I made were perfect. I tried to thank people for what they did. What surprised me were the fresh ideas, gifts and joy that volunteers brought to the table of social change effort when they were given something clear that they could do. A lot of things worked out better than I expected them to. I have learned that the audacity of hope is really completed in the courage to continue to engage where I can.