Reflections on our ‘Critical Hope in the Public Sphere’ Event

August 20, 2021

This blog post was written by Nastya Mozolevych, 4th year Sociology and International Relations major and current Program Assistant for Scholars at Risk & Human Rights Collective.

On July 9, 2021, the Scholars at Risk & Human Rights Collective was excited to welcome, Andrea Reimer (she/her), Peter Biar Ajak (he/him), and Kari Grain (she/her), and our moderator, Antonin Lacelle-Webster (he/him), to discuss the importance of critical hope in activism and academia as our first public engagement event. Reimer is a former city councilor, educator, and activist for environmental, social, and economic justice. Ajak is a scholar, prominent political activist for democracy and peace in South Sudan, and a former political prisoner. Grain is a lecturer, research associate, and researcher at the intersection of global community-engaged learning, social justice, and higher education; she is also the author of a forthcoming book entitled Critical Hope (North Atlantic Books). Lacelle-Webster is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UBC who is interested in the politics of hope and despair.

In Cultivating Critical Hope: The Too Often Forgotten Dimension of Critical Leadership Development, Bishundat, Velazquez Phillip, and Gore explains that critical hope ​​“reflects the ability to realistically assess one’s environment through a lens of equity and justice while also envisioning the possibility of a better future (Dugan, 2017; DuncanAndrade, 2009).” At our event, the speakers touched on the role of critical hope in the past, present, and future. They discussed the importance of power literacy, hope as a choice, hope’s entanglement with the body and land, and the role of other “difficult” emotions like grief and anger in sustaining hope.

Power Literacy

Reimer, Ajak, and Grain made visible the role of power and intersecting inequities. Ajak noted that practicing critical hope to imagine better futures is difficult as “we have a level of cynicism that is probably a product of the long history of conflict and impunity that has taken place in the country [South Sudan] where there are people that simply believe that power is something that they are entitled to and they decide what to do with it.” While the current unjust systems of power are rooted in history, Ajak pointed out that we can look to history to learn, find moments of courage, and become inspired.

Throughout the past and the present, Reimer noted that “power doesn’t want us to know about it” and that individuals who want power over “others” try to maintain low power literacy. In particular, Reimer highlighted how one lie that capitalism has perpetuated is that we should try to “further the ends of a few at the expense of the many” while being in competition with one another. Reimer suggests that in reality, we are hardwired to thrive in community, rather than alone. She pointed out that, “It really is the fundamental lie of capitalism that separates us from each other, this idea that our purpose in life is an individual achievement rather than contributing to the collective and pushing the collective forward for the benefit of this generation and critically future generations.” To counter this status quo, Reimer underscored the importance of making power dynamics visible and reflecting on what power is and if it is in fact limited to a number of individuals. Both Reimer and Ajak agreed that power already exists within each of us, rather than being scarcely available to the few.

Critical Hope as a Choice

To understand that each of us already has power within, the speakers highlighted the need for reflexivity. Reimer explained that in Václav Havel’s book the Power of the Powerless, the former dissident and the first President of Czech Republic shows that “the power of the powerless is the truth.” Reimer further expanded to saying “your truth – why am I fighting for this and how important is this truth to me? That’s the fuel that makes hope happen. Without this critical self-awareness and without understanding the truth of who you are, it is very hard to be hopeful.” Ajak agreed with the need to understand ourselves and stated that critical hope requires “us to have ownership of our struggles”. This means that our stories, including hardship and trauma, and how we choose to tell them, hold power, including the power to challenge the current status quo.

In the face of trauma created by intersecting inequities, for some, hope is a choice within their control. Ajak shared his lived experience as a former political prisoner in South Sudan from July 2018 to January 2020, where he faced horrific treatment. The intention was to break his spirit and get him to give up his vision of South Sudan. However, Ajak found hope in knowing that nothing is permanent, even his suffering. He honed in his sense and understanding of hope as resistance.

Grain discussed hope as a practice that people can choose to do. She explained, “Critical hope is not something you have, it’s something you practice. What this means in some ways is that when you practice something, you can fall out of practice too. I think it implies that there is a changing relationship to hope.” This proposes that we can choose to practice hope and come back to hope, even after we lose it.

Critical Hope is Tied to the Body & Land

Grain engaged with critical hope being tied to the body and the land. She stated that “Nothing related to hope is untethered to the flesh of people who choose to have it or abandon it.” Grain also pointed out that to practice critical hope, analyzing the physical place we are in is vital. She made the connection between our bodies, land, and history: “The land is not just central to an understanding of critical hope but within it lives a history that impresses itself upon the current moment thus critical hope implores us to engage with the politics, emotions and the histories of the land in which we live, work, love, and hope.”

Importance of Grief, Anger, & Other “Difficult” Emotions

While critical hope is connected to our physical bodies and spaces, it is also connected and is as important as other emotions. Grain argued that emotions like grief and anger shouldn’t be discarded and treated as less important than hope. “Anger and grief have a seat at the table. I think there is something to be said about critical hope as a way of treating anger and grief so that we are not just tolerating its presence in our home, in our lives, and in ourselves but we are actually welcoming it and asking what we can learn from it.”

Reimer and Ajak agreed, yet cautioned that we can become stuck in grief and anger over future events, which can prevent us from fully experiencing the present moment. Ajak added, “It doesn’t make sense for us to grieve about our eventual death at some point because even though we are aware that it will eventually come, we have plans between now and when death actually comes – plans we actually want to see.” For Ajak, making plans is one way we engage with hope daily.

In order to practice critical hope in the present moment, Reimer, Ajak, and Grain explored the need to critically examine the past and imagine better futures. Reimer explained that hope is vital to imagine and create more equitable futures. She noted that “when I let my hope narrow I let the possibility of that future narrow and I’m just not willing to give in to the world and let that happen.” While looking towards better futures is important to practice critical hope, so is being aware of different histories. Ajak noted that history “provides for a realistic assessment of the power relations that exist and why those power relations are there”.


The SAR&HR Collective is very grateful for the opportunity to host this event and learn from the wonderful speakers and the moderator. You can learn more about them here, and check out the resources they shared below:

Click here to watch the full event recording.

Follow SAR&HR Collective to stay up to date and find out more: FacebookInstagram, or Twitter!

Nastya Mozolevych is in her 4th year studying Sociology and International Relations major and the current Program Assistant for Scholars at Risk & Human Rights Collective.