On Feb. 20, 2017, author, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit spoke about "Hope and Emergency," building upon her 2005 book, Hope in the Dark, and discussing the value of hope in social change. Only a couple weeks later, civil rights lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson would speak on the same stage, and much of what he and Solnit carried similar resonances about hope and coming together as a group in the face of deep social and political divides.
For Solnit, the worst thing that can happen in the face of an increasingly oppressive federal government and society at large is to lose hope. Hope is what resistors must maintain in order to spark positive change.
She also referenced an idea called "getting proximate" — getting physically nearer to people who are different from you in efforts to bridge the deep divides between us. This idea, she said, came from Stevenson, author of the acclaimed Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, published in 2014.
Stevenson elaborated on this idea in his talk, but he also, like Solnit, stressed the importance of hope in the face of oppression. These two things made up two of four ways Stevenson claimed we can change the world. One, get proximate to the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned. Two, change the dominant narrative of racial difference. Three, stay hopeful. Four, be willing to do things that are uncomfortable. Many of these tasks go hand-in-hand — doing one can help accomplish another.
Solnit and Stevenson spoke to one another directly and indirectly in their talks, placing themselves within a broader conversation about what do we do now. Both of them stressed the importance of talking to people who are different from you, if only to learn about their perspective. Both of them stressed the importance of staying hopeful, even when it seems like a movement failed, even when it seems like change is impossible.
"Have hope or you're part of the problem," Stevenson said. "You have to have enough hope for things you cannot see."
Maybe it's time to start taking notes.
Rebecca Solnit's "Hope and Emergency" was the U-M Institute for the Humanities' 2017 Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture. Bryan Stevenson's lecture was the U-M's 25th Wallenberg Lecture. Stevenson was awarded 25th Wallenberg Medal, the most distinguished award given by the University of Michigan.
Regan Detwiler is a member of the Institute for the Humanities' Undergraduate Student Advisory Group. She is a junior studying English literature and cultural anthropology. Her interest in new media technologies and cultures, especially digital media in contemporary novels and visual art is informed by her recent work as a writer and editor on the Opinion section of the Michigan Daily. Currently negotiating her role as an activist, Regan is thinking about ways in which the humanities can inform or even directly incite social change.