Lessons from Critical Hope

Kari Grain’s Critical Hope is a personal, thoughtful, and embodied exploration that brings a scholarly topic to life. She breaks from simple dichotomies and performativity to offer real-life examples of the possibilities of living the both/and of critical analysis, hope, and examples that illustrate the beauty and power of doing so. Grain points to critical hope as the goal of the journey and also illuminates the pathway forward. I’ve been recommended this book many times and, since reading it, have recommended it to many social justice educators and organizational leaders who are aware of the cynicism around them and seeping into them. The challenges we face as people and organizations can feel overwhelming. Folks are looking for an antidote, and Critical Hope offers healing medicine to help us better live, lead, and take on today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

Hope is a practice necessary to sustain our engagement. Without hope, cynicism can become a smart way of justifying our disengagement. With false hope, we wish for or believe a better future will magically emerge without us needing to engage with the world as it is. Shane Lopez defined hope as the combination of the belief that tomorrow can be better than today AND that I have a role in making it happen. I summarized this approach in Unmasking with the equation:

Hope = Belief + Agency

Critical hope has emerged from scholars like educator Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and South African scholar Michalinos Zembylas to include an explicit equity lens. I summarized this approach in Unmasking with the equation:

Critical Hope = Equity Lens + Possibility + Responsibility

In Critical Hope, educator, scholar, and activist Kari Grain brings this both/and approach to hope. As she shared here:

In hindsight, I was being corralled by systems and structures (and the limits of my own understanding) into a false dichotomy of sorts: Are you this one thing (hopeful and naive), or are you the other (angry and aware)? Choose your camp – Two options, and that’s it, because complexity is time-consuming and unruly.

In Critical Hope, offers metaphors like meeting in a meadow to bring conceptual ideas to life.

Critical hope is the meadow where two unlikely seekers (lovers?) meet and become one—the place where two conflicting but equally true stories about the world are somehow made more truthful in their uneasy unification. Inside of that unification is born a plethora of alternative possibilities that eliminate false dichotomies and welcome complex pluralism as a way of knowing and being. For me, critical hope is a conceptual space that has given my fragmented selves a place to lovingly coexist.

Grain’s book explains critical hope, illustrates it with both simple and powerful examples, and outlines 7 Principles.

  1. Hope is necessary, but hope alone is not enough
  2. Critical hope is not something you have; it’s something you practice
  3. Critical hope is messy, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions 
  4. Critical hope is intimately entangled with the body and the land
  5. Critical hope requires bearing witness to social and historical trauma
  6. Critical hope requires interruptions and invitations
  7. Anger and grief have a seat at the table

#2 from this list has been coming back to me again and again. When the news or personal events make hope seem so far away, I am reminded that hope is not an emotion to wait to arrive but a practice to cultivate. When the world is not offering me hope, how do I cultivate it within me? Just like gratitude, hope is not an emotion but a practice.

Finally, I loved listening to Grain read her audiobook. It is a model of bringing the author’s full self to the reading that I want to follow as I record my own audiobook of Unmasking.

I hosted Kari Grain in conversation with Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade on Student Affairs Now.

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