Hope – the highway to change

Our work in most communities starts from a deep sense of disaffection, disconnection and apathy. Many blame the decline of our community life on the loss of spirit in the interaction of neighbours and look back to a time when communities were more coherent, had a sense of common purpose and lived ‘in and out of each other’s houses’. Too many in low-income households have lived under the yoke of state bureaucracy in their housing, education, employment, health, transport, benefits and pensions to ever have a sense of their own agency, their own ability to take action. Community organisers are all about challenging this sense of alienation and learnt helplessness that is the result of life’s experiences in marginal communities. As I said in my last post, it’s about creating a buzz about change. It’s also about firing up the engine of dissent and resistance.

Frustration fires up change

Many people in such communities find themselves frustrated by bureaucrats and the demands of modern life. Everyone naturally yearns to improve their relationships, their health, their bank balance but we all also face the reality that our dreams are often thwarted. The elite create escape routes in celebrity and consumerism that are only dead-ends. We experience fundamental levels of disappointment and frustration – and this is fertile ground for change. The feeling of frustration is in fact the driver of motivation. Frustration energises and predisposes people to make personal and collective change but to do so, they need to meet Hope.

Hope is an optimistic act of imagination. It allows people to positively visualise themselves in a better future. Community organisers are purveyors of hope. Against a background of collective cynicism and widespread scepticism, organisers work to build a realistic and grounded sense of community agency – ‘Together We Can!’ It’s not about persuading, manipulating, rewarding or threatening community members but about helping each to discover their own sense of inner hope. Unique to each of us, and precious as diamonds, our inner hopes are the key to our motivation and to trouncing the blocks to our transformation.

Hope and the self

Hope addresses the key factor in change: the individual’s inner life. People are amazingly diverse in their inner worlds but share three key characteristics which are vital in trying to gain their positive contribution. First each of us is vainglorious. Our brains show us a world in which we are invincible, invulnerable and omnipotent. We live constantly with a positive delusion about our abilities and character. As a direct result, we live longer, are more healthy and achieve more than we would with a true understanding of ourselves. Such vanity has to be supported and sustained by any appeal to participate in community life.

Second, our selves are fragile. We are constantly at work to defend our inflated view of ourselves and so reach for impressive defence mechanisms: denial and resistance. These defences are unconscious, automatic, instantaneous and powerful. If you challenge someone’s delusional self-image, the threatened self can become a behavioural nightmare. That’s because of our third characteristic: we are made up of emotions. All the evidence of psychology and neuroscience points to our brains being emotion creators, not the centres of logic and reason we imagine. Fear, anger, disgust, anger and pleasure give our behaviours their potency and such passions fundamentally influence our social actions.

So our vain, vulnerable and passionate selves are always seeking ways to be confirmed as a person who is more healthy, considerate, responsible, sociable, kind and generous; in fact to conform to our self belief. So an organiser is seeking a believable vision of a dignified life that is consistent with what people dream of for themselves. Each community member wants to feel good and great! And the organiser needs to identify how to convey such a hopeful future for each one.

Deep and hot hopes

Hope comes in many flavours. Some hopes will motivate people to die to achieve them; others are passing daydreams. Like the electrons around an atom, hopes can be understood to be more shallow or deeper, some more closely bound to the core of people’s identity- perhaps their dignity – as ends in themselves such as autonomy, security, health, competence and respect. Others are more superficial offering means to achieve deeper hopes such as the latest gadget, overseas holidays, good schools and ideology. These are often directly met (and frustrated) by the market and can motivate to short-term, immediate action. But its touching on deeper hopes that will allow people to do the difficult or inconvenient, like becoming politically active or leading community change.

When deep hopes remain frustrated, they rise in temperature. Hot hopes are things about which people are passionate and will work tirelessly to achieve. When your home is under threat of demolition or your children’s education is intolerably failing, you will spend time, effort and indeed money on changing the circumstances you face. You will rearrange your whole life to tackle them! Cool hopes are merely passing whims. Any organiser needs to be looking out to meet the hottest, deepest hope they can possibly address. Ask what is causing the greatest guilt, humiliation, frustration and misery in this community – and go after that!

No need to change people

When people suggest that community members need to get motivated, they’ve got it all wrong. Rather we need to discover what motivates this group of people – and how those hot hopes are being frustrated at present. We need to find those deep hopes that nearly everyone wants to have met like having a sense of control, being able to make a contribution or better provide for your family. Building our community-level change around such hopes will ensure it comes from the midst of people’s own energy and commitment. And such hopeful conversations will bring out powerful motivations capable of overcoming the greatest barriers.

Next time: Shaping change is not just about the organiser and the community. It also happens in the environment for change and that context needs to be part of our change effort.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Michael Jacoby Brown (2006) Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that can Solve Problems and Change the World Long Haul Press

Mary Beth Rogers (1990) Cold Anger – A Story of Faith and Power Politics UNT Press

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2 Responses to Hope – the highway to change

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Great piece Mark and it has set me thinking in a variety of ways. First of all what if the the Hot Hope is one that is dangerous to rest of the community – for example “there are too many immigrants (and I must do something about this)”, “the Muslim community is under threat right across the World (and I have a religious duty to do something about this)” etc.

    Secondly I think you have identified mechanisms that can work hugely productively for change and community development but which are also those that can be used by demagogues, politicians and some “community leaders” to divide and destabilise communities. Community development in some cases can become “communalism”. Where and how then does the ability to judge between productive hope and negative hate come in? There has to be a theory of power and some sort of ideological position or judgement that steers this process – so community development and listening can never be enough on their own. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions for us all moving in the direction of a “Good Society” – we have to have some sort of political understanding of where we want to go to. How does this fit in with orthodox community development theory which can sometimes start with the potentially naive assumption that the people are always right?

    • Mark Parker says:

      Good to hear from you Andy and thanks for your reflections. Some thoughts in reply:

      Hot hopes come in many flavours but when they are part of a dialogue between community peers they normally turn out OK. I think the human spirit is mostly a gracious and gentle one and people who feel passionately about denouncing others or destroying them are normally drowned out by those who seek more constructive engagement. There are of course examples of whole societies going bonkers – e.g. Nazi Germany, Russia under Putin, present day Israel – but on the whole, I believe that the majority see their hope in common cause rather than division and conflict.

      I completely agree with you about the need for a power analysis and a sound value base for community organising. In this piece, I did not try to cover all the bases but rather point to the need to offer those mired in desperate survival a real sense of hope. If there is a buzz about change (see last week’s post) and we are offering to meet the hot hopes of a community, then the scene is set for change to erupt. As you will see in my next post (watch out for it on Wednesday!), the wider context may also need adjusting or even overturning to allow change the air it needs to take root. It certainly needs a crystal clear commitment to democracy, engagement and participation as well as a willingness to move from analysis to action and back again to analysis.

      Hoping to hear from you again very soon!

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