Risking Hope as a Political Act

Risking Hope as a Political Act
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at James Madison High School in Brooklyn—Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s and Schumer’s alma mater—on Sept. 20. (Chuck Schumer @SenSchumer / Twitter)

On Friday night, the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—an unmatched champion for gender equality—sent a new round of shockwaves across the country, especially for women.

As the country reeled with news of her death, I started to text my girlfriends whom I thought would be especially devastated. Then I realized it was all of them. All of them.

Justice Ginsburg’s death is just the latest in a parade of shock and awe brought to us by 2020. There has been a complete absence of leadership in navigating the pandemic; a long-overdue reckoning with racism; an unprecedented financial crisis; the obliteration of our known routines; persistent grief that is anticipatory and absent of any closure; the helplessness and rage that come from watching a sitting president—unchecked by his enablers—lie for sport and actively seek to divide us; and the list goes on.

While 2020 has been challenging for everyone, the struggles are more pronounced for women and people of color.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession is taking a higher toll on women. This economic downturn has decimated female-heavy sectors, and, on top of that, many women are disproportionately impacted by schools and childcare centers closing.

COVID-19 has impacted people of color most directly in the number of infections and the number of deaths.

“We know that these racial ethnic disparities in COVID-19 are the result of pre-pandemic realities” says Dr. Marcelle Nunez-Smith, director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale School of Medicine. “It’s a legacy of structural discrimination that has limited access to health and wealth for people of color.”

The heaviness of 2020 is not equal opportunity. But even for me—a healthy, educated, cisgendered, straight white woman with economic security—2020 feels like I’m walking around with a weighted jacket, and not the kind that brings comfort or helps you sleep. It is the kind that extinguishes hope.

When the Democratic National Convention rolled around last month, I watched every second—but always the following day. When my friend Lee asked why I wasn’t watching in real-time, I said I was too scared to share hope with that many people. 

The behavior of those in charge has become more and more egregious—the latest example being the open hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell and the GOP’s attempt to ram through an approval process for Ginsburg’s replacement. (Irrespective of the stance they took in an 11-month stand-off in 2016 to block Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.)

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This depressing pattern of bad behavior from leadership has me accustomed to sharing despair, but my nervous system forgot how to share hope. It feels dangerous. I am terrified to open my heart to the possibility that our voices do matter and that we can turn around this historic train wreck. I am more terrified of the alternative.

As Lee and I were closing our call, he told me to “risk hope” and watch Biden’s acceptance speech that evening with everyone else. At the last minute, I choked and did Tiny House Hunters with my 13-year-old daughter instead.

But Lee’s words weren’t wasted on me. I’ve thought about them multiple times a day. Like an insistent and directive drumbeat.

Risk hope. Risk hope. Risk hope.

(Elvert Barnes / Flickr)

To be clear, this is not hope as an exit ramp from responsibility. There are aspects of this weight I should have been carrying long before now.

What’s more, whatever exhaustion I feel in 2020 is multiplied many times for people of color who cannot opt-out of this heaviness in the same ways that I can. In the words of The OpEd Project program manager, Cimajie Best:

“Fighting for your life every day is draining. Figuring out ways of being that seem less threatening so as to increase your chances of making it home to your family is tiresome. Knowing that at any moment of any day the very people who are supposed to protect and serve could kill you without cause or repercussion—that recurring thought—is maddening. Black Americans are tired.”

It’s time for white people to do a better job sharing the load. For me, this involves taking off the leaded jacket and risking hope—not for my own comfort, but so that I can be a worthy co-conspirator.

We don’t have to look far for inspiration. Ginsburg, Notorious RBG to some, risked hope every time she sat down to write a dissenting opinion. She reflected in one interview:

“Dissents speak to a future age … that is the dissenters’ hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

Many others have recently courageously stepped into hope—the Milwaukee Bucks boycotting their playoff game; AOC’s response to Ted Yoho’s sexist temper tantrum; the historic and barrier-breaking VP pick of Kamala Harris; Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi igniting a generation of activists and continuing to hold leaders accountable for more than hashtags; and the list goes on. 

2020 is a year to face down the forces that steal our hope and imagine what future we want, not just for ourselves, but for humanity. Author and civil rights activist Valerie Kaur asks:

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb. What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if this is our nation’s great transition?”

Much of what has happened the last six months has compromised our mental health and our relationship with hope. Nothing about the next six months promises to be easy or provide much relief. Much of it is out of our control. But we can manage our internal world so that the external world feels manageable.

For me, that starts with risking hope as a political act—reminding my cells what it feels like to embody and radiate hope, bold and unapologetic. To reject any paralysis that may keep me playing small in a time when RBG and history asks more of us. 


Michelle Kinder is co-author of "WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive", a licensed professional counselor, on faculty at the Stagen Leadership Academy, former executive director of Momentous Institute, and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.