The topic is “hope.” The arena is advocacy and activism. How could President Obama not enter into the mix? If he had been running a corporation instead of a campaign, I have no doubt we’d all be paying royalties merely for use of the words “hope” and “change”, he so tightly secured his identity to them. Regardless of what one may think of him now, the meaning, and meaningfulness, of his campaign can’t be denied, particularly in what it says of the generations that took to it most strongly.
I myself, a child of 1979 (and September 11th, for that matter), am in the awkward position of straddling those two generations. I’m really a bit too young to have been a full-fledged member of Generation X, steeped in post-Watergate cynicism, John Hughes movies, and copious amounts of flannel. I’m also a bit old to ever feel like a digital native (I didn’t have email until my senior year of high school), or part of that “boomlet” generation that grew up in the warm glow of Clinton-era prosperity and “Total Request Live.”
But it was from these two generations that Obama’s campaign drew most of its initial energy, ideas, personnel, and funding. They upended the conventional wisdom of participation, and revolutionized the way political campaigns raise money, communicate with supporters, and channel enthusiasm. Understanding that success means understanding what “hope” meant to those who gave up time, money, secure jobs, and certainty to be a part of that campaign. How did “hope” relate to a generation of cynics, or to a generation of indulged, instant-gratification seekers?
The answer lies in appealing to something greater – to goals which may never be achieved, but are never the less worth struggling for, day by day. To quote director Richard Linklater (or, rather, the band R.E.M. paraphrasing him), “Withdraw in disgust is not the same as apathy.” The generation in their 30’s now, and tipping over into the 40’s, are not an apathetic bunch – but they are a crowd deeply suspicious of quick fixes, or entrusting anyone else with the power to disappoint them.
It is no surprise to me then, that while progressives of my parents’ generation have thrown up their hands in exasperation over the “lack of progress” since Obama’s election, it is the generation below them that instead has neither given up and walked away, nor accepted in silence claims of “the best we can manage.”
The millennial generation, as alien as they might seem to their elders in social habits and ideas of privacy, in fact volunteer more time to more causes than any previous generation. For them, involvement in causes is as much a part of defining an identity as is choice of clothes or music. But a generation weaned on YouTube and blogs harbors no illusions of there ever being one leading light, one defining leader. A movement or cause, is something they instead see collective ownership of. Finding individual success, or even individual identity, means reaching out to others and providing channels for interaction. For better or for worse, this generation is destroying the old models of command-and-control, and only organizations that learn to adapt to interactivity (rather than simply trying to co-opt its trappings) will thrive.
But whether through the painful lessons of disappointment and cynicism, or through the new environment of hyper-linked interaction, both these rising generations have a convergent idea of hope. They see hope as a fragile seed which must be tended and nurtured, which may grow and bloom given care, but which will never be free from danger, nor a provider of all we need. It takes millions of people, working together, tending a thousand hopes around the world, to make even the slightest move towards a better future. It is hope not for revolution, but for evolution.
That’s why the quote that, for me, says more about what hope means today, than any other I’ve encountered, is from Obama’s victory speech following the Iowa Caucuses. He said:
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.”