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Participatory Culture, Radical Hope
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On Inauguration Day 2008, I was with a group of my students. We couldn’t really stay seated, so we hopped up and down, constantly moving to the beat and exhaling at last. We had all worked on the Obama campaign; many students had traveled to neighboring states or returned home to help get out the vote; I had made hundreds of phone calls to voters in Florida and Ohio, places I had once called home. We had been holding our breath for what felt like months. But on this day, we breathed clear and easy. I felt pride in our country and our new President; felt tremendous hope for the future. “Hope,” of course, had been one of the campaign’s signal watchwords.
Inauguration Day 2008 was one of the high points of my life. Inauguration Day 2017, not so much.
So as the day approaches—tomorrow, in fact—I am suiting up not to watch with my students but to march the following day, with women and men and children all over the country, advocating for human rights and social justice for all. I will be part of the Women’s March on Washington here in the Bay Area, but I have friends and colleagues who will be in Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as in cities across the country: Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, New Orleans, Birmingham, New York. And, of course, Washington D.C. My sister, a high school teacher in one of the poorest counties in Florida, will leave after school tomorrow to board a 5:00 bus and travel all night to the capital, arriving in time for the biggest march of all and then riding the bus back to central Florida that night. “I have to be there,” she says, “for my students and for all students.” Others from all over the country will be joining her there.
Much has been made in recent years of what Henry Jenkins has called our “participatory culture,” one in which people want to take action, to DO rather than simply absorb or respond to the actions of others. Jenkins is thinking in terms of digital technologies and the opportunities that provide for participation. But the January 21 march offers another chance to participate, to take action in support of human rights and social justice—for all. I wouldn’t miss this chance to participate for anything, and I hope teachers of writing all across the country will be participating as well.
On November 21, the New Yorker ran an article, “Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America.” I read all with interest (some with amazement) but was particularly taken with Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz’s letter to “Querida Q,” called “Radical Hope.” In it, he urges us to go beyond sadness and mourning:
And while we’re doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free. . . .
But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. “What makes this hope radical,” Lear writes, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.
I’m grateful to Díaz and to so many others who have written and spoken about the need for hope. And I’m grateful to the gracious and generous and beautiful and brilliant First Family who still inspire that hope in me. That’s a big part of why I’ll be marching on January 21, 2017.
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