Reflections on a Discipline of Hope
by Nikki Turner (GPIA ’17)
November 11, 2020
For much of the US election week I reflected on the concept of Hope as a discipline. This idea was introduced to me through Twitter from prison abolitionist and community organizer Mariame Kaba. In turn, Hope as a daily practice was introduced to her from a nun who defined hope as a way of being “of the world and in the world.” For Kaba, the idea of practicing the discipline of Hope is connected to her work as an organizer, that within organizing and social action the potential for transformation and change is always present. If there was one primary theme I took with me from my time within the GPIA program, it is the collective will to create positive change.
The desire for positive change as a foundation for the practice of Hope resonates within me strongly for many reasons, including my experience of being a part of The New School community. The privilege of studying, working and learning with my New School colleagues provided me with a sense of scale in the practice of Hope. From my daily activities, to working within community, to participating with global organizations, the discipline of Hope was always present in language and labor. I remember The New School seminar space filled with discussions of social activities, such as development, economic systems, media spheres and cultural production, in relation to how we as a group and as individuals might contribute to positive change in our communities and throughout the world.
It is easy to get lost in the vastness of these enormous social processes, to feel insignificant as an individual, but hopeful as a community. Now, in a PhD program at the University of California San Diego, my laboring space has shrunk to the confines of my own mind confronting endless assigned texts, papers and presentations supported by a few dedicated friends and colleagues with whom to share this particular struggle. I know the primacy of the individual scale is temporary and soon I will have the time to return to community practice and growing my network of fellow Hope practitioners as I move through this program. However, there also is the pandemic and the isolation from queer community to grapple with. Endless Zoom spaces erode the quality of connection to other human beings as well as the additional care given to undergraduate students in my courses who have less experience and skills for survival under abnormal social circumstances. Social distance has forced me to confront my own discipline of Hope and from this I have connected to the ways in which practicing Hope is first and foremost connected to the ordinary, daily practice of producing my own life.
I conducted a series of interviews with the faculty and graduate students of my department last April and May, after the initial shock of the California stay-in-place order, moving courses online and restructuring life in a way that allowed us to continue our work. This early stage of the pandemic still contained a residual of hope born from the ignorance of not knowing how long this situation would last. People expressed simple joys in learning to cook on a daily basis, taking long walks around their semi-familiar neighborhoods, connecting with the brightness of flowers and the growing camaraderie between neighbors. The absence of a commute to campus was something to be celebrated, along with the excitement of children and pets to spend more time with their parents and companions. Hope was easy, for we were busy beyond belief building mutual aid networks, checking in with each other, talking about our lives and not just our work, and constantly lending support where needed. The scale of our existence shrunk drastically in those first couple of months and there was almost a sense of relief from the relentless, repetitive demands of institutional life. But, there was also worry, fear, anxiety and the itch of a growing loneliness that flowed underneath our activities.
Now, almost 8 months later, that hope that came so easily has been almost entirely subsumed by exhaustion, worry, fear, anxiety and loneliness. The diminished scale of our lives has become nearly intolerable. The economic and social fallout of this prolonged experience is crushingly depressing and many of us have worked ourselves to our limits in keeping the institution viable and our families and community safe. The continued murdering of Black people in the US, the growth and visibility of white supremacy and expressions of violence, the threat of our society falling deeper into regressive, xenophobic political reactionism, and the rising death count of beautiful lives claimed by a disease that could have been managed has taken its toll. The culmination of despair manifested in election week anxiety knocked some of our very best down for the count. The bottom rose up faster to meet us than we anticipated and soon forgot, or never really knew, that Hope is a practice. Of course we have continued to practice Hope just by getting out of bed each day and facing our tasks as educators, researchers, scholars and activists. But, we forgot to name what we were doing. Just as quickly as we could, we fell back into stupors, exhausted and voided of motivation. The endless chores of producing our lives no longer felt liberated from what was once the every day progress of a capitalist society. They returned to their place as the unpaid labor extracted from us in order to continue producing a society where wealth transfer accelerated into the pockets of elites whose resources insulated them from the worst of this social transformation. The wealthy take off for isolated islands while we respond to email after email sent by young students existing on the brink of personal and family collapse.
The one saving grace about recognizing a bottom is the choice to try and begin the journey back upwards. With some semblance of structure under our feet, events, conferences, gatherings and cultural experiences have all moved online, and for those of us privileged to access them, new connections and communities are forming across time and space. I spent the last couple of days attending the Decolonizing International Relations conference (DIR) hosted by students at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. I became curious about the ways in which the product of activities were celebrated over the practice itself. As one person commented recently in the GPIA’s own event on decolonizing International Affairs, there is too much emphasis on the measurements of large-scale growth. A change in a datum is the thing celebrated and not so much the effort and shared labor that made that change possible. At the DIR conference, Hope as a practice was implied within the ways in which people organize to make institutional interventions. That they should do this for a change in datum seems ridiculous to me. Rather, might we see the community formed around engendering positive change as the object of celebration? Is this not what change is? Are we not practicing Hope in order to rearrange the world in a way that connects people in social formations where our global resources are shared equitably?
A person who is an activist, an ally, an anti-colonial scholar, or an artist are all signs of hope in our progressive world. These social positions are the roles engendering positive change. But, what makes them these things? How do we claim or bequeath these titles? They are the results of practice. Social roles are predicated on particular actions, and these actions are the daily production of self for many people who spoke at the conference. I heard ideas such as, “The work begins with decolonizing our own mindset,” and, “We must be prepared to loose something as an ally.” What does this mean if not to make decisions on the smallest scale of self production in our daily lives? If hope is an ideal of a transformed future, then change happens within the choices we make every day to help realize that future. From what we choose to read, who we talk with, what labor we do, how we communicate, what media we engage with, to what we eat, who we listen to, what we write about and how we dream, there are endless moments to practice the discipline of Hope.
For me, the practice of Hope requires endless effort to find inspiration as the fuel to motivate my choices. What I take in has a direct effect on what I give out. What brought me to the DIR conference was an effort grounded in the practice of Hope. As a graduate student working in the time of the pandemic, my to-do list is endless and leisure is in very short supply, and not everything I do is inspiring to me (the institution requires its pound of flesh for me to take my daily bread). Therefore, I must ensure that my hope is disciplined through choices I make in gathering inspiration as the fuel I need to go out into the world and practice change. Being in community with others provides me with the motivation to continue.
I rearranged my furniture today in my tiny, hotel room sized graduate student apartment in the hopes of creating a space more conducive to the ability of doing the work of change, in the hope that through this work I will find inspiration, and through that inspiration I will exit the scale of self and mediate relationships with others through a shared hope of a better future. How to find a sense of spaciousness in a small confined space is a practice of Hope. The discipline of Hope is the desire to transcend space, to connect with others. It begins, as Kaba pointed out in a tweet recently, from the choice that confronts us upon waking: to get up and engage with ourselves and others or to stay under the covers and breathe until the next morning. Either choice can be part of the discipline of Hope as long as they are situated within a desire for transformation and change and reminds us that we are both of the world and in the world.
Photo credits: Marcin Wichary