‘Hopelessness is Our Biggest Enemy’

Why young people must continue to fight for change.

Linda Stout

'I see so much potential, determination, strength and most of all hope. This belief in the younger generation is what gives me hope for our future.'

For In These Times’ Decem­ber 2013 cov­er fea­ture, Gen­er­a­tion Hope­less?”, the mag­a­zine asked a num­ber of polit­i­cal­ly savvy peo­ple, younger and old­er, to respond to an essay by 22-year-old Occu­py activist Matthew Richards in which he grap­ples with what the move­ment meant and whether Occupy’s unful­filled promis­es are a lost cause or the seeds of the dif­fer­ent world whose promise he glimpsed two years ago. Here is Lin­da Stout’s response: 

'Occupy was a positive event, even though it didn’t turn into a full blown, sustainable movement. As a multi-generational movement, many young people became involved and have stayed involved through other organizations they connected with in Occupy.'

After read­ing Matthew Richards essay, I was dis­ap­point­ed that he felt hope­less and felt he had to wait until the Unit­ed States was far less hos­tile to change.” He says Now that I’ve already done my best to fix the world and it didn’t work, I am at peace with the fact that it is no longer my job and won’t be again for a few more gen­er­a­tions to come”. Richards hat­ed the song, Wait­ing on the World to Change,” by John May­er, but that’s exact­ly what he’s decid­ed to do.

Hav­ing been involved in activism for more than 40 years — one of the old guard of activists — and hav­ing spent most of my life work­ing for jus­tice, I think we need to look at his­to­ry. The Unit­ed States is not going to get less hos­tile if we sit wait­ing for the world to change.” Cor­po­rate con­trol will become even stronger than it is even today.

I don’t know if any­one who has expe­ri­enced a peri­od of nor­mal­cy” in U.S. his­to­ry. From the time this coun­try was invad­ed by Euro­peans, we have been a coun­try of repres­sion and vio­lence; against Native Amer­i­cans, women, peo­ple of col­or, non-Chris­tians, etc. In the Labor Move­ment of the ear­ly decades of the1900’s, many peo­ple were killed, shot down by the mil­i­tary and oth­ers, while work­ing for a bet­ter life for all. Mil­i­tary tanks rolled thru our streets in the small mill towns through­out the south, shut­ting down pro­test­ers thru intim­i­da­tion, repres­sion and killing mas­sacres. In spite of that, the move­ment continued.

Dur­ing the Civ­il Rights era, repres­sion was at its worst. Church­es used as orga­niz­ing space were blown up, one with four lit­tle girls in it. Lead­ers were shot, jailed for weeks and months, and attacked by mobs, FBI, mil­i­tary, police, dogs and fire hoses. Meet­ing spaces like High­lander in Ten­nessee — –a cen­ter for labor unions and lat­er for the civ­il rights move­ment — was con­fis­cat­ed by the state of Ten­nessee and lat­er burned to the ground. More than 40 deaths were attrib­uted to the repres­sion of civ­il rights pro­test­ers, but peo­ple con­tin­ued to work for civ­il rights even when as late as 1979 five more peo­ple were mas­sa­cred in Greens­boro, N.C.

Dur­ing the Viet­Nam protest peo­ple were jailed, tear gassed, and the Ohio Nation­al Guard shot and killed four unarmed col­lege stu­dents and wound­ed nine, one per­ma­nent­ly paralyzed.

Occu­py was a pos­i­tive event, even though it didn’t turn into a full blown, sus­tain­able move­ment. As a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional move­ment, many young peo­ple became involved and have stayed involved through oth­er orga­ni­za­tions they con­nect­ed with in Occu­py. My orga­ni­za­tion, Spir­it in Action, worked with thou­sands of peo­ple to learn how to use col­lec­tive vision­ing” to dream of the world they want­ed to cre­ate, look for com­mon ground and then cre­ate a long term — 3‑to-20-years — strate­gic plan to move toward their pos­i­tive vision. Col­lec­tive vision­ing is a pos­i­tive, solu­tion-based focus that advances our goals. And yes, polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, orga­ni­za­tion and dis­ci­pline are key to build­ing a sus­tain­able and last­ing movement.

As for 99% being the per­fect mes­sage, it was a mes­sage that got a lot of media atten­tion. But it missed reach­ing some of the most impor­tant poten­tial allies we need­ed to under­stand the mes­sage. In my con­ser­v­a­tive, Tea Par­ty fam­i­ly reunion, they were all talk­ing about the pro­test­ers (Occu­piers) who were tear­ing Amer­i­ca apart. When I asked if they under­stood what 99% meant, none of them did. As I explained and told them this was how peo­ple were fight­ing for our own self inter­est as poor peo­ple, my aunt looked at me, and said, Well, it’s not a very good mes­sage if no one under­stands it, is it?” I had to agree with her.

Hope­less­ness is our biggest ene­my. It caus­es peo­ple like Richards to give up and think they’ve done all they could. To hold a vision of the future and work toward that vision step by step, even when it’s one step for­ward, two steps back­wards some­times, is the strongest, most pos­i­tive thing we can do.

I spend most of my time work­ing with young peo­ple to help them become the future lead­ers of our move­ments for social change. I see so much poten­tial, deter­mi­na­tion, strength and most of all hope. This belief in the younger gen­er­a­tion is what gives me hope for our future.

Lin­da Stout, founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Spir­it in Action, has been a grass­roots orga­niz­er and activist for over three decades. She is the author of Bridg­ing the Class Divide: and Oth­er Lessons for Grass­roots Orga­niz­ing and Col­lec­tive Vision­ing: How Groups Can Work Togeth­er for a Just and Sus­tain­able Future.
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