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Our duty is to find hope in darkness

Over the past months and weeks, countless conversations with my colleagues, friends, partners, and peers in social justice have focused on the complexities and cruelties of 2016: from Brexit in the United Kingdom, to the rejection of a peace deal in Colombia, to the ongoing violence and refugee crisis in the Middle East, to, of course, America’s presidential election. In all of this, there is so much at stake for our world, so much injustice to assess, understand, and address. There is so much uncertainty.

In these times, it is easy to be discouraged. And disappointment, anger, and confusion are understandable—often reasonable—responses to the challenges we face. But we must do all we can to fight the slide into hopelessness. Here at Ford, we are working to understand and face up to some new and daunting realities. Our grantees and partners, too, are reckoning with the reverberations of recent events—and responding with fresh energy and urgency.

The dedication and vigor they bring to appreciating and challenging injustice is a statement of profound hope. Watching the gathering strength of their efforts has reminded me of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”—that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Those standing on the frontlines of social change are the light, and they are the love. The world desperately needs both.

Building the beloved community

Hope is not a simple thing; it may not be painless to find or even feel. As I work to understand the past year in the life of my country and our world, I find hope (along with not inconsiderable discomfort) in considering some questions about the institution I lead and the social sector as a whole.

For instance: Have we neglected to recognize and respond to working-class people, regardless of race and geography? Have we heard and heeded the frustrations of communities anxious and unsettled as their economic security erodes? Have we been too focused on familiar ground, overlooking the wider circumstances of suffering and inequality?

These questions are not easy to ask, and answers are not easy to come by. But I am committing the Ford Foundation to pursing them, and to deeper listening and learning. We must be open to the idea, for example, that as the demography and geography of inequality spreads outward, our own efforts may need to become more inclusive, embracing a variety of very different communities. After all, exclusion and hardship are widely shared. Layers of injustice abound. Our work must reach farther than it ever has.

Nearly a half century ago, during the spring of 1968, Dr. King delivered his final sermon. The moment endures in our memory because on the evening before his assassination, Dr. King shared his view from the mountaintop. But too often forgotten are his other words that extraordinary night in Memphis: his advocacy for what he called “dangerous unselfishness” inherent in what he called the “beloved community.”

“The world is all messed up,” he said then. “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around,” he declared. “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

So, too, should it be for us—right here and now.

Bound by hope, fighting despair

The year 2016 is not 1968, or 1860, or 1776. Our moment, and the opportunities we have to protect and pass along the torch of justice, are unique. But we can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat we face is not terrorism, or environmental crisis, or nuclear proliferation, or the results of any one election. The greatest threat is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions around the globe who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. The hopelessness of so many who are overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing our world, and frustrated by attempts at solving them that have fallen short.

If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope. I choose to be hopeful because only through the pursuit of justice can we heal. I choose to be hopeful because every day I see the indispensable contributions of so many who are shining bold and bright against the midnight sky; who are embracing their special obligation to promote “dangerous unselfishness”; who are lighting the path forward.

As Dr. King said during his last evening on this earth, “we’ve got some difficult days ahead.” Together we are poised, and prepared, to keep marching forward. By the light of our collective hope, we will press on through times that test us—and push beyond them.

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