The Impossible Take a Little While Reading Groups

Selected as a featured selection for the Sierra Club reading group program and used in reading groups throughout the country to help keep people going in difficult times.


Reading Group Questions

The Impossible Will Take a Little While has been used by a broad range of reading groups to help their members maintain the hope that keeps us acting even in difficult and frustrating political times. People are saying the book is working wonderfully to lift their spirits, keep them going, and give them a sense of renewed possibility.

I'd like to pull together distinct reading group questions down the line, but here are some I drew up for college classroom use. They’re geared a bit more for an introductory audience, and go into a bit more detail than needed for a reading group. But they should still be quite useful to pick and choose from. Feel free to suggest any useful additions.

Enclosed are links to the book's Table of Contents, to the book's rave reviews, and to some selected excerpts.

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Here are questions for each section:

Section One: Seeds of the Possible
Section Two: Dark Before The Dawn
Section Three: Everyday Grace
Section Four: Rebellious Imagination
Section Five: Courage is Contagious
Section Six: The Global Stage
Section Seven: Radical Dignity
Section Eight: Beyond Hope
Section Nine: Only Justice Can Stop A Curse


What stops us from acting on issues we care about? Have there been issues where you've wanted to take a stand, but didn't? Why do you think you didn't?

If there were issues where you did take a stand, what got you involved?

Do you feel like ordinary citizens really can make a difference? Or do you hold back from acting because you think your efforts are futile?

Were you involved in the 2008 election on either side? What got you involved? Or what stopped you? And if you were involved, how did that make you feel in terms of your ability to shape history? What do you feel your responsibility is now that Obama is president?

Are you hopeful in your personal life, for your own individual future? Do you have more or less hope in terms of this country's future, or the future of the world?

Were you surprised to see a portrait of Desmond Tutu as so down-to-earth? Do you think of global heroes as saintly and detached? Do you agree that "only someone who knows how good life can be is in a position to appreciate what's at stake when life is degraded or destroyed"?

Were you surprised to know that some of the Eastern European revolutions started with the defense of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe? Any lessons from this?

Did you know the real Rosa Parks story, or did you only know the myth? How does it change your view to know Parks didn't act alone? Does it change your image of how people become activists?

How do we know when an action matters? Do the stories Paul tells of Nixon, Dr Spock, and his friend Lisa Peattie suggest that the major impact of much of what we do may be hidden? Can you think of other situations where a person who clearly made an impact on history first got involved in a seemingly lost cause, or where the results of their attempts to work for change were unclear until long after their initial efforts?

Do you get revived by a connection with the natural world? What lessons does this connection give in terms of working for its preservation?

Explore the following themes:

  • Those who make significant advances to improve the world learn to do so after a series of small steps over time, rather than in one, sweeping dramatic move (e.g. Rosa Parks)
  • Hope is an “orientation of the heart” and mind, rather than a way of life.
  • We may make our most powerful contribution by inspiring other individuals to voice the courage of their convictions
  • Embracing the pleasures of life can help us keep on acting for change

Select a quote from the following that resonates with a specific experience in your own life. Explain the connection between the quote and your personal experience.

  • "The difficult I'll do right now, the impossible will take a little while."
  • "Today fear so dominates American society that people hesitate to speak out. worried that they may be deemed unpatriotic or simply ignored, marginalized."
  • "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change."
  • "Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart."
  • "Nothing cripples the will like isolation."
  • "There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth."
  • "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

Loeb speaks of The Impossible modeling “a process by which citizens can at times agree to disagree, even regarding highly consequential concerns, while joining in trying to heal our communities, our nation, and our planet.” In this context, many readers have found it fruitful to place the different stories and voices in dialogue with each other. So if you disagree with a particular stand in a particular essay, research it further, but also think about how one of the other authors might respond. You might even want to write out a response from their perspective. You may find this book most useful framed as a conversation between the different authors, and between the authors and your own life.


From "The Cure at Troy," by Seamus Heaney

What does Heaney say about the capacity of art to reconcile human suffering? Can you imagine a moment "when hope and history rhyme?" Why or why not?

From "A Slender Thread" by Diane Ackerman

How are personal and political despair similar, from your experience? How do they differ?

Do you feel you have options for political change? Could we see the process of working for change as "putting windows and doors" in a tunnel of political possibilities that we're told allows no exit?

What's the relationship between what keeps Ackerman volunteering at the suicide hotline and the strength she tries to give to Louise? How is the card Louise sends an example of how rarely we know our real impact?

In her essay, Ackerman emphasizes the importance of human choices, explaining, "Choice is a signature of our species." Describe the consequences of a critical choice you have made. How does society influence our personal choices? How often do you define your choices in terms of the impact on a larger common future?

From "Ordinary Resurrections," by Jonathan Kozol

Do you know kids like those in the South Bronx neighborhood Kozol visits? Have you ever lived in a neighborhood where needless death is routine? Are you surprised by the fierceness of a love where children can leave Rice Crispies for dead friends or explain "this was his chair" in attempt to honor their missing friends?

What would it take to open more possibilities in their lives? Why are people like Kozol and Mother Martha still hopeful, after all they've seen over the years? Is their hope justified?

What are "ordinary dyings"? Why does our society mourn some deaths but not others?

Why do you think Kozol entitled the excerpt (and book by the same name) "Ordinary Resurrections." Who or what is "resurrected" in this essay?

Kozol states that he returns to Mott Haven "when I know I need to." Why might he need to return to this seemingly blighted neighborhood? Have you ever found value in returning to difficult places or situations? Explain.

From "Standing Up for Children" by Marian Wright Edelman

Why do politicians too often talk about their concern for families, then starve the most vulnerable? Why do we allow them to do this? Is part of the reason that lives of children like those Kozol and Edelman write about are invisible? If taking care of children is the “litmus test of our humanity,” how does Edelman rate our humanity?

Do we think of children as having the potential to change and heal the world as Edelman suggests? If we see a poor, dirty and neglected child, do we think of them as a potential King or Gandhi? Or assume that their situation is their own fault, that in the words of a student I once interviewed, that "you make your own chances? What makes us decide that there's nothing we can do about these situations?

Is Benjamin Mays right that it demeans us not to dream, and dream of a better world? Why do we accept this? Why does our society encourage us to dream mostly about private possibilities, like financial success? What would it take for more of us to dream of justice and act on it?

What are today's mountains of ice that fuel indifference to injustice? What would it take for more of us to be on fire enough to melt them? Is it inevitable that 500 billionaires have more wealth than 2.5 billion people at the bottom?

Optional project: Research how much of our national governmental budgets go to programs that benefit children? What does this say about our national priorities?

Do you agree with Edelman's reading of the Bible, as a series of stories in which the powerless triumph over the powerful?

Edelman asks, "What legacies, principles, values, and deeds will we stand for and send to the future through our children and to a world desperately hungering for moral leadership and community?" Apply Edelman's question to your own life: What specific legacies, principles, values, and deeds do you want to send to the future? How might you accomplish these hopes?

"Political Paralysis" by Danusha Veronica Goska

Do we talk of feeling paralyzed too easily? What's our response when we find someone who faces actual physical paralysis yet finds ways to act? Do we view people who work for change as "virtue saints?"

Why are so many of those who pick Goska up the most seemingly marginal? Why are we often so afraid of the physically ill or economically vulnerable?

Identify a problem in your daily surroundings or community, like Goska being unable to get back and forth to the food bank. Is there anything you could do today to make a positive difference? Are any local groups trying to do something? Report back after you've either tried something yourself or asked someone already involved about their efforts to make a positive difference. How can these efforts be sustained?

Contrast Goska's roles as a Peace Corps volunteer and a nurse's aid. What is her point? Think of a specific person in your day to day life who is often overlooked because of his or her working class status. What specific contributions does this person make to the quality of your life or community?

Goska contends that "virtue" is often defined as "the ultimate commodity, something exclusive..[something] outside of normal experience or ability," then provides contrasting examples of volunteering in the Peace Corps or for Sisters of Charity and working as a nurse's aid. Think of another pair of contrasting examples that further support the distinction Goska is trying to make.

What similarities and differences do you see between the main ideas of Goska's "Political Paralysis" and the main ideas of Edelman's essay, "Standing Up for Children"?

Describe a time when you heard a "still, small voice" that prompted you to act. What did you do-did you act or tell the still, small voice to "stifle yourself!"? For the next week, make a concerted effort to hear those still, small voices that encourage you to act; then report back.

Goska reminds readers that they are "in charge of their own choices." How does this point connect to the way Ackerman talks about choice? What do you think keeps Goska going in her bleakest moments?.


From "Sept 1, 1939," by W.H. Auden

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, this poem may have been passed around on the internet more than any in the English- speaking world. Why did people respond to it so powerfully? What would it mean if we took Auden's message seriously, "We must love one another or die?"

"The Optimism of Uncertainty" by Howard Zinn

Zinn provides many examples of people and events in history that show how seemingly powerless people can actually change the world. Can you think of additional examples from history or your own experience that support this point?

Zinn warns: "Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act." Can optimism also become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Write a statement using "optimism" or "hope" that explains why this might be true.

"People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality." Do you agree or disagree? Support your position with specific examples. In addition to the commonalties Zinn identifies, what are other human commonalities that transcend distance and culture?

How would you summarize Howard Zinn's perspective on what we learn from history? He writes: "Throughout history people have felt powerless before authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing, acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them, even if a little."

Do you agree with Zinn's judgments that political power is “more fragile than we think,” and that fundamental change does not come in one fell swoop but as an a long “succession of surprises”?

Similarly, Loeb writes, "History also shows that even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long period of time." Is this the view of history you've been taught? How many of the examples Zinn gave of unexpected turnings did you know about? What about accurate depictions of citizens making change? Think again of the Rosa Parks story. What is the value of value of emphasizing courageous and positive moments when ordinary citizens helped change the world?

If you think of Zinn as a fiery radical, were you surprised by his inviting the string quartet to play in his classroom? What does this say about the sources that sustain us?

"The Dark Years" by Nelson Mandela

Mandela describes how authorities attempted to "exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality-all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are." How can individuals promote the opposite in each other-that is, how can individuals or authorities encourage "that spark that makes people human and each of us who we are"?

Why would Mandela and his ANC colleagues go to such lengths to get news of the outside, like passing it from cell to cell on scraps of toilet paper? How does a sense of political isolation foster despair, while being connected with an engaged community encourages hope?

Most of us will not face the hardships of imprisonment like Nelson Mandela, but in what other ways can we be imprisoned? What qualities does Mandela suggest help human beings surmount even the greatest of challenges?

Loeb writes, "Those who make us believe anything's possible, however, and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who've have survived the bleakest of circumstances. It's the men and women who have every reason to despair, but don't, who may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change." Do you agree or disagree with this why? What lessons can we draw from people facing the most difficult situations for our own more modest challenges?

How can courage be multiplied? Can you think of a time in your life or a situation you've witnessed when courage multiplied? Explain.

"It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies." What was the point of this policy? Have you ever reached out to someone with whom you radically disagree on an issue about which you felt passionately? What was it like?

"An Orientation of the Heart" by Vaclav Havel

In the beginning of his essay, Havel describes how hope is "a state of mind, not a state of the world." And he distinguishes hope from optimism. How would you distinguish the belief that things will turn out well from the deeper sense that guides us even when we are unsure of the results of our actions. Have you ever faced a personal situation where you acted even though the outcomes were uncertain?

What states of mind and approaches to the world do you think nurture hope? Do you know someone who exemplifies a hopeful approach to the world, and not just an optimistic one? Describe this person.

Have you ever heard people label activists "exhibitionistic" or say they were just trying "to draw attention to themselves." What was your response when you realized this same charge was being levied at a later successful democracy movement that challenged a Communist dictatorship? Did this make you question the way our own society so quickly dismisses our own political dissenters?

Would you agree with Milan Kundera that the petition circulated by Havel and others was futile? Why or why not? Compare Havel's description of people being brought together to challenge the regime in an apparently futile context with Lisa Peattie's standing in the rain and realizing she'd later helped inspire famed baby doctor, Ben Spock. How do these examples suggest that the impact of our actions may only be clear in hindsight?

How did the petition help keep the prisoners going? Have you ever witnessed a situation where the supportive actions of others help courageous individuals keep acting? Do you agree with Havel's judgment that small acts of resistance can still matter--even if they don't have the desired immediate outcome?

Since the dictatorship was still in power when Havel wrote his essay (and according to global consensus likely to remain so), what allowed him to see the cracks in the walls of their seemingly unchallengeable rule? Is it possible for us to look similarly beyond the horizon to see what might be possible in changing unjust situations in our own political context? What does it mean to "make a way out of no way"?

Havel describes resistance against a dictatorship that seeks to control every aspect of daily life in a way that prevents questioning the prevailing authorities. Does our dominant culture ever function in a similar way? If so, how? If much our culture avoids talking about the real and urgent questions of our time, what would a culture look like that challenges this? What signs of it do you see in today's America?


"The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry

How does the natural world liberate Berry from despair? Where do you go to renew your spirit? Describe that place or write a poem about it. Why is it important for people to have a place of renewal?

"Last Night As I Was Sleeping" by Antonio Machado

What does Machado mean by "marvelous error!"?

What is the main point Machado is expressing in this poem? List some of the seemingly ordinary things that both poets, Berry and Machado, seem to recognize as gifts of the everyday world. List several "everyday gifts" in your own surroundings.

"Mountain Music" by Scott Russell Sanders

Do you relate more to the father's or the son's perspective in the essay? Explain.

At the conclusion of the essay, the father says he must "look harder for antidotes, for medicines, for sources of hope." What does he mean? How has he been challenged and changed by Jesse's words? In your life and surroundings, identify possible "antidotes" and "medicines" that give you a sense of hope.

"Your view of things is totally dark," says Sanders's son, "It bums me out. You make me feel the planet's dying and people are to blame and nothing can be done about it." Do you ever feel that way when people are talking about global problems? How can people talk about what's wrong in the world without reinforcing a culture of despair?

"The Sukkah of Shalom" by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

"The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: It is a statement of truth like the law of gravity." Explain what Waskow means by this statement. What obstacles sometimes prevent us from loving our neighbors? What can help overcome such obstacles?

Also, how do we define who our neighbors are? In Paul Loeb's earlier book, Generation at the Crossroads, he interviewed a student who when a friend asked him about the Biblical phrase "love thy neighbor," and whether he had any responsibility to the people in the adjacent economically poor community of Bridgeport, CT, responded, "Bridgeport? Love thy neighbor? Those guys aren't my neighbors. No way are they my neighbors. I grew up on Long Island and I know who my neighbors are?" Would you agree or disagree with this student's response? Would Waskow? Explain.

Waskow uses the metaphor of the sukkah-"a fragile hut with a leafy rook, the most vulnerable of houses." What does the sukkah suggest about the role of vulnerability in fostering hope? Can you think of an example from your own life or community that supports Waskow's point?

Waskow writes about the need to look at our reflection in the mirror. How does America succeed or fail at looking honestly at our past and present choices

At the conclusion of "The Sukkah of Shalom," Waskow says that if people see the world as chiefly about property to be controlled, they will need to build ever-higher and stronger walls and fences. If people only build walls and fences in their lives and communities, what do they run the risk of fencing in and fencing out?

Obviously the September 11 attacks were morally reprehensible, and those who would perpetuate further attacks need to be stopped. But Rabbi Waskow suggests, that the attacks also offered important if challenging lessons about the links between security and justice and the value of recognizing common vulnerability. Do you agree or disagree? Explain.

"Not every demand of the poor and disempowered is legitimate simply because it is an expression of pain," says Waskow. "But can we open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it?" What is our responsibility for the pain of others? What if we've not directly caused it, yet participate in a situation that causes human misery-like buying the goods of a company that mistreats its workers?

"Getting Our Gaze Back" by Rose Marie Berger

What does Berger mean by "essential quality of Sabbath"? What is "holy dreaming"? Describe a current situation where you often feel overwhelmed or bombarded by information or chaos. Now describe a daydream or other activity that gives you the kind of "essential quality of Sabbath" that Berger experiences. What activity gives you back your clarity of vision?

"Fragile and Hidden" by Henri Nouwen

What connections do you see between Nouwen's essay and the focus on gaining strength through vulnerability in any of the previous readings, such as "The Sukkah of Shalom"? How can the fragility of Adam's life nurture Nouwen's hope?

Have you ever experienced hope at a time or place when you least expected it? Explain.

"There Is a Season" by Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer talks of being "swept away on an updraft of hope," then "swept away in a tidal wave of despair." Have you ever experienced this? In what situation? How do we keep our moorings in situations where our hopes are alternately raised and dashed?

Discuss the metaphor for life as one of seasons compared to one of manufacturing. Which do you prefer? To what extent do you think the metaphors we choose for life influence our perceptions? Our actions?

Through much of the essay, Palmer uses the metaphor of life as "a cycle of seasons." Summarize the gifts each season brings to his life. Can you extend the metaphor-that is, what other images or comparisons can you add for each season?

Describe a specific person or event from your own life that serves as a specific example of the gifts from one of the seasons Palmer describes.

Palmer calls abundance "a communal act." According to him, how is abundance created? How does the world of nature teach the human world this same principle?

What lessons does Palmer teach about keeping on for the long haul at working for change? What other lessons can we learn from the natural world?


"Celebration of the Human Voice" by Eduardo Galeano

Is it valuable to speak out even if you may never be heard? What happens to us when our voices are silenced?

What is Galeano saying about the human spirit? What is he saying about isolation vs. community?

Galeano concludes: ".every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others." As we listen to others, how do we discern authentic communication vs. empty rhetoric?

SECTION Four Introduction

What is the difference between "capitulatory imagination" and "rebellious imagination"?

How often have you heard the phrase "There is no alternative" used to explain-and justify-a troubling political choice or situation? Is there a link between loss of imagination and resignation? And between recapturing our imagination and being able to act?

"Childhood and Poetry" by Pablo Neruda

"To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know," Neruda writes, "widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things." What does Neruda suggest about how this power of affection shaped his life? How do we widen the boundaries of our being to really see the lives of those whose worlds are unfamiliar, hear their stories and begin to understand what they experience? How do we develop a a sense of human solidarity and connection with those we've never met?

Have you ever felt the kind of love Neruda is describing, an unexpected moment of generosity from a stranger? What opportunities do you have to extend it to others who you do not know?

Neruda talks of the need "to pass to the other some good things of life." As citizens in a community, what specific things should we pass on to others? How do we accomplish this?

"To Love the Marigold" by Susan Griffin

Griffin writes of the critical role of dreaming and imagination in working for change What distinguishes dreaming as escape, fine in its place, from dreaming that opens up new possibilities?

In the fourth paragraph of her essay, Griffin refers to the skyscraper before her as "an icon of an anonymous power, in whose shadow [she] feels powerless." What other icons of power do you see in American society today? Who or what created and maintains the power behind them? Who might feel powerless in the face of them? Why? Is it important for all citizens to feel empowered in their lives?

In paragraph five, Griffin contends that "there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics.." Do you agree/disagree? Explain. Why do you think there seems to be increasing distrust in politics today?

"To see what exists freshly and without prejudice clears the way for seeing what might exist in the future, or what is possible," Griffin writes. Do you agree? Given all we've been told and taught, what are some ways of learning to see the world with fresh eyes? Have you ever experienced something, heard a story, or seen an image that helped you do this?

"The camera's eyes," Griffin writes, "also catches a tender quality of innocence and hope, an expression one so seldom sees any longer even on the faces of any but the youngest children" Do we live in a time where innocence is scarce? Did we even before the 9/11 attacks? What do we lose by assuming a world where possibilities for common action are continually damped, all except for efforts geared toward making money? What's the difference between wishful thinking and genuine hope?

Griffin speaks of the failure of political dreams: How do we work for fundamental change when visions of grand social transformation have often have ended up in destructive betrayal? As Griffin writes, "Where once there were societies that served as models for a better future, grand plans, utopias, now there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics, a sense of powerlessness edging into nihilism." Are there other ways to view social change that acknowledge the limits of past alternatives, but still let us dream beyond the boundaries of the present?

How does imagination generate hope? Can we even imagine the image of Desnos reading people's palms in a concentration camp? If we can't translate wild hope directly into politics, can we use play and creativity to sustain our spirits? Can you think of a time when this has happened?

Griffin finds her answer to how Desnos keeps a sense of hope, his recognizing the "larger possibilities of life," by reading a line from one of his poems. Explain your understanding of the passage from the poem Griffin quotes.

Can you give an example of the paralysis of "realism?" What does Griffin mean when she says social movements are driven by imagination? How does a society cultivate imagination in its citizens, especially the young? What are some of society's greatest needs today that the power of imagination might help address?

Griffin concludes her essay with the imperative: "Let us begin to imagine the worlds we would like to inhabit, the long lives we will share, and the many futures in our hands." Identify one community of which you are a part, such as your dormitory, college campus, or hometown. Using your imagination, describe the community in terms of one you'd like to inhabit. What will have to occur in the present community in order to make these changes a reality? What role can you have in enacting change?

"Walking With the Wind" by John Lewis

Do you have core childhood memories that help you through difficult times? Or ones that hold you back and make you hesitate to act on your deepest beliefs?

Lewis asserts that in the 1960s, "people of conscience" never walked away from the weakest corner of the house; rather, they joined hands to strengthen the weak. Identify some of the "weakest corners" in society today and identify possible causes. Whose responsibility is it to strengthen the weaker corners of society? What responsibility, if any, do individual citizens have to the house as a whole?

Are the core myths of our society communal-about joining together-or individual, based on lone heroes? If the latter, does this make it harder to act together on larger concerns? How can we recover the stories that help us act in common?

We think of our families as bastions of love--or would like to. Can we extend the way we treat the bonds of common kinship and apply it to how our society should be run, or to how we could work for social change? In this context, what would it mean to treat all human beings as fellow children of God?

"Freedom Songs" by Rosemarie Freeney Harding. And "Rough Translation" by Toni Merosovich

Have you ever experienced a moment where music opened up new possibilities or carried you forward out of fear? How can we bring this sense into political movements? How can music give us the imaginative resources to keep on through pain and loss?

Identify a particular time of strife in American or world history. Research the role of music during that time. Find specific examples of song lyrics that offered hope for the oppressed, or inspired citizen movements to keep on acting.

Is there a song in your own life experience that gives you hope in times of trial or despair? Explain.

Today many communities and schools are experiencing cuts to music programs and other arts opportunities. Why is this happening? Do cuts to the arts matter? Explain; support your position with specific examples.

Is it hard to imagine a society where Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane are deemed so dangerous that merely to play them makes you suspect? Does this echo the suppression of the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia? What about the attacks on the Dixie Chicks for criticizing President Bush? Does this suggest that the US is closer to the oppressive societies we claim to oppose than we might prefer to believe?

Compare/contrast the role of music in the essays "Freedom Songs" and "Rough Translation."

"Jesus and Alinsky" by Walter Wink

Have you heard anything resembling Wink's reinterpretation of these classic parables? How do they mesh with your previous reading of the Bible? Do you see the parables of "Turn the Other Cheek " and "Go the Extra Mile" as supporting compliance or resistance?

What do you think of Wink's thesis that the more radical translations of Jesus were buried by court translators, in favor of ones that promoted docility and blind acceptance of authority? How does the religious tradition you've grown up with suggest we respond to the actions of our leaders? To question them? Or to assume they're doing God's will if they publicly manifest religious faith?

Did you know about the uprisings against the Romans and the laws that governed relationships between Roman occupiers and the Jews? If you saw the movie "The Passion," how is Wink offering a different portrayal of Jesus than Mel Gibson? Contrast the two.

How has the Bible been used to justify injustice in situations like slavery, segregation, or apartheid South Africa, as when the Southern Baptists and Presbyterians split off from their more abolitionist northern brethren? What do you know of this history?

How has the Bible been used to inspire people and maintain hope and spirit in freedom movements, like the role of the black churches in the American Civil Rights Movement and of South African leaders like Desmond Tutu? What do you know of this history?

Do you think that taking the message of Jesus seriously will lead one to engage in activism? How would that activism look compared to those who come to activism from other religious backgrounds? From no religious background? What values and convictions are shared among those who work for social justice from different cultural and religious backgrounds?

How do Wink's creative nonviolent resistance efforts parallel Griffin's call for radical creativity in approaching injustice?

Do Jesus and the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, seem appropriate linked together in this essay? Why or why not? What is the "new response" to futility and oppression that Wink discerns in both of their teachings and practices?

How could we apply the kinds of approaches Wink describes to our current time? How can we bring the imaginative-and even the outrageous-into political action, without feeding a culture of fear? Is there a clue in Wink's suggestion that we only pursue tactics that we would not mind others pursuing against us?

Wink describes three responses to injustice-violent resistance (or rage), passivity, and creative nonviolent resistance. Can you think of examples in your own life where you've faced an unjust situation? How did you respond? What lessons does Wink offer for creative responses in personal or political life?

How valuable is the practice of "turning the other cheek"? Do you think it does shame the powerful? Why do pacifists get criticized

for failure of courage... Doesn't turning the other cheek in fact require great courage?

Identify a current situation of corruption, deceit, or oppression with which you are familiar. Brainstorm possible strategies of creative resistance. Is the recent campaign by Evangelicals for Social Action for environmentally responsible cars, "What Would Jesus Drive," a good example? Research specific opportunities for creative political activism in your community.

"Stories from the Cha Cha Cha" by Vern Huffman

Did you know any of these stories? How do they mesh with the lessons of Griffin and Wink? What is the place for the wild and even the outrageous in successful social movements? How can we take radical or provocative stands without reinforcing a culture of fear?

"Do Not Go Gentle" by Sherman Alexie

What kind of hope does this story convey?

What does Alexie mean by "We were Indians, and didn't want to carry around too much hope. Hope eats your flesh like a spider bite." Can you hope for a given outcome too much? Can you find ways to act while letting go of the outcome? This was an intensely personal crisis, yet Alexie's character was hardly passive. Does Alexie's essay offer hope to the oppressed?

Alexie talks about being "deadly serious and deadly funny at the same time." Explain how powerful activism can be both.

"A father like a sick child," writes Alexie, "is an angry god." How can we take the fierceness with which we'd fight for our family and fight for the families of others?

"When you're hurting, it feels good to hurt someone else." Have you ever felt that? Have you ever acted on that? Did it ease the hurt?

What might the parents have been feeling when they beat on the drums with the Chocolate Thunder vibrator? Have you ever experienced this kind of mix of grief and hope?

How do Alexie and his wife draw strength from their native culture and tradition? Is it important to retain cultural heritage? Explain.

This is a wild story, maybe unsettling for some people. What was your response to A’s use of sexual humor? Did it seem unexpected in a book on political hope? Would Desmond Tutu have liked this story? What lessons does it convey about the links between imagination, faith and the possibility of miracles of hope?

"Despair Is A Lie We Tell Ourselves" by Tony Kushner

What does Kushner mean by calling despair a lie? How does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Can hope become a self- fulfilling prophecy as well?

Discuss your own experiences with activism and complacency. Do individual citizens in a society have a responsibility for activism? Think of examples in history or personal experience where complacency had a negative effect.

What's the relationship between our individual actions and the possibility of changing the world? "Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world," Kushner says, "but together in some kind of concert, in even-not-especially- coordinated concert, the world will change." Do you agree? What examples from previous essays support Kushner's argument?

At one point, Kushner tells us to turn off the computers and show up "at meetings and demos and rallies and leafletting corners." Since computers can be powerful political tools, what point is he making? At what point do we need to shut them off and engage face-to-face with our fellow human beings?

How do we cultivate a spirit of wild hope, like that in the Sherman Alexie's story or that of the man who drove the Range Rover through the shop window?


"To Be of Use" by Marge Piercy

When this poem first came out, in the early 1970's, copies were tacked to every activist bulletin board imaginable. What is it about "work that is real" that is so elusive in our society and so integral a goal in efforts at change?

Summarize the personal qualities of the people that Piercy loves best. Have you known someone who exhibits these traits? Describe the kind of work ethic you admire in others. Describe your own work ethic.

How does this poem have broader application to community? To the theme of hope?

In many parts of America today there is high unemployment or only minimum wage jobs. How important is work to individual citizens and society? Beyond financial compensation in wages and benefits, what else does work provide for people? What happens when decent paid work disappears? Research unemployment in your community, and groups that are working to reduce it.

SECTION Five Introduction:

What do you think of Mary Robinson's judgment that "You have to keep standing up even if it's hard. You have to be willing to pay the costs"?

Do you think Robinson was bullied by the Bush administration? Research and support your claim. Identify various strategies that those in positions of power might use to bully others, with less formal power. Does the book suggest ways ordinary citizens can respond to a politics of intimidation, whatever its source?

Have you ever spoken out on an issue you cared about to people you doubted would be receptive? Or stood up to bullying or intimidation? What was the response? What did it take to voice your perspective, and what did it feel like when you did?

How is silence contagious? How is courage? Why don't we stand up more often to actions we feel are unjust, whether in public or in personal life?

What do you think of Cesar Chavez's statement that "Every time a man or woman stands up for justice, the heavens sing and the world rejoices"?

Read the following quotes Then think of a personal example that supports the main point of the quote you've selected.

"People need the courage to stand up for what they believe." (Robinson)

".speak out in contexts in which some people disagree with [you,] possibly vehemently, because that's the only way social change takes place."

"Democracy isn't a spectator sport. It's government of the people and by the people-in other words, a political process that works only to the extent that we participate."

"Courage can be contagious."

"The heroic draw strength from the humble just as often as the humble do from the heroic."

This particular section introduction raises serious criticisms of the Bush administration and its political allies: that they forced Mary Robinson out of her UN job, manipulated voter lists to help gain power, shouted down Florida vote counters, and ran ads that portrayed opponents as unpatriotic. How many of these examples were you familiar with before you read the section?

Do you feel these examples raise legitimate problems? Explain. If you didn't know of these examples before, you might want to research them to get more information. For instance you can find the United States Civil Rights Commission report on Florida at You could also read about them using sources from conflicting political perspectives, for instance using the Google Tool Bar to compare stories on a liberal site like with a conservative one like Or go to international sources like and compare their coverage to that in the US press.

In fact, you could use this approach research whenever controversial material comes up in this book.

Whatever your party identification, do you think there is a line that our political leaders need to draw between legitimate partisan stands, and ones that value winning so much that they undercut basic democratic principles in the attempt to promote particular agendas? Is it ever acceptable for political leaders to move their political agendas forward at any cost? Think about the present and past administrations of the United States. Can you think of examples when this has happened? Has the Bush administration crossed this line of appropriateness? If so, in which ways? What is an appropriate response if you agree with this administration on selected issues, say abortion, but find some of their political tactics troubling?

How can we find the courage to raise difficult questions to fellow-citizens whose perspectives may differ passionately from ours? Have you had this experience, and if so, what was it like?

How important is it for a democratic society to encourage dissenting opinions? What's the cost when these opinions become marginalized or excluded from mainstream debate? Do you think enough dissenting opinions were heard before the Iraq war?

"The Small Work in the Great Work" by Victoria Stafford

What was your response to the young Native American woman's story? Could you imagine yourself taking any equivalent stand? What would hold you back? What would allow you to do this?

Safford talks about our souls blooming when we step into the sunlight of acting on our beliefs, on who we are. What does her essay suggest about vocation or calling?

Have you ever taken a difficult action and felt your spirit bloom?

"The small work in the Great Work" can be explained as "the place of your little life and love, daily days and earnest effort as a solitary person within the larger Life and larger Love.." Explain the "small work" you're doing within the Great Work. Is there a way to expand your efforts to make an even greater difference?

Safford describes ordinary people who have inspired her to act, to do good. Describe someone you know who has inspired you.

"In What Do I Place My Trust?" by Sister Rosalie Bertell

What is Bertell's main point about stories? Interview someone who has a "nourishing story" to tell, that is, a story to inspire, to instruct, to carry you forward.

Bertell writes about the importance of human connectedness: "We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes." How do we learn to act in causes whose full fruits may not bloom until long after we're gone?

Does Bertell's notion of connectedness and mutual dependency conflict with the common belief of American individualism? Explain.

Bertell is a long-time environmental activist. Brainstorm three environmental issues that affect you and your community. For one of the issues, research the issue and positions of key elected officials. What are the pros and cons of the issue? With which position do you agree or disagree the most? Why?

"Not Deterred" by Paxus Calta-Star

Have you ever been told that your hopes for change are unreasonable, and that you have to be "realistic?" Who defines what is realistic and what is not in terms of our common future?

Calta-Star says that "old gray-haired men with many initials after their names dominate discussion and policy making." Who dominates discussion and policy making in your immediate community? Whose voices are not being heard? How can you find a voice, like Polina, in order to be heard?

Research the central arguments for the use of renewable resources vs. nuclear power. Assess the importance of renewable resources in your own community. Rocky Mountain Institute, is one excellent resource.

"Rebellion Is What Build America" by Jim Hightower

Research one of the overlooked heroes of American labor mentioned by Hightower: Big Bill Haywood, Clara Lemlich, A. Philip Randolph, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, or John Lewis. Summarize their contributions to labor. How do their contributions affect you or others you know today?

Hightower contends that people who only seek their own gain isn't "the sum of the American soul, nor the center of it." Do you agree or disagree? Write a paragraph that summarizes what you see as the heart of the American soul. Or what it should be. Which version of the American soul do our elected officials promote?

How do you compare your interests in political activism to the images used by im Hightower, Tony Kushner, and Walter Wink--such as rebellion, protest,

acting up, and resistance? What work is necessary to convince other Americans that these practices are vital for the health of our democracy?

"Faith Works" by Jim Wallis

What does Wallis mean by "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change"? Do you agree?

Wallis describes the "rise of the consumer society." How satisfied are you with this direction? In what way do you support or resist pervasive consumerism? How do our religious institutions respond to this shift?

Do you think Wallis speaks only to Christians? Explain.

Discuss the appropriate role of faith as a political tool. How did his faith empower Desmond Tutu to tell the South African policemen that they were on the wrong side of God and history, and then invite them to join the winning side? How could we adapt Tutu's style of generous-spirited truth-telling to our own political climate?

"Composing a Life Story" by Mary Catherine Bateson

Bateson argues that creative lives are more zig zag than linear, and that following your instincts to explore different areas about which you care passionately is a useful strategy of life. Do you agree?

Tell about a problem you solved in the past. What skills/learning did you take from that situation? What skills and adaptive patterns from your past do you bring to new situations, such as leaving home to attend college for the first time?

Bateson asserts that women have long had to combine different areas of their lives into a difficult balancing act; men traditionally have been able to separate various aspects of their lives, though increasingly men are living with "multiple simultaneous demands." Do you agree or disagree? What is causing both women and men to live with increasing multiple simultaneous demands?

Summarize Bateson's three meanings for "composing a life." Which of the three does Bateson emphasize and why? Which of the three do you prefer and why? Do you think of your life as a linear narrative with clear goals, or as something you'll improvise along the way?

Bateson quotes someone who once said, "My life is like surfing, with one wave coming after another." What is a simile or metaphor for your life? Explain.

How do Bateson's arguments apply to sustaining long-term social activism?


"Imagine the Angels of Bread" by Martin Espada

Describe the tone of Espada's poem.

Identify the specific groups of oppressed or humiliated people on which the poem focuses. In part, this poem contrasts those who have power and those who don't, for example, the landlords and the homeless. List some other contrasting pairs of people with power and those who are powerless that you can think of.

What specific responsibilities and actions should be expected of those who hold positions of power or leadership?

Espada describes a reversal of roles---one aimed more at justice rather than vengeance. What's the difference between the two visions? Is it hard to imagine those on the bottom of our society being treated with dignity instead of contempt?

What thoughts or feelings were evoked in you after you read this poem?

SECTION Six Introduction.

Do you know the Serenity Prayer? Do you view it as encouragement to take on daunting challenges, to accept the world as it is, or both?

Were there facts in this book that surprised you or disturbed you? Can you give some examples?

Did you know, as Loeb's initial introduction pointed out, that 35,000 people died in record-setting recent European heat-waves? That Nixon threatened to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam? That the CIA helped overthrow an elected government in Chile, that this occurred on Sept 11, and that Sept 11 was also a key date in the Arab- Israeli conflict?

Did you know that 16,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes? What does it say about our society and our media that most of these deaths are preventable, yet we allow our leaders to do relatively little to address them? Or that the September 11 attacks captured the horrified attention of the world, while the deaths of these children, five times greater each day, are almost invisible?

Did you know that a majority of countries in the world opposed America's going to war in Iraq? Why do you think they did? If, as the 911 commission made clear, there were no significant ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, why have a majority of Americans until recently believed that such ties existed?

What's your response when you hear facts that may challenge your worldview? Do you dismiss them as liberal (or conservative) propaganda? Do you check them out further to make sure that they're true and to understand their contexts? Can you think of a way to leave yourself open to being changed while still remaining true to your core values?

Locate the websites for one of the following organizations noted for peace and justice efforts:, Win Without War, Working Assets, Sojourners, , Bread for the World, Amnesty International, Sierra Club, NAACP, or any other global or national peace organization. Find out what you can about their efforts, such as the organization's mission statement, main focus or area(s) of interest, goals, recent efforts for peace and justice, and other relevant information.

Is this a group whose work and values align with yours? Explain. Did you know about their work before? How often have you seen any of their spokespeople on the mainstream media? If you consider yourself a political conservative, do you share any common values or positions with the group you selected? If you agree with most of the group's positions, how could you support their efforts for peace and justice?

Explain the following quote: "Hope isn't an abstract theory about where human aspirations end and the impossible begins; it's a never-ending experiment, continually expanding the boundaries of the possible."

When you hear stories like a nuclear protest in Nevada inspiring a counterpart effort in the former Soviet Union, what does this suggest about how hope and courage can travel?

What are some specific ways in which you can stay informed about issues that affect you as a global citizen?

"Come September" by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy explains, "Whether there's hope or despair is a way of seeing. But even if there wasn't hope, I would still be doing what I do. Because that's what I do; that's who I am." Describe your "way of seeing" the world. What actions in your own life are a natural extension of who you are? What opportunities for involvement in your community are a good match for your interests and way of seeing the world?

How does Roy describe the dangers of nationalism? Do you agree? How do you distinguish an admirable patriotism that leads us to sacrifice for the common good from a blind patriotism that assumes that whatever country we live in is always right?

In her essay, Roy levels harsh criticism of elected leaders and their policies. When is it appropriate, and even essential, to criticize governmental policies and the specific elected leaders who enact them? What are the dangers of societies which make criticism of elected officials impermissible?

Roy also presents a particularly scathing indictment of U.S policies. Which of her charges seem justified? Do any seem unjustified? Even if you disagree with some of her charges, do you think her view speaks for the way many people in other nations the U.S.? What could be our most effective responses to these indictments?

Have you ever gotten involved with an effort to change a policy, local, national, or institutional (including a school policy)? What was the outcome?

Roy says that "To call someone 'anti-American'" is "a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you." What does she mean? Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Has economic greed played a role in promoting any of America's wars? How much of our Iraq policies have been shaped by its role as a key oil producer? Do we hold different standards for different repressive dictatorships? Explain.

in your opinion, what are defensible reasons for a country going to war? When it is directly attacked? When it feels threatened? When it the government of another country is doing something morally problematic, like oppressing or killing its own people? Do these reasons carry more weight when your country is joined by others and backed by international bodies, like the United Nations? What if the government that asks us in, as in the case of Obama's Afghan war, is itself compromised by serious credible evidence of electoral fraud?

Did you expect the Iraq war to cost as much as it has? Did you expect the current situation, or did you expect it to be over after the initial round of fighting? Were these possibilities adequately discussed before the war? If not, why do you think they weren't? Why do you think the Bush administration attacked the character and judgment of generals who warned that the war would be more costly and complicated than what we were being told?

Roy states, "The Task That Never Ends is America's perfect war, the perfect vehicle for the endless expansion of American imperialism." Do you agree/disagree with her statement? Explain. Explain Roy's definition of imperialism?

Roy states: ".'The American Way of Life' is simply not sustainable. Because it doesn't acknowledge that there is a world beyond America." Identify at least three specific strategies or opportunities for you to learn more about and participate in a world beyond America. Why is it important for people to look beyond their own borders, particularly in the most powerful nation on earth?

Roy's essay provides a sometimes painful look at many historical facts or events, the "grief of history," as Roy says. Which of these facts were new to you when you read this essay? How could you find out more about them and whether Roy's interpretation is correct?

Do schools and textbooks often include enough of the "grief of history" in their curriculum? If not, why not? Should education include more? Explain your position.

How often do voices expressing "the grief of history" appear in the mainstream media? Which voices tend to be heard? How should this change? If you go to a liberal website like or which perspectives and voices do you hear that you don't in the mainstream media? What about if you go to a conservative site, like that of the Heritage Foundation or that of Pat Buchanan's magazine, The American Conservative? Describe the boundaries of which issues and perspectives seem to get covered in the press and which don't.

"The Black Hole" by Ariel Dorfman

Did you know about Allende and the Chilean coup before reading this essay, or the others in this section? If not, would you call this a case of hiding "the grief of history" when it raises discomforting questions?

Dorfman describes the message about the lack of human worth communicated to the Chilean people as "...subhuman, incompetent, inferior, worthless, lazy.." Are there people in America who are told this about their lives? How much is the American Dream based on "each person scratching his way to the top, where, if he was lucky or ruthless enough, he could then become the exploiter of his brothers."

What does it mean for people to tell "their own lives in their own way" rather than live under "the shadow of somebody else's story"? Which stories dominate US culture?

How did Allende's version of socialism differ from the brutal dictatorships of Eastern Europe? What lesson did it teach when the United States overthrows governments which play by the rules of democracy? Do our threats again leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela echo the threats against Allende?

Does any country have the right to overthrow the government of another? Under what circumstances? Would it ever be acceptable for another country to try to overthrow the US government? Explain.

Research how many governments the US has overthrown or helped over throw since the end of World War II. How often did our efforts bring democracy to a dictatorship? How often did our efforts change a dictatorship into a democracy? How often did we replace one dictatorship with another? See William Blum's book, Killing Hope, for some recent examples, and William Appleman Williams books The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, or A William Appleman Williams Reader, for an examination of our deep-rooted tendencies to intervene in other nations destinies.

Dorfman describes how Pinochet disciplined the factory worker Juan and his companeros for "an act of the imagination." Does this mean people should not dream of justice or act for justice because this might bring retribution? Explain.

Dorfman would like to tell "the young man he used to be" some of the lessons he learned. List some lessons he would tell "that young man" differently. What is the one thing he says he will not tell him?

In many ways this essay is a discussion of crushed hopes and justice unredeemed. It describes a world where, as Dorfman writes, Salvador Allende is dead and the dictator Augusto Pinochet is alive and free. Yet it is also a piece about the persistence of hope. Dorfman seems to still find strength from memories of those first days when it seemed like everything could change. Do the hopes he felt seem impossible to you? How does our hope differ if we've never lived through such moments? How can we even begin imagining far-reaching changes if we're told that we have no right to even open up these questions?

The Chilean woman who was tortured found comfort in the words of Neruda and Machado, although she does not cite specific poems. Look back at the poems "Childhood and Poetry" by Neruda and "Last Night As I Was Sleeping" by Machado. How might these particular poems have brought comfort in the middle of a living Hell?

Dorfman concludes the essay by defending both the woman's "right to struggle and our obligation to remember." What does he mean that struggle is "a right"? Why is it our obligation as citizens to remember those who struggled before us? How can we learn this history if we've not been taught it before?

"Hope for Human Rights" by Kenneth Roth

From Roth's perspective, what is the key to hope?

How are all citizens of the world affected when human rights violations occur half way around the world?

The title of Roth's essay is "Hope for Human Rights." Why does Roth remain hopeful in the face of atrocities.

Go to the Human Rights Watch website at List at least three things you learned or surprised you, or points that raised questions for you. Discuss your findings with others.

"The Green Dream" by Mark Hertsgaard

In your own words, explain the difference Hertsgaard sees between optimism and hope.

How does Hertsgaard link the environment and the fight against terrorism? Do you agree with his argument? Explain.

Were you surprised that people in countries with extremely undeveloped economies had a sense of global economic crises? Is this a hopeful sign?

Summarize Hertsgaard's proposal, "Global Green Deal." Who/what would oppose this proposal and why? What new kinds of coalitions might support it? Do you know about the New Apollo Project, which creates a similar kind of effort here at home. What do you think of the project after going to its website, Do you agree with Hertsgaard's proposal? Explain. How do Bush and Kerry stand on these kinds of projects?

According to Hertsgaard, "Fighters for a better world must do what is right, must act, and let the consequences take care of themselves." Identify at least three specific opportunities, whether large or small, for you to become a "fighter for a better world" right now. What might be the consequences of your involvement and actions? What does it mean to let consequences take care of themselves?

strong>"Curitiba" by Bill McKibben

Several essays in this anthology celebrate the power of human imagination. Cite examples where you see the power of imagination at work in the city of Curitiba. How did the government of Curitiba blend the imaginative and the practical?

Would you like to live in Curitiba? Explain. What are some of the challenges U.S. cities face that are similar to the challenges Curitiba faced? Is a city like Curitiba possible in the United States? Why or why not?
Why is Curitiba's approach to low income housing successful?

What about its transportation approaches? What does it do to a city to replace public transit with private cars or private cars with public transit? How could you make more environmentally sustainable options available where you live?

McKibben cites "integration" as one of the mantras of Curitiba, meaning the "knitting together [of] the entire city-rich, poor, and in-between-culturally and economically and physically." How realistic is this definition of integration in the city or town in which you live? What barriers stand in the way of this understanding of integration in your city or town? Brainstorm imaginative solutions as Curitiba has done to at least one of the barriers you have identified.

Did it surprise you that a poor city could come up with solutions that rich cities and countries had not even tried? How does our affluence sometimes create blinders on our vision?


"Natural Resources" by Adrienne Rich

Identify a way that you, too, might "reconstitute the world" in which you live.

"How Have You Spent Your Life?" by Jalaluddin Rumi

This poem was written in the thirteenth century. Are the poem's central ideas more applicable or less applicable today? Explain.

Rumi writes the poem as if God were posing questions to the reader. Is this an effective poetic strategy for you as reader? Why or why not?

Imagine God is asking YOU the questions from the poem "How Have You Spent Your Life?" Answer one of the questions God asks you in the poem; support your response with specific examples from personal experiences.

SECTION Seven Introduction:

Do you agree that hope, as Tony Kushner put it, is a moral obligation? What's the difference between naive hope and hope that's grounded in history?

Do secular and religious activists differ in their views of social commitment and the reasons for persistence? If so how? You could also interview activists in both category, perhaps even those working on the same side of the same issue-like those working to end our Iraq war.

Do you agree with the letter writer who suggested that in the aftermath of Sept 11, true patriots should go out and buy a sofa?

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King

What is the central thesis of the excerpt from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

Explain what King meant when he said: "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." Think of an example in your own life that supports King's point.

Explain what King means by the "myth of time" when he says he hoped that "the white moderate would reject the myth of time." Explain situation(s) in which this point is still applicable today. Take a current situation where don't act because they believe it will simply be addressed in time, and instead discuss possible courses of action that can and should be taken today.

More than forty years ago, Martin Luther King wrote that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Is this statement true for today's generation as well? Explain. Identify situations and issues of today that people should be discussing more, but where too many are remaining silent. List at least three examples.

The original audience for King's letter was white Christian ministers. What gives the letter it's broader appeal? Did the letter speak to you, and if so how?

"The Real Rosa Parks" by Paul Rogat Loeb

Explain in your own words why the retelling of the Rosa Parks story as most know it may actually make it harder for ordinary citizens to get involved in issues of social change? Did you know the real story before reading this book or Loeb's other work? How does knowing the real story shift your view of social change?

What is the empowering moral of the Rosa Parks story? What does that moral suggest to you about your own involvement and/or responsibility for social change?

Do you agree or disagree that Parks's first action in going to a NAACP meeting was just as pivotal as her stand on the bus? Would one have happened without the other?

Had you heard of Highlander Center/Highlander Folk School? If not, what does it say about our education that such an important institution is omitted from our history?

Select 1-2 favorite quotes from this essay. Why are these quotes important to you?

Who are some of the models of social commitment you have known in your life? If you can't think of anyone right now, look back at the essays in this anthology; and identify 2-3 people you would like to remember as models of social commitment.

Interview someone who is a model of social commitment (or read more about someone you've identified from this anthology) in order to find out additional information about the daily struggles that they faced and how they kept on going.

Research one of the following historical efforts at change: the American union movement; the movement that brought us Social Security; the women's suffrage movement; the origin of the 40 hour week; the environmental movement. Through your research, identify a person often associated with the movement who often has been overlooked, but serves as a model of social commitment.

"Prisoners of Hope" by Cornel West

In the opening paragraph, West asserts that the divide between the haves and have-nots of this nation is widening. Find at least three facts or statistics through additional research that West could have used as support for his assertions.

Explain what is meant by the Biblical quote: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" List any books, poems, songs, or movies that continue to explore this question today.

Summarize what Cornel West is saying about rage and its need to have some kind of constructive channel. Do you agree/disagree? Explain.

What does it mean to ask that our leaders "Make it real"? In this time of deep political division, how can we distinguish empty rhetoric from real vision?

West asserts that "a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it." What are some ways you've already contributed toward making the world a better place by your words or actions? What are two of your long term goals for doing this? (Remember "the real Rosa Parks" story-actions for social change often have small beginnings.)

In his essay West refers to past struggles for Black Americans, yet still offers a sense of courage and hope: "Our courage rests on a deep democratic vision of a better world that lures us and a blood-drenched hope that sustains us." What does he mean that a "blood-drenched hope" sustains them?

In your own words, describe West's perspective on the difference between optimism and hope.

"Behemoth in a Bathrobe" by Carla Seaquist

The voice of conscience describes Americans as having a "can-do" spirit, then gives man on the moon as an example. Provide additional examples of American can-do spirit.

Do you agree/disagree that reality tv shows "exalt humiliation, violence, sex-a tawdry reality to convey to our kids." Support with specific examples. What would it take for people to pay as much attention to the big issues of our time as they do to J Lo or Survivor?

The voice of conscience suggests we "question the use of labels-'good,' 'evil.'" How can we hold people or institutions accountable for destructive behavior without resorting to simplistic labels?

Explain how people can be manipulated by fear. In this time of fear for many as a result of 9/11, what can help Americans guard against being manipulated?

"Road to Redemption" by Billy Wayne Sinclair

Sinclair describes his decision to do the right thing in order to maintain his self-respect based on the moral framework he had developed. Describe a time when you were faced with a similar decision to "do the right thing." What did you decide? What factors helped you decide one way or another? If you had the opportunity to make the same decision again, would it be the same? Explain.

Could you imagine taking a stand like Sinclair's, knowing that it might leave you spending the rest of your life in jail? What kind of moral courage would it take? Is it surprising that this courage developed in someone who once was a destructive criminal?

What do you think gave Sinclair his core strength? Did it come on suddenly, or did it build as he took different risks of courage?

What role did personal loyalties play in his conversion?

Based on Sinclair's story, what do you think makes the difference between situations that give criminals a chance to be redeemed, and ones that make more likely that they'll continue with a life of crime?

[By the way, Billy Wayne Sinclair was finally released in 2009, and now lives with his wife in Houston, but his courageous actions still cost him years in jail]

"Resisting Terror" by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall

Did you know the story of the Rosenstrasse Jews? Or the Mothers of the Disappeared? Why don't we learn about these immensely hopeful stories?

What do these stories say about how some people manage to act even among the most extreme and intimidating circumstances-such as the threat of being shot by the Nazis? Do they suggest lessons for us to take the risk of courageous actions in circumstances where the consequences are often no more than having to deal with someone disagreeing with us? Why don't we act when we have far more freedoms and latitude?

Hitler's regime "largely managed to keep the genocide against the Jews a secret," thereby avoiding domestic opposition. When decisions or policies are cloaked in secrecy, why is this a danger to all citizens? How open is the decision making process in America's government today? Who or what influences how decisions and policies are made? How important is it that ordinary citizens are part of the decision making process and that they are kept informed, particularly about actions of state that may be morally problematic? List ways in which ordinary citizens like you can make their voices heard.

Azucenda de Villaflor de De Vincente was an "ordinary homemaker, never looking outward until 1976.." What is meant by the phrase, "never looking outward"? Do you mostly look outward or inward?

De Vincente became an activist after her son and daughter-in-law disappeared. What allows people to act if they haven't been directly touched by oppression or tragedy? Is it a sense of feeling someone's story, whether or not you know them personally? Interview someone working in a group like Amnesty International who acts even though they may never directly know the people they work to save.

How important is it for ordinary citizens to look outward and become activists before they're challenged to do by tragic events?

To what extent do you feel you look outward and/or consider yourself an activist? What would help you look outward on a more consistent basis and/or become more of an activist?

The essay describes stories of oppression in both Berlin and Buenos Aires, where the power of women to initiate change was underestimated. What skills, traits, or attributes did the women bring to those situations of oppression that helped initiate change? Do you think the power of women to initiate change is underestimated today? Explain.

Research other examples of nonviolent resistance, like the others in Ackerm and DuVall's book. Or the Peaceful Revolution in Leipzig, Germany that contributed to German reunification. How do these stories support the thesis of the essay?

Are there lessons from "Resisting Terror" about how to deal with brutal regimes like Saddam Hussein's? You could look up DuVall's Iraq-related essays on the internet for his perspective. Explain whether you agree or disagree.

Whatever one thinks about the possibilities of nonviolent resistance, what do these essays say about the possibilities of human courage and hope?


"Origami Emotion" by Elizabeth Barrette

Barrette's metaphor for hope is a paper crane. Think of your own metaphor or simile for hope. Consider writing an original poem about hope, employing your metaphor.

Do you know the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes? If not, you might want to research it briefly on the Internet and reflect on why its metaphor now touches people worldwide.

From "The New York Poem" by Sam Hamill

Hamill wrote his poem in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Did any poems or pieces of art or literature help you reflect on those horrible moments, or give them useful context?

Do you understand the phrases "get up and sing" and "get up and dance again" to be literal or figurative expressions, or both? Explain. If you don't actually sing and dance in the face of overwhelming sadness or fear, what do you do in order to conquer the emotion and continue moving your life forward? Describe a time in your own life situation when you felt sadness or fear, yet you found the strength within you to go forward. In the poem's final line, Hamill writes, ".if I don't.the savages will win." What do we run the risk of losing if we don't stay true to our soul in the face of sadness, despair, or defeat?

SECTION Eight Introduction

What is it that keeps us working for change even when results seem elusive or when we hit frustration? How much is it a sense of our own dignity?

How do we balance the importance of immediate results and long-term persistence? Are there times when you have to keep on even if you see no fruits from your efforts? How does this link to stories like those of Nixon changing his mind on his nuclear threat because of a demonstration he publicly spurned, and Dr Benjamin Spock becoming involved because of a seemingly fruitless demonstration he witnessed?

Loeb makes a distinction between impatient hope and a deeper, far-seeing kind of hope. What are the defining characteristics of each kind of hope? List specific strategies or practices that would help you develop the resilient kind of hope Loeb and his authors describe.

Loeb again highlights the importance of community over isolation. How does community help sustain deep, far-seeing hope in individuals? What's the difference between feeling isolated and feeling supported? Does our society try to make social justice activists feel isolated?

"Staying the Cours by Mary-Wynne Ashford

Is the metaphor of rolling a rock up the hill a useful one? How do we know when we're making progress?

Have you ever done something just because it seemed it was right to do, even if you weren't sure you'd get the outcome you desired?

Has anyone ever tried to make you feel isolated for a stand you're taking, perhaps using the phrase "no one else has a problem"?

Ashford describes almost paralyzing despair over planetary crises such as ozone depletion and deforestation. Are there global or national issues that evoke in you a similar type of despair or fear? What does Ashford do in the face of her despair? What lessons from her essay can help you with your own feelings of despair?

Ashford asserts, "The planetary crises raise existential and spiritual questions we are usually able to avoid in our affluent society." How does being an affluent society allow us to avoid difficult questions? Do Third World nations have the same opportunities for denial on areas like deforestation or water pollution? Explain.

What does it mean to "stay the course"? Use examples from the essay to help explain. Do you have personal examples of "staying the course" related to being true to your own conviction?

Explain what is meant by the Quaker phrase, "Speaking truth to power." How does it balance passion, courage, and commitment, along with a truth that's based on knowledge and accurate information?

Identify a pressing societal issue today that concerns you. Research the issue in order to give yourself background that will help you "speak the truth to power."

Ashford states that "breaking the silence is the most significant thing we can do as individuals." Make a plan to tell someone else about the issue you've researched. Explain your interest in the issue and what you learned. Develop a course of action to help "push the rock up the hill," if only a little way.

>"The Elm Dance" by Joanna Macy

Can you imagine a situation where you could no longer walk in a forest that had long sustained you and your community? What does it do to us when we kill the natural world?

Why did the Novozybkov residents bury their pain for so long? Have you been in a situation where something terrible has happened or is happening and people don't talk about it? Can you think of some examples of difficult questions that our society buries?

What happened when the residents began to talk about their pain? Why was it freeing? What is the gain and the hope in talking about the most difficult questions for a family, a community, a society?

Why can it help us to let our hearts break open? What's the link between this essay and Art Waskow's talk of the value of vulnerability in "The Sukkoth of Shalom."

Did you know about the Chernobyl disaster? Research additional information about it. Why should others care about the disaster, especially since the event occurred nearly twenty years ago half way around the world?

One strategy for healing the past for the citizens of Novozybkov was to strength their "cultural immune system." Through tradition and memories participants remembered who they were and remembered their sources of strength. The Elm Dance song built on the traditions of different cultures. Can you think of how culture here can be used to give people courage?

Describe a family or community tradition that is important to you. How does this tradition serve as a source of strength for you? Describe some of your sources of strength? Is it important to preserve cultural traditions? Why or why not?

What did Macy mean when she explained the history of the Elm Dance and said: "They [the German people] gave their children everything-except one thing. They did not give them their broken hearts. And their children have never forgiven them." Do you agree/disagree that a society should give its children everything, including their broken hearts? Apply Macy's point to a situation today such as "9/11" or another devastating occurrence.

From "Hopeing Against Hope" by Nedezhda Mandelstam

Mandelstam explains how "fear and hope are bound up with each other." Explain this relationship in your own words.

"Fear is a gleam of hope, the will to live, self-assertion. It is a deeply European feeling, nurtured on self-respect, the sense of one's own worth, rights, needs and desires." Explain how this feeling is, in particular, "a deeply European feeling." Would you say this is a deeply American feeling, too? Explain.

Reread "Celebration of the Human Voice" by Eduardo Galeano in Section III of this book. What do you think Galeano would say to Mandelstam about her decision to scream rather than to remain silent? Why? Explain how "silence is a real crime against humanity." Identify issues today that need a voice, perhaps even a scream.

"The Inevitability Trap" by K.C. Golden

In your own words, summarize "the inevitability trap." Think about your own views on crucial environmental issues. Do you find yourself falling into "the inevitability trap" on issues like global climate change? Is there a way to get out of this pattern?

What is self-fulfilling prophecy? If possible, provide an example from your own life when you experienced this. Explain how it can work either positively or negatively. What's the relationship between self-fulfilling prophecies and outlooks that breed political hope or despair?

"You Have to Pick Your Team" by Sonya Vetra Tinsley, as told to Paul Rogat Loeb Review some of your favorite essays from The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Choose 2-3 people from these essays whose team you'd like to be on. Explain why.

Think of someone in your own life that has served as a mentor or role model for social commitment. What traits or characteristics make this person an important mentor for you?

Tinsley says we won't know till the end of history who's right, the cynics or the people with hope, so we might was well join the team of the people with hope. Do you agree?

"From Hope to Hopelessness" by Margaret Wheatley

"As the world grows ever darker," Wheatley wonders: ".how might [she] contribute to reversing this descent into fear and sorry, to help restore hope to the future." How would you answer this question?

Part of Wheatley's response to the increasing grief, suffering, aggression, and violence she sees all around her is to journey into hopelessness. After exploring hopelessness through the experiences of others, how does hopelessness actually sustain Wheatley?

What do you think of her judgment that "we don't need specific outcomes. We need each other"?

Have you ever acted on something even when you felt hopeless in terms of prevailing? What was that experience like?


"Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou

This poem has a number of images that reflect efforts to humiliate someone, yet it embodies a powerful assertion of dignity. How do the words exemplify the book's over-arching theme of hope?

Does the poem's message speak only to the African American experience, or is it applicable to other situations where people treat their fellow human beings with disrespect and contempt. Explain.

Section Nine: Introduction

In the face of ever-increasing global problems in this world, activists can easily experience a sense of rage and bitterness. Have you ever felt "pickled in horrors"? How did you respond to this overload? What brought you out of it.

What do you think was going on when the African American police officer stepped aside in response to Rachel Bagby's song? Describe the hope in this moment.

Dostoyevsky once wrote, "Each one of us is responsible to all others for everything." Do you agree or disagree with this perspective? Explain. If you agree, how is this possible? List specific ways you can carry out your responsibilities "to all others for everything."

"Only Justice Can Stop a Curse" by Alice Walker

Have you ever experienced the mind-state Alice Walker describes, where you decide that humans have messed up the world so profoundly, that maybe we're just doomed to extinction? How did you get past it?

What is your reaction to the curse-prayer at the beginning of the Walker essay? Have you felt this kind of anger and bitterness toward an enemy? Were you able to channel your anger in positive ways? If so, how?

Walker states that although she has been an activist all her adult life, she sometimes has felt embarrassed to call herself one. What defines an "activist" in your opinion? Compare definitions with others. Would you be embarrassed to call yourself an activist? Why or why not?

Can you conceive of Walker's interracial marriage being illegal, and the laws prohibiting it being justified by mainstream institutions, like most of the southern churches? Does this have any relevance to contemporary debates, for instance on gay marriage?

What is the tragedy of the world that Walker refers to?

Walker concludes her essay by recalling the story of "blond Paul from Minnesota" from her voter-registration work in the deep South. What is the point of this story-that is, what did she learn from that experience that is a part of who she is today? Have there been people you've dismissed who've surprised you with their courage or vision?

Walker renews her soul by remembering " fresh peaches and the courage of `people at their best, reaching toward their fullness'" in order to expand her spirit and make her feel larger than her rage. Have you ever been brought out of feelings of bitterness by savoring the fruits of the world? How does this parallel the Desmond Tutu story that Loeb tells in the book's introduction?

How do our small stones of activism add up to build an edifice of hope?

Explain the quote: "All we own, at least for the short time we have it, is our life. With it we write what we come to know of the world." How would you write a more just world with your life?

"The Clan of One-Breasted Women" by Terry Tempest Williams

Did you know about the nuclear testing of the 50's? Did it surprise you that our government knowingly exposed our population to these risks?

Compare the Tempest Williams essay to Joanna Macy's "The Elm Tree Dance" in Section VIII. How is your understanding of the Macy essay affected after reading the Tempest Williams piece?

Review the essay to identify some element about which you would like to know more information, and research it; for example, Operation Plumbbob, McCarthyism, Eisenhower's Cold War policies, nuclear testing today, the Atomic Energy Commission, etc. Share your findings with others in the class. Did you find out anything that surprised you? Explain.

Has anyone told you "just let it go" about an injustice you later regretted not acting upon?

Tempest Williams asserts, "Tolerating blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives." Explain what she means. Do you agree/disagree? Do you see examples of this today? Explain.

What did the women mean when they talked of reclaiming the desert for their children?

When she is handcuffed, the officer finds a pen and pad of paper, which Tempest Williams says are weapons. Explain how a pen and a pad of paper can serve as political weapons.

How does the dream portion of the essay contribute to its overall meaning?

The Tempest Williams essay includes a number of references to the deaths of women the author has loved. The essay also expresses anger toward the nuclear testing that almost certainly destroyed their lives. So where is the theme of hope? Why do you think so many activists passed this essay around when it first came out? Why does Loeb consider Tempest Williams such a powerful voice?

"Next Year in Mas'Ha" by Starhawk

When Starhawk describes the settlement residents who could be her aunts and uncles, explain the tug of loyalty she feels. Have you ever tried to question the actions of a group in which you were raised?

What do you know about the history of the Israeli West Bank settlements? About the life and death of Rachel Corrie? About the nonviolent resistance efforts she was part of? Have you ever seen a map of the Israeli settlements? Americans for Peace Now, the US counterpart of the major Israeli peace group, has a map on their website, If you visit it, does it surprise you to see the extent of the settlements compared to the core West Bank population centers?

Starhawk describes the stark contrast of two realities, the California-like homes of Elcanah and the zone of destruction beyond the wall. Does this kind of "two realities" exist in America as well? Explain. What are some of the root causes of two realities within the United States?

What is the "slight sweet hint of hope" that Starhawk tastes in a situation that might seem unimaginably grim? How does it connect with the book's theme of the power of generosity?

What would it mean, in our own situation, to open our hearts to the children of the enemy and ask for help?

Why does Starhawk close with "Next year in Mas'Ha"?

"The Gruntwork of Peace" by Amos Oz

Where would Oz and Starhawk likely find agreement despite some of their obvious differences? What is the over-arching theme for the two essays?

Were you surprised by the span of people that participated in the discussions on the peace plan-Israeli generals and Mossad officials, and long-jailed Palestinian leaders, including leaders of guerrilla groups? How they were able to overcome the history of bloodshed on both sides, in which many had participated? What do you think they had to let go of to come to the place where they could even talk? How did each side give up part of its identity?

What do Starhawk's and Oz's essays suggest about the possibilities for peacemaking in very conflicted political situations? Do you think it necessary to get to know the other side face-to-face as people? How can that approach be applied to conflicts in our country, or our everyday lives?

Have you ever had a conversation where you listened deeply to someone you'd once profoundly disagreed with? What happened?

As an exercise, talk or write about what you have in common, for good or ill, with a political figure with whom you strongly disagree, ie George Bush if you voted against him, or a prominent Democrat if you voted for Bush.

How did the metaphor of a "long-married couple in their divorce attorney's waiting room" after 36 years of intimacy help you better understand the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians?

In the introduction to this section, Loeb writes, "But if we're willing to do the moral and spiritual gruntwork and take the necessary leaps of courage, we can slow down, interrupt, and even sometimes halt the seemingly intractable destructive cycles." What is Oz saying about the "gruntwork" of peace efforts? Is gruntwork a necessary part of any successful activism? Explain, drawing from specific examples from this book, your own experience, and any other books or stories that seem relevant.

"No Future without Forgiveness" by Desmond Tutu

How familiar were you with the genocide in Rwanda before reading Tutu's essay? If you didn't know about it, why do you think you didn't?

Why do you think the Rwandans listened to Desmond Tutu? Just because he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Or was there something in the South African experience that made them take him seriously as a messenger of hope?

Reread "The New York Poem" at the beginning of Section Seven. What connection do you see between the poem and the rally at the main stadium of Kigali?

What is the difference between "retributive justice" and "restorative justice," which Tutu encouraged? How do we break endless cycles of vengeance? Does Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission give us some clues? What elements must be included?

Summarize what much of the world anticipated would occur in South Africa after a democratically elected government was in place. Why is it surprising that the black South Africans did not simply turn the tables on the whites who had oppressed them? Why did the black majority choose restorative justice rather than retributive justice? How can restorative justice apply to social conflicts in the U.S., and to our everyday lives?

Tutu believes that "it was courageous leaders who gave the sides hope that negotiations could lead to a good outcome," and applauds De Klerk and Mandela for their leadership. What qualities did both embody in the process of moving toward democracy? Are there lessons for our own leaders, faced with difficult situations?

Where do you think Tutu gets his hope? Think back to this book's introduction, and to Jim Wallis's story of Tutu inviting the South African police officers to join the winning side.

What does Tutu mean by "God has a sense of humor." How does this compare with Howard Zinn's "The Optimism of Uncertainty?"

Why is the Tutu essay a fitting conclusion for this anthology?

Do you agree that "Only justice can stop a curse?" What's the relationship between this concept and Tutu's notion of forgiveness?


It seems that everywhere we turn, we find people in despair. There is suffering in the world, and in our daily lives; there are tragedies in the news and wars on the front page. But amidst all of this, there are inspiring stories, there is hope, and I don't mean "little puppies rescued from the well" stories and hope, I mean tremendous acts of personal and cultural courage. Look at the demonstrations in former Soviet lands this year alone -- immense success has been achieved for democracy, for justice, for human rights. It is my intention that the Loeb book bring some of this home to you. Think over the authors' essays you have read. Review Ch. 43, "You Have to Pick Your Team," and then write an essay about which of these authors (at least one) you would "pick for your team" and why (their attitude, the issue they care about, their personal stories, etc).

Based on your reading of this anthology, how do the following elements contribute to creating and sustaining a sense of hope in a culture of fear?

  • A sense of history
  • An ability to see options and ways to act
  • The natural world
  • Creativity and the arts
  • A sense of humor
  • A sense of spiritual connection

Are there other themes that you found gave you hope?

What specific works would you draw on to help explain your response?

A possible paper topic:

We have read extensively about "hope" in The Impossible. Explain what hope means to you in dialogue with the course. Here are three clusters of questions to consider-you don't have to address every single sub-question.

(a) How is hope different from optimism? Is some vision of utopia necessary, even if it is never achieved in this world? How do people coming from religious and secular traditions differ or converge in their views of hope?

(b) What is the social context for hope? Do you agree with various diagnoses of the problem in The Impossible? How can people who feel vulnerable and powerless increase their sense of hope? Why is collective action necessary-or is it?

(c) What are the political implications of hope? What issues and trends in society most challenge your sense of hope? How can specific groups of people, like groups you are part of, make a difference on a specific issue that some see as hopeless?

Has this book moved you closer to working for justice? If so, how?

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