The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Classroom and Discussion Questions
Here are some classroom study questions that have worked well for teachers throughout the country while assigning The Impossible. Soul of a Citizen has its own separate study questions. Faculty have said they're very useful to adapt and select from while assigning the book. I'm continually honing and revising them, so if you develop other questions or instructional materials or undertake service learning projects that would seem worth sharing with other schools, please send them to me.
Here are section-by-section questions
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
Overview questions--after students have read the book
Special questions for writing, composition, and rhetoric teachers
One note: Most faculty assign the entire book and it works very well because the pieces are well written enough, so students don't get bogged down. But if reading time is scarce, you can always assign selected sections or pieces or give students a choice within each section category. In case it's useful, here's an annotated Table of Contents describing each piece.
What stops us from acting on issues we care about? Have there been issues, small or large, where you've wanted to take a stand, but didn't? Why do you think you didn't?
If there were issues where you have taken a stand, what got you involved? How did the experience change you?
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 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"?
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 know that some of the Eastern European revolutions started with the defense of a rock band? 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?
Did you know there were photos of lynchings that spectators circulated to their friends? What does that say about that time? Are there any current analogues?
How do we know when an action matters? Do the stories Paul tells of his friend Lisa suggest that the major impact of much of what we do may be hidden or delayed? 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?
Were you surprised at Paul’s experience getting out the vote in 2004—that a statewide election could be decided by 133 votes? Why do you think he spends Election Day volunteering when most other people choose not to? Does this make you more likely to vote in elections where you’re eligible, or to volunteer? Did you vote in the last election if you were eligible? If you were eligible, why or why not?
Have you been involved as a volunteer in any local, state, or national electoral campaigns, on any 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 make an impact?
Do you get revived by a connection with the natural world? What lessons does this connection give in terms of working for its preservation?
Have you been surprised at the shifts in responses to gay marriage? Whether you agree with it or not, why do you think they’ve happened?
Why do you think the Tea Party was so effective at changing the national dialogue in 2010? Are there lessons for other citizen movements of similar or different political perspectives?
Were you surprised that the Tea Party and Sierra Club could work together in Georgia? Can you research or think of other examples of unexpected political alliances?
Do you feel you can do anything about climate change? Have you tried to do anything, large or small? How did those actions make you feel?
Did you know that Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy and that he in turn influenced the American civil rights movement? Can you think of other examples of historical chains of influence? Read Henry David Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience online and write about how he's influenced global movements for democracy justice.
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."
- "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."
- “Simply pushing the rock in the right direction is cause for celebration.”
- "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.
SECTION ONE: SEEDS OF THE POSSIBLE
"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?
"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?
"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 the lives of the children Kozol describes? 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.
"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, or a kid who looks headed to be part of a gang, 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?
Did you know the U.S. ranked so poorly in areas like preventing infant mortality, the percent of children living in poverty, the number of teenage births and the number of children lost to gun violence? Did you know that one in five U.S. children are poor? What could be done to address this?
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?
“You are Brilliant and the Earth is Hiring” by Paul Hawken
From what you can tell, including by talking with your parents, are environmental problems worse or better than when your parents were your age? Who is responsible for the changes?
Ask your parents or older people in your community whether they've noticed impacts on the local habitat/ecosystem from climate change, like if they're hunters or fishermen or spend lots of outdoors outdoors. Do plants bloom at different times. Do wild animals have different pattenrs. Is there less snow or more or less rain. What do they notice? See this link to some terrific regional maps from the National Climate Assessment report. And follow this link to see how hot your city is projected to be by 2100 if we continue on our current course.
Since you can’t work directly for the Earth as a prospective employee, what do you think Hawken means by saying “the Earth is Hiring”? How might you apply his call to your prospective career paths? Are there things you can do now, while in school to respond to his call, or to prepare yourself to respond down the line?
Do you ever look at the stars at night? Do you ever experience a sense of awe at nature? Does that experience give you anything useful for tackling the problems of the world? Explain. When Hawken writes that instead of recruiting limos, the earth sends you “rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine,” compare that to what keeps Desmond Tutu going.
What is the lesson to you of the Adrienne Rich poem that Hawken quotes? Is it “perverse” to believe your actions can matter? Identify a way that you, too, might "reconstitute the world."
Why do you think impelled the British (and American) abolitionists to take on their seemingly impossible task for people that most never met? Can you think of any contemporary parallels?
Is “stealing the future” a fair description of much of our economy? Did you know about Interface Global, the company Loeb sites in his introduction? Can you think of other examples of companies that work to heal the future, at least in some of what they do? Consider a research project on this subject.
Does it change your perspective on your connection to other human beings to know that you are literally “breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono”? If so, how? What would it mean for you to take Hawken’s message of responsibility “and run as if your life depends on it”? Explain.
"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?
SECTION TWO: DARK BEFORE THE DAWN
"Sept 1, 1939," by W.H. Auden
In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, this poem may well have been passed around more on the internet than any other poem 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?
“On Being Different” by Dan Savage
Were you surprised to hear of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg conducting a gay marriage in Washington DC? What would it feel like to be in a relationship that’s been so previously stigmatized but now gets legitimacy from a representative of the highest court in the land?
Do you have friends or relatives who are LGBT (or do you fit one of those categories)? What was their experience (or your experience) growing up? How different is it from the picture that Merle Miller describes or that Savage experienced growing up? Have any of them (or you) received judgments similar to those that Miller described?
Do you know any families whose views on homosexuality changed when they discovered that their children were gay?
What do you think led the parents of the friends of Dan Savage’s adopted son to trust them with Savage and his husband in Hawaii?
How much do you know about the history of the gay rights movement and how it changed dialogue in America? Could you research some of its history of pioneers?
What did Harvey Milk mean by saying “I know that you cannot live on hope alone but without it, life is not worth living”? Have you ever given someone personal or political hope to keep on? Has anyone ever given you hope to keep on?
Have you had to ever tell your family or friends something about who you are that you knew might upset them? What was the context and what was this experience like?
What are the lessons from the successes of the gay rights movement for other movements to create social change?
"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? How do you break down your political isolation?
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 Paul’s friend Lisa 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?
“Reluctant Activists” by Mary Pipher
Has your community exprienced extreme weather events that fit the pattern of global warming? What were they, and did your community talk about this broader context, or just address the immediate crisis?
How often do you think about global warming and climate change? Do you think you can do anything about it? Have you taken any actions to address it, , small or large?
Have you ever read anything that leaves you temporarily despairing, but later inspires you to act, even in small ways?
Does it surprise you that someone who’s a nationally best-selling psychologist also wrestles with despair? Explain.
Do you ever think about your responsibility to the children you may have some day, or to your current children? How would you define that responsibility?
What does Pipher mean by saying “shouting ‘Wake up’ doesn’t work”? What alternative does she create to simply telling people “Things are terrible.” Have you ever experienced a situation where you wanted to shout ‘Wake Up’ on some issue, or where you did? What happened?
Why do you think Pipher and her friends felt better as the night went on in their initial potluck, even though they didn’t have clear solutions? What does this say about the power of community?
What do you think of TransCanada agreeing to lease land from all the local officials along the proposed pipeline route? Have you encountered situations where monied interests buy political allegiances? Does Pipher’s essay make you feel you can do something in situations like this, or on climate change in general?
Why do you think Pipher and her colleagues chose Randy Thompson as a symbol? What does this say about the potential for people of differing political perspectives to work together in common cause?
What does Pipher mean when she says “People seemed to be able to ‘afford to’ listen when the conversation ended with something specific they could do”? What’s the difference in your experience between learning about challenging issues presented along with ways to act, and ones presented without them? Should this change the way social action groups or even academic classes present their conclusions? Explain.
How would it feel to be part of Pipher’s coalition and hear 85,000 Nebraska fans boo TransCanada’s ad at the Big Red football game? Have you ever encountered situations where people worked to shift public sentiment and it began to succeed?
Were you surprised that Pipher and her colleagues won as many victories as they have so far? Do you think they were surprised? Is this a good example of Jim Wallis’s acting despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change?
What does Pipher mean by “I do this work because acting as if I have hope gives me hope”? Do you think her experience bears this out? How could you apply this approach in your own life?
SECTION THREE: EVERYDAY GRACE
"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?
“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shibab Nye
Why did Nye pause at answering the call for someone who knew Arabic? Do you know anyone who has hesitated to respond to a comparably innocuous-seeming request because of their experience?
How does Nye’s story relate to the section theme of hope emerging from everyday grace?
"Mountain Music" by Scott Russell Sanders
Do you relate more to the father's or the son's perspective in the essay? Explain. Have you had seemingly intractable rifts within your own family that were eventually bridged?
Have you wrestled with trying to acknowledge the crises we face while still enjoying life? How do you resolve that potential tension?
Do you know or have you seen talks or interviews by activists who seem joyful despite all the bad news, as was true with Desmond Tutu? What do you think gives them this joy, and is there anything you can learn from this?
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 future attacks need to be stopped. 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 had a friendship or relationship with someone who was severely physically or medically handicapped? What did you learn from it? 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.
What do you think Palmer means when he says that winter "clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being"? Have you ever experienced a loss in a way that left you stronger or seeing more clearly?
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 suggest the natural world teaches about keeping on for the long haul in working for change?
SECTION FOUR: REBELLIOUS IMAGINATION
"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 words?
"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.
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? Does our culture disparage efforts toward a broader common good as idealistic or naive? What do we lose by assuming there's nothing we can do together to improve the world for others? 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? Can you think of any contemporary examples?
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 gain strength where they were 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?
One of the cliches of our culture is that those who act for change when they're young inevitably sell out down the line. What do you think the continuities are between Lewis as a young man and as a current Congressman? Why do you think he was able to hold on to his values. (Optional assignment, read Lewis's autobiography, Walking With the WInd or David Halberstam's portrait of him in The Children.
"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 social conflict 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. What about a song that speaks to the issues of our time?
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.
"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?
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 should lead one to engage in activism? How would that activism look compared to those who come to engagement from other religious backgrounds or from no religious background? What values and convictions are shared among those who work for social justice from different cultural and religious experience?
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 to be linked 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? Or can you think of examples where this is happening? 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 can successfully shame the powerful? Why do pacifists get criticized for failure of courage? Doesn't turning the other cheek in fact require great courage?
Do you think that Pope Francis represents a shift in the core priorities of the global Catholic Church? If so, what do you think of this shift, whether or not you're Catholic?
Identify a current situation of injstice or oppression with which you are familiar. Brainstorm possible opportunities for creative political activism in your community.
What's the relationship between dramatic political theater, like that embodied by the Occupy Movement not long ago, and more patient community organizing of the type that Alinsky also promoted?
"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 or even 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.
What was your response to Alexie’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.
Does global warming feel more like an urgent immediate threat or some distant possible cataclysm, like a distant star going supernova? Explain.
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?
SECTION FIVE: COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS
"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, the experience of the long-term unemployed, 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"? 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"?
The young Egyptian woman Nada is now an American college student, yet participated in the historic Arab Spring events that overthrew the dictator Mubarak. She said she understood the risks, but acted anyway. Why is it that some people will literally risk lives and freedom for democracy, yet in 2010 four out of five eligible students did not even vote in many states?
Do you agree with Nada that participating in the overthrow of Mubarak was still worthwhile despite the subsequent setbacks, because it gave her and millions of others their voice?
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."
Did you know that four million former felons are disenfranchised due to rules that accompanied racial segregation. Do you think this is appropriate. Did you know that countries like Germany and Canada encourage current prison inmates to vote? Are the current felon-disenfranchisement laws equitable or not? Explain.
Research and write about the disparities between white and African American arrest rates for marijuana. Argue for or against controlled legalization along the model of Colorado and Washington State.
Do you feel the examples Loeb cites of politically driven impediments to voting raise legitimate problems? Explain. Here's an article from Forbes criticizing the new voter ID laws and linking to a major study out of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.
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? Do recent laws making voting more challenging cross this line of appropriateness? If so, in which ways? What is an appropriate response if you agree with a party on many issues, but find some of their political tactics troubling?
Why is it that there hasn't been more citizen activism in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and a recovery in which many at the bottom seemed never to recover the ground they lost? Did you know anyone involved in the Occupy movement, or did you follow it yourself? What was their judgment (or yours) of the movement's impact, at the time and since?
Research the rejection of Larry Summers as head of the Federal Reserve Bank after President Obama initially nominiated him. Is this an example of the power of citizen action? Explain.
"The Transformation of Silence" by Audre Lorde
How does Lorde's cancer lead her to look at her life “in a merciless light?”
What does she mean by “What I most regretted were my silences"?
Are there silences that you have regretted, situations or issues where you wanted to speak up but didn't? Why didn't you, and was there a cost?
What does it mean to learn to work and speak when you are afraid? What would it take for you to do this in your own life?
"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?
Safford writes: "Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right. But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle.” What does she mean and how would you apply her challenging call to your own choices?
"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.
"We Are All Khaled Said" by Wael Ghonim
When you heard about the protests in Tahrir Square, did you wonder about what led up to it? Why is it that we think of movements only in their most dramatic visible public moments and yet ignore everything that leads up to them?
What barriers did people face in Mubarak's Egypt to speaking out, to “coming into the light,” in the phrase of Victoria Safford? How did they overcome them?
Much of today's activism is online--petitions, email campaigns, liking a cause on Facebook. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches compared to face to face organizing? How can they complement each other?
Did Mubarak's Egypt have particular circumstances that made it more appropriate for many to begin their dissent online? What were the strategies of the organizers as they worked to get people to speak out in person?
In Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen book he talks about the need for successful citizen activists to combine a leap of faith with intentional strategic action. How did the Egyptian protests combine the two? Does Ghonim offer lessons about how to make a buried issue visible? How would you apply them to very different culture of the United States?
Ghonim describes creating an alternative to another, more confrontative, page, and trying to speak in a language that ordinary Egyptians would respond to. How would you tell the story of a situation that requires urgent action without lapsing into rhetoric that risks losing your audience?
The Silent Stand aimed to bring people out from behind their computers and phones and help them give each other courage to publicly share their outrage. Have you had an experience where people helped each other speak out in a difficult situation?
What do you think gave the mostly young Egyptians the courage to face potential death, beating, jail or torture? What had stopped them from speaking out previously? Are there lessons for us, even in a situation where we aren't facing such dramatic costs?
"Arab Revolutions" by Stephen Zunes
Zunes explores the buried streams of dissent that fed the visible "Arab Spring." Can you think of other historical examples where overlooked movements or protests laid the ground for more dramatic later changes?
Why did the Egyptians who challenge Mubarak begin with feeder marches from the neighborhoods? Is this another example of Loeb's concept of how intentional strategic action can combine with leaps of faith and courage?
Nonviolent action is often slighted as well-intentioned but ineffectual. Or fine for peaceful cultures but not up to the task of reining in deeply entrenched violence. Does Zunes's example of the heavily armed Yemenis voluntarily putting down their automatic weapons challenge this stereotype? If so, how?
In the introduction to this book, Loeb quotes Rebecca Solnit's judgment that "It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect." Compare that statement with what Zunes and the young Egyptian woman Nada say about the legacy of the "Arab Spring."
"Not Deterred" by Paxus Calta
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 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 energy vs. nuclear power. Assess the development and potential of renewable energy in your own community. Rocky Mountain Institute is one excellent resource.
"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 was 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?
"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?
“The Progressive Story of America” by Bill Moyers
What does Moyers mean by saying the women in his small Texas town "simply couldn't see beyond their own prerogatives?" Have you encountered people blinded in a similar way?
In 2012 the top 1 percent of American households collected 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the highest total since 1928. The richest 10 percent of Americans now take a larger slice of the pie than in 1913, at the close of the Gilded Age, owning more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. And half of that is owned by the top 1 percent. Read about the "Robber Barons" and "The Gilded Age" and compare and contrast that period with our time.
Had you heard of the the populists and progressives who Moyers describes, like William Allen White, Tom Johnson, Alice Hamilton, George Norris, or Robert La Follette? Was the history Moyers describes taught in your school, or buried? If the latter, why do you think that's true and what impact does knowing or not knowing these stories make on students growing up?
Research one or more of the figures Moyers describes and write about their political journey.
How did the populists and progressives balance the benefits brought by a new industrial age, and the corporations that drove much of it, with reining in the human misery that the actions of these same corporations created? Are their models for our time?
Many people feel that money so dominates our political life these days, that it's impossible to challenge. Do Moyers stories of a period when ordinary citizens challened equally dominant concentrated wealth seem applicable to our current time? Explain.
Did you know that the movements of the progressives and populists spanned both political parties? Do you know people in a party other than the one with which you identify with whom you might collaborate on issues like those that Moyers raises?
Moyers says "the rich have the right to buy more cars than anyone else, more homes, vacations, gadgets and gizmos, but they do not have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else." Do you agree? Discuss his essay in the light of the Supreme Court's "Citizen United" and "McCutcheon" decisions that struck down nearly all limits on how much wealthy individuals to donate to political candidates and committees.
How do you compare your interests in political activism to the images used by Bill Moyers, Tony Kushner, and Walter Wink--such as rebellion, protest, imaginative resistance and painstaking community organizing? What work is necessary to convince other Americans that these practices are vital for the health of our democracy?
SECTION SIX: THE GLOBAL STAGE
"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 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 hat the CIA helped overthrow elected governments in Chile and Iran and helped Saddam Hussein's party to power in Iraq, that the Chilean overthrow occurred on Sept 11, and that Sept 11 was also a key date in the Arab- Israeli conflict? Does this seem relevant to any current choices where the US is debating military interventions?
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 organizations noted for working for peace, justice, or environmental sustainability, such as Sojourners, Peace Action, Bread for the World, Amnesty International, Sierra Club, and the NAACP. 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 and regard these groups as liberal, do you share any common values or positions with them? If you agree with most of the group's positions, how could you support their efforts?
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?
Did you know that Denmark and the state of Iowa all get more than 25% of their energy from wind, and that Portugal gets 50%? Does this challenge the stereotypes of renewable technologies as marginal contributors to our energy needs?
What are some specific ways in which you can stay informed about issues that affect you as a global citizen?
"Kids, Trees and Climate Change" by Mark Hertsgaard
Why does Hertsgaard personalize the issue of climate change with the face of his daughter, Chiarra? Does she also give him hope, and if so how? Can you think of other examples of people taking political action for the sake of their children?
If, as Hertsgaard writes in the article and his book Hot, climate change is already threatening the habitability of much of the landscape we take for granted, why don't we do more to challenge it? And how can we make the problem visible in a way that will move our fellow citizens to act? Are there lessons from other movements around other causes, like those described in this book?
Did you know about the successful movements stopping new coal plants? Compare the brief description that Hertsgaard provides with the challenges of Mary Pipher and her neighbors to the Keystone XL pipeline. Are they raising similar issues?
What are the lessons of African farmers growing hundreds of millions of acres of trees to reverse deforestation? Do these challenge the stereotypes of successful environmental initiatives having to come from more developed countries?
Did you know about the proliferation of renewable technologies in recent years? If the adoption rates are now proceeding more rapidly than the adoption rates for cell phones, what does this say about the possibilities of moving beyond fossil fuels?
Summarize Hertsgaard's proposal, "Global Green Deal." Who/what would oppose this proposal and why? What new kinds of coalitions might support it?
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?
"Curitiba" by Bill McKibben with a post-script by Paul Rogat Loeb
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?
When Loeb visits Curitiba sixteen years later, he finds a city that's still a global leader, yet wrestles with new challenges produced by population and economic growth. Research other situations where a place or institution has adapted to comparable changes while continuing to serve as a model for sustainability?
What does Loeb's host Cesar mean by saying Curitiba was, when he grew up, "not that agreeable. Now it is"? Is it possible that making an environment more sustainable will also make it more convivial? Use Curitiba's example and any others you can find to explain.
"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? Do we hold different standards for different repressive dictatorships? Explain.
in your opinion, what are defensible reasons for a country going to war, or sending troops into another country? 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? How did the US invasion of Iraq fit these categories, or Russia's invasion of Crimea?
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 Thenation.com 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?
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?
"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. How would it change our society if people paid as much attention to critical public issues as they do to Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and the Kardashians?
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?
Seaquist's main theme is avoidance. What issues or truths do we habitually avoid in our culture? Explain how people can be manipulated by fear. What can help Americans guard against being manipulated, including by powerful economic interests seeking to advance their private agendas?
SECTION SEVEN: RADICAL DIGNITY
"How Have You Spent Your Life?" by Jalaluddin Rumi U
This poem was written in the thirteenth century. Are the poem's central ideas 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 (or one of your future grandchildren) is asking YOU the questions from the poem "How Have You Spent Your Life?" Answer one of the questions asked 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 interview activists in both category, perhaps even those working on the same side of a particular issue like climate change. Or if you're active in an issue, talk with compatriots who differ in their theological worldview.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King
What is the central thesis of the excerpt from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? Had you read any of King's writings before, aside from his "I Have a Dream" speech?
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 people don't act because they believe a particular issue will simply be addressed in due time (or maybe is impossible to adequately address). Discuss possible courses of action on that particular issue 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 and enduring 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? Research what they're doing now, to continue their earlier legacy.
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 support West's 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.)
Do you agree with West that the percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim is an indicator of continuings racial divides in our country? What about the disparate racial responses to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin?
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.
"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?
"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?
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 Ackerman and DuVall's book, or in the sections in this book on the Arab Spring. How do these stories support the thesis of the essay?
Are there lessons from "Resisting Terror" about how to deal with brutal dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq? You could look up DuVall's Iraq-related essays on the internet for his perspective on what we should have done instead of the path we took. 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?
"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 thi nk 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?
SECTION EIGHT: BEYOND 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. 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 President Nixon changing his mind on his nuclear threat because of a demonstration he publicly spurned?
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.
Does it surprise you that Loeb hit moments of despair in his own work with the Campus Election Engagement Project that he founded? How did he get past them?
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?
I.F. Stone was a pioneering dissenting journalist through much of the twentieth century. What does he mean by writing “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose”? Do you agree?
"Staying the Course" 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 the crises of our planet. 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 poorer 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? Use the example of the Novozybkov mayor and the people at Macy's workshops.
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. Are there parallels with the 2013 meltdown of the reactor in Fukushima, Japan? Why should others care about Chernobyl, 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 Hurricane Sandy or another devastating occurrence.
"Is There Hope on Climate Change" by David Roberts
Do you feel there's anything you can do to help reverse global climate change? Are there things that major institutions, like corporations, governments, or universities and colleges can do? If so, is and anything you can do to affect them? If you have taken action, how do you deal with the issue of hope in the face of scientific reports whose prognosis seems to get steadily bleaker? If you haven't acted, is a sense of hopelessness on the issue part of why you don't act?
Is Roberts right that Climate Change is particularly difficult to tackle because "psychologically and physiologically, we are designed to heed immediate threats with teeth and eyes, not long-term, incremental, invisible dangers"? If so, can you think of ways to higlight and make visible the threat so its gravity becomes comprehensible?
What does Roberts mean when he says that he doesn't think hope is "about the future as much as it is about the present," about our actions and choices? Compare this framework to that of Vaclav Havel, and to the other essays in this section.
Compare Roberts's discussion of chaos theory and Stephen Jay Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" to Howard Zinn's "Optimism of Uncertainty." How are they similar or different?
What would it mean to recognize that there is no "game over" on climate change because "there are always better and worse paths ahead. There’s always a difference to be made"?
"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?
Golden talks about U.S. corporations shifting their factories to China and then arguing that we can't do anything about climate change because of the growing Chinese footprint. How should we allocate responsibility for this kind of ultimate crisis where countries and institutions and individuals can all pass responsibility to someone else? How do Golden's arguments compare to the statement of Rabbi Abraham Heschel that “In regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.”
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?
What does Golden mean by saying "Well, it’s up to somebody. Who’s it gonna be?" Could you see yourself becoming one of those somebodies?
From "Hoping 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." Would you agree that this is "a deeply European feeling." Or would you say it's more universal? 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.
"You Have to Pick Your Team" by Sonya Vetra Tinsley, as told to Paul Rogat Loeb
Do you think you've lived mostly on the team of the cynics or those with hope? Or a combination? Explain.
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." Do you think, after reading this book, that the world is growing darker? 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?
SECTION NINE: ONLY JUSTICE CAN STOP A CURSE
"Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou
This poem describes efforts to humiliate someone, and that person asserting their dignity in response. 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.
Compare Angelou's YouTube performance of Still I Rise with musician Ben Harper's version:
How does the poem change set to music, or when performed by a male instead of a woman?
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.
Van Jones says that for many of our problems, the correct Biblical metaphor isn't David vs Goliath. It's Noah, where we'll all have to survive together. Do you agree? How do we reconcile holding vast powers and principalities accountable for destructive actions with a recognition that our fates may be more tied together than ever before?.
Using Terry Tempest Williams's metaphor, what would it mean to construct new bridges to help us get past the crises we're currently facing? How could you see yourself as part of building those bridges?.
Desmond Tutu talks about being called to act by the 3 billion people in the world “who are not responsible for global warming” but “will pay the highest price if wealthy countries refuse to do their fair share.” Do you feel a connection to those people or sense of responsibility? If you do what would it mean for your choices to act on it? Thinking back to the beginning of the book, does Tutu offer a way to do that without lapsing into bleak despair? Explain..
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? Compare this history with the history described in Dan Savage's essay. .
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 hopeful 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 an interactive version of the current 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 draft 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 a leader or elected official from a political party you consistently disagree with.
How did the metaphor of a "long-married couple in their divorce attorney's waiting room" after 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." How would you use the lessons from this essay to define 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 Rwandan genocide 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?
OVERVIEW QUESTIONS--AFTER STUDENTS HAVE READ THE BOOK
It seems that everywhere we turn, we find people in despair, feeling there's nothing they can do about the most critical issues of our time. Yet others face the same realities (or challenges far greater and more personally risky) and still find ways to act. Think over the 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 despite all the reasons for despair?
- 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
- A sense of radical stubbornness
Are there other themes that 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 an ideal society 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 inThe 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?
(d) Has this book moved you closer to working for a more just and sustainable world? If so, how?
SPECIAL QUESTIONS FOR WRITING AND RHETORIC TEACHERS
I've focused these questions on the thematic content of each essay, story, or poem. If you're teaching writing or rhetoric classes, you can also add questions on the writing itself, focusing either on the book as a whole or essay-by-essay and poem-by-poem. For instance:
What are your favorite stories, lines, or images? Explain.
How does the writer structure their argument? Identify and discuss their writing strategies.What works or doesn't work in their approaches?
What adjective describes the tone of this essay (or poem)? What words or images from it support your choice?
Summarize the central arguments and rhetorical strategies in this essay. What strategies does the author use to convince readers? Are they convincing?
As a writer, explain how the author uses the following writing strategies to reach their audience: description; sensory detail; personification; and narrator's voice.
Write your own essay (or poem) exploring the same central theme as this piece.
Again, you could do this either for the book as a whole or section-by-section.
Links to schools using the book in particularly interesting ways:
Adelphi University in Long Island New York had all their first-year students read The Impossible and then write mock letters to Loeb reflecting on what they'd say about what they learned. They then had a contest for the best one with prizes. The Adelphi link includes the winning essay, comments from other essays, and reflections from students reading the book at West Texas A&M and at Stanford.