The Act of Creating Hope

Lina Srivastava
The Overlap
Published in
12 min readMar 2, 2021

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A plea to creative communities to build industries of reimagination

Photo of an artwork by Jenny Holzer, taken by the author at the Tate Modern in London, May 2019

I never had much affection for the word “hope.” It felt tepid, and static; an emotion of passive expectation. Like Shepard Fairey’s print of Barack Obama staring out into the skies above the block lettered word H O P E, the very concept felt outdated, naive, disappointing … and maybe illusory.

In the face of our intersecting global crises, when nothing short of wholesale transformation will do, mere hope has seemed too simple to invoke, and too inadequate as a cornerstone on which to build a just and equitable future. And in place of joy, love, self-righteous rage, or conviction — emotions with movement and heft, that feel like you can grasp and mould and apply them as catalysts to meet and push past this moment — why would I bother with something that feels less than these? As a friend recently wrote, “Hope is not a strategy.”

Except when it is. Or when it ought to be. As it is now.

1. Refining a vocabulary of social action

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, very often in our art, the art of words.— Ursula K. Le Guin

Those of us who apply creativity and innovation to changemaking — it is to you and about you I am writing — are being called upon to confront our current global moment. Anyone who is truly listening and sense-making knows we are living through an era of massive shift. The planet and the people on it are demanding transitions from our old extractive, individualistic models towards new reimagined models of care, interconnectedness, and regeneration.

My response to this has been to rethink my own model and my own creative expression. I’ve spent the prior twelve years running CIEL, a creativity lab and advisory service that I founded, and which I loved, but whose model had spent itself. It’s time for something new, an organizational model more responsive to the moment. So I’ve been planning my second social enterprise, through which I center questions of transformational change, explore how narrative and collective leadership catalyze systemic change, amplify the voices of community leaders, and foster the kinds of change that moves groups, communities, or society from one state to a better one that is more just and equitable.

For the second part of the exploration, this period of time is calling me to write. While CIEL had given me the space to produce art and media, it had left little time for writing. Language matters. The words we use must be precise, to be able to accurately describe our social conditions and to guide how we build community with one another. As I consider the next phase of our collective work and my role in it, I wanted to use writing to respond to the specific challenges of our current moment — climate change, displacement, uprisings, and inequality, all scaling and intertwining into deepening wicked problems. So I started working with Tara Skurtu — a poet and a member of the Steering Committee for Writers for Democratic Action — who has been helping me rethink the role my creative expression plays in my advocacy work.

As a first step, I laid out anchor words that ground my practice and my writing as I evolve both, and which also describe the direction I believe the world should move towards. These words are:

Love. Power. Justice. Restoration. Liberation. Solidarity. Exchange. Joy.

“Hope” didn’t make the cut.

With that list, I asked Tara to help me think through my narrative themes for the foreseeable future. We asked ourselves: How do I create a narrative organizing system for my creative advocacy work? The result of that work is:

-Global Solidarity is Essential
-Joy Is Political
-Social Issues (and the People They Affect) are Interconnected
-Lived Experience is a Form of Expertise
-Shifting Our Narratives is Requisite to Transformation

These are the themes I plan to use as a guide, that I will return to repeatedly in my writing, in my advocacy, and in the planning of my new company. Within these, yet again “hope” failed to claim an explicit place.

But I started to rethink that, too.

2. Revisiting “hope” because the world isn’t offering it

Hope is not prognostication. It 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. — Vaclav Havel

We are experiencing a time of so much loss. Turning the corner into the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, so many have died and even more are affected by it, whether in terms of their own health, or in the knowledge and sadness of lives lost that needn’t have been. There are massive job losses and entire industries at risk of folding (some, of course, that should be), with more to come. Women all over the world are falling out of the workplace and out of visibility, back to uncompensated caretaking as a primary focus. Service workers are put at risk and still underpaid. Creative projects and small enterprises, so carefully nurtured, are nevertheless folding under the weight of increasingly stagnant economies. In the face of long emergencies that are turning chronic, lives and homes are being lost to climate change, people are continuing to be forcibly displaced, and entire ecosystems of plants and animals are dying.

At the same time, we are experiencing a time of heightened violence. In places like Belarus, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, among so many others, pushback against equality, inclusion, and participation has been draconian and bloody. The U.S. has been roiling with violence, physical and epistemic, most recently culminating in the January 6 riot and insurrection that resulted in deaths and emboldened the far right. (I can’t stop thinking about the mostly Black and brown stewards of the space, hardworking people hated by the rioters simply because of the color of their skin, who had to clean up after the destruction the rioters left behind. That image will stay in my mind forever, and is mirrored by images of people, mostly from communities of color, cleaning up the messes the world dumps on them through extraction, exploitation, and deliberate carelessness.)

We are flowing from one shock to the next. Against this backdrop, in our friends’ circles and in our communities of practice, we write to each other in emails, in group chats, and on listservs. We talk to each other on video calls, seeking community. Those of us who are lucky enough to be alive speak about our claustrophobia in the confines of repeated lockdowns, staring at the same walls and the same faces. Even those of us who find ways to laugh together and work together across remote platforms still talk about the pain of our collective losses and the sapping of opportunity and connection — and how this chips away at our resilience while we fight to retain it.

In these messages, I started seeing a pattern: Not one of continuing the fight, but the risk of losing hope. Mentions of its absence were dominating our chats, alongside words like “disillusioned,” “despairing,” “scared,” and “exhausted.”

It is the weight of disillusionment that seemed particularly disturbing. I started hearing from people across different sectors — many of whom live lives of purpose, but also of privilege — that being pushed through the maw of the pandemic and the crises it intersects has felt like a betrayal, as if they now realize things were not as they seemed, or would never go back to the way they were before. Reality itself seems to have fractured.

Some of us have known all along that the “normal” state of being was far from acceptable to most people on the planet. Nostalgia for the “before times” is destructive. While the opposite of hope at one end of the spectrum is depression, addiction, or nihilism — against which we have a collective obligation to protect people — at the other end are disillusionment and despair. These are real, and deserve comfort. But when too deeply indulged by the otherwise privileged, they can also sometimes tip over into the luxury of apathy or willful impatience. We can’t afford this.

Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to see a groundswell of new possible allies in the fight to stitch a new reality that works for the well-being of all. And messages of despair are being answered with the questions, “Where are you finding hope? Where are you looking for it?”

But looking for hope may not be enough, when what we are fighting is no less than what Indy Johar calls the “structural loss of hope,” where “the idea of the future becomes a place of worry, pain, and struggle” — and the very idea of the future itself is lost. As I read messages that spoke of depletion and disillusionment, of collective soul weariness, I started rethinking my stance.

In the end, hope is the princess’s salt. It’s both a survival strategy, and something to wake up the senses. Where it once felt like a dismissible concept, it came into sharper focus as essential in its very absence.

So we can engage in a search for hope. But it might be better if we create it.

3. Renewing our commitments

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time. — Angela Davis

Are we living through the death throes of our extractive, patriarchal past, or are we on the cusp of an even darker period? This is a question I’ve heard raised a few times this year. No one knows the answer. I’m not sure anyone needs to, because the answer isn’t a matter for prediction. It’s a matter of choice.

As Arundhati Roy said in one of the formative essays of the coronavirus pandemic era:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next… We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

And therein lies the answer of how we create hope: We make the choice to walk through the portal with the collective readiness to imagine a new future.

In the interest of continuing to refine our terms, “future” doesn’t mean a distant utopia — or as much of our current narratives will have it, a distant dystopia — but rather a moment that will arrive soon and become our present. While we do need to be able to care for ourselves and each other, and to take a step back and hand off work to someone in our community if we need, there is urgency for transformation towards long-term progressive systems change, and for the concept of the future to become the here and now. We don’t have time to wait. And regardless of what individualist techno-solutionists might argue, our goals cannot be the mere reduction of friction, or the search for simple solutions, or the means of escape. Most of humanity and the planet won’t survive. (Innovation culture could be so much more than this.)

What we have before us is the choice to stay, to find new meaning and construct shared purpose, and to build new systems — of governance, resource flow, rights, opportunity, and expression, among others. In short, all of them.

This pandemic, overlaid on the intersecting crises of climate change, displacement, authoritarianism, poverty, racism, and inequality, may yet turn out to be the catalyst we needed to create global solidarity and networks of collective action. If we explicitly acknowledge our interconnectedness and focus our core work on designing mechanisms for distributed power and resources, we have the possibility to build a new future, one that is founded on justice, equity, and joy.

Each of us has a role to play. No matter where we sit on the spectrum of privilege, we each have a stake in collective liberation. We still have the luxury to make the choice to move towards this for a little while longer. It will soon become unavailable if we don’t commit to collective action — which makes it a moral obligation for all of us.

4. Rebuilding our models

How do we democratize the capacity for everyone to dream? How do we democratize the capacity for everyone to have hope? How do we rebuild hope in a world where increasingly [our shared] challenges are becoming very visceral? — Indy Johar

Those of us with the particular skill sets of artists, storytellers, and designers have the opportunity to build new imaginaries, and new models for hopes and dreams and long-term thinking that pave the way to new systems.

As we navigate our way through this time of deep uncertainty, our contribution means something, as does our commitment. Our work will weave itself into the collective fabric of social and cultural movements, strengthening each and creating nodes of concrete possibility around what Rebecca Solnit calls “transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights… power comes from the shadows and the margins [and] our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of centre stage.”

We may not know how our work will catalyze transformation in the short term. But we are used to that, and this is a deeply valuable skill in a time of shift. Our work already exists in spaces of nascency and liminality. We understand how to navigate uncertainty. We know how to create processes and stories and artifacts that implement strategic vision. We are useful and necessary to transformation, even if it is not immediately apparent or visible.

What does this mean in practice? While levels of privilege vary among us, as a collective group we have social, cultural, and intellectual capital available to us that can be released to support collective efforts. Fewer have economic capital, and that needs to be released in greater amounts so that together, we can build industries that embed hope.

For me, as I said above, what this means is reimagining and transforming my own work and the way I connect to and support collaborative communities, both local and global. I am thinking through my commitment to a new social contract through the narrative themes I set out above, and through the development of a new business model and company called the Center for Transformational Change. I am building it as part lab, part think tank, part collaborative design and production studio, to catalyze long-term progressive change by, in part, amplifying the stories of those already transforming their communities. I see this as an act of renewal and of necessity to meet the world where it is. And now I’ve started to think of it as an act of essential, concrete hope.

This is the way I’ve chosen. The hopeful news is there are so many other ways our various communities of practice can democratize the capacity to create collective hope. We can:

-Build new business models for scientific, artistic, or political discovery;
-Advocate for publicly governed regenerative economic models;
-Research equitable future of work scenarios;
-Design new health care systems based on prevention, rights, and access;
-Devise renewable and non-extractive systems of energy generation;
-Activate for human rights, collective rights, and the rights of all beings;
-Support restorative justice and transformative justice models;
-Resource a social movement;
-Plan new models of community exchange and interdependence;
-Join and strengthen mutual aid networks;
-Invest in civic participation, democratic process, and open, equitable governance models;
-Create new platforms for dialogue that center cooperation, elevate unheard voices, and are governed through principles of anti-racism, feminism, and inclusion;
-Imagine new media forms and artistic practices;
-Build spaces that offer renewal, love, peace, creativity, and retreat;
-Produce functional objects of beauty;
-Design with the least powerful and the least privileged at the center and as partners;
-Tell stories of what works;
-Teach. Write. Create.

…And on and on and on.

That’s one set of ideas. I’m sure you have more.

Revisit your themes. Fill in the blanks of what you will do, individually and collectively. Each collective act will add to the project of transformation.

5. Reimagining our possibilities: Generating hope

Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present. — Albert Camus

We need to be culturally ready for when our current situation ends and transforms into our next collective state. We have the opportunity to collectively decide what that next state is. To do so, we have to create room for hope and imagination. We can’t do our work without it. We can’t transform from a place of despair. We will get stuck.

None of this is easy work. I acknowledge its difficulty. But the work of moving towards collective liberation is also fun. It’s sexy, even, and joyful. It moves us to celebration.

And there are so many models to follow. Look to the community leaders I wrote about in Transformational Change Leadership; to social movements like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, and Black Lives Matter; to protests like the Farmers’ Protests in India or the Green Wave protests in Argentina; to networks like Brown Girls Doc Mafia and Edgeryders; to innovation hubs like HiveCoLab in Kampala or Toru Institute of Inclusive Innovation in Dhaka. (Again, I could go on.) There are symbols of hope everywhere to guide our creation.

So I ask you to think on these words from the poet Adrienne Rich:

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it means to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

We can stand together at the end of despair, we can collectively transform, if we can imagine it, create it, and then celebrate it.

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Lina Srivastava
The Overlap

Founder of Center for Transformational Change https://transformationalchange.co. Using narrative to cultivate community power towards just futures.