Why Hope Is Still a Key Ingredient In Our Collective Future

Hope.

That one word has inspired and informed the messages spread by countless world leaders—from Gandhi to Barack Obama.

Before he was elected in 2008, Obama claimed that cynicism is was the worst disease plaguing the American political system, the American people, too. On his best days, this messaging was criticized for being idealistic and out of touch.

It’s funny that I started off this blog post talking about a politician. Somehow, he must have inspired this message, yet my call for hope is different.

The way I see it, only some of the problems in American politics right now must be solved by American politicians. Many of them won’t be touched by economic or public policy at all. [Side note: If I could have any message put on a billboard in D.C. right now, I’d write: “When you’ve found yourself in a hole, it’s best to stop digging.”]

There is a whole host of problems that we face - as a society, as a united people, as a human race - that cannot be solved, or even addressed effectively by the government of this nation. Government systems were designed to conduct national affairs, not to solve all problems of the people, unfortunately.

These are the kind of multifaceted problems that will be solved not by idealists, but by optimistic skeptics (an oxymoron, I know). Optimistic skeptics are the people among us who don’t fear questioning the status quo, who are not afraid to stand for something that they believe in, and who believe that the world can become better if they do something about it.

They are powered by rational hope, by a sense of moral duty.

You might say one such example are the women who founded The Lower East Side Girl’s Club in New York City. After noticing the gender and socioeconomic inequality in the area, they built one of the most bad-a** places you can imagine. 30,000 square feet equipped with a state-of-the-art podcasting studio, a university-level biological science lab, a sewing room, a full restaurant kitchen, a physics lab, the list goes on…

Recently, my dear friend, Yera Ha, a board member at the Girl’s Club, gave me a tour of the space. I was blown away - as room after room it seemed to reveal bigger and better possibilities. As we stood on the roof, looking at the ‘community garden’ girls from the Club had created, I cried.

From that spot, I could see government housing. I asked her if any of the club’s members lived there. Yes, of course, she answered.

In 2015 and 2016, I worked for an organization called City Year in an ‘underserved’ school in Brooklyn. Almost all the students qualify for free lunch and the stories of some of my students are unfathomable to most of America. But just like youth across this country, despite having and being handed less, these kids were dreamers. They were interesting and interested, funny and way cooler than me.

Something I always wished for during that time was the chance to escape from the structure of Common Core, from the bootstrap budget of the nonprofit, and do something that would wow these students, something that they could hold onto as the seedling of a dream for the rest of their lives. That’s what my best teachers did for me, what I hoped to do for the students I worked with.

I wanted to water their dreams with whatever drops I had to give.

Where I largely failed at my operation, Operation Wow, The Lower East Side Girl’s Club has succeeded. All because a in 1996, a group of women had the audacity to question the gender and socioeconomic norms of a part of Manhattan that is often forgotten about, and devise a plan to address them (and change them from the inside-out). They sought to solve the inefficiencies in youth education through private donations (not government subsidy), selling a vision to Manhattan- and DC-elite of what could be possible for young girls in the Lower East Side.

They didn’t just set out to build any old, shoddy rec center. They sought to build a palace, a place where girls could come and forget about what else was going on in their lives. After decades of dedication, their dream has been realized in full. They’ve created a place where seeing the night sky in the middle of a light-polluted city feels normal - even if through an planetarium screen. They’ve created a place where all seems possible.

All because the founding women had, as Barack Obama might say, the audacity to hope.

And ultimately, the commitment to back it up.

For as Margaret Mead said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

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Many of the problems we face won’t be solved by government or policy initiatives. Some will, some won’t. In either case, they will be solved by people, not systems, not bureaucratic organizations.

They will be solved by committed, optimistic skeptics with the audacity to hope.

The only question left now is:

Are you one of them?

Kate Ward