The summer is my time to travel, to work on projects, to read, to rest, and to reflect on where “I’m at.” And that reflection always locates me squarely in the world at large, attempting to better ground my work, and to reflect on how our efforts in Civic Engagement and Service-Learning (CESL) at UMass can be deepened and made more impactful for our students and the communities they collaborate with.
My summer started with a fantastic study abroad trip with several students to Ecuador to work with the community-based organization Fundación Azúcar, and their amazing director, Sonia Viveros. Azúcar is a non-profit organization, created in 1993, that works in defense of the rights of Ecuadorian people of African descent. They support human and collective rights, and the rights of children, women and families through programming and actions focused on promoting the identity and self-esteem of Afro-Ecuadorian communities. Our UMass students studied and experienced the variety of ways in which racial justice and equity efforts are being discussed and implemented in Ecuador. They had excellent exchanges with Afro-Ecuadorian youth and participated in dance and music workshops to better understand how cultural heritage plays an important role in racial and social justice movements in Ecuador.
Of course, the summer included the barrage of bad news for those of us committed to a more just and fair world, and the bouts of pessimism and hopelessness they instill in me. So even with my time filled with family visits and restorative get-aways, it was hard to ignore the crisis in American democracy that appears all around us and is exacerbated by restrictions in voting rights, reproductive rights, continued economic inequality, racial injustice, and the urgency of our climate emergency. And the COVID-19 crisis continues to impact and shape our lives in both small and large ways. I wonder, given the enormity of the challenges before us, how anyone can make a difference in this world—and I’m specifically wondering how to instill a sense of agency and optimism in UMass students who will certainly have a chance to make change.
The summer is also a time to catch up on my reading, and I filled my fiction and poetry desires with Bryan Washington’s Lot, Roberto Bolano’s Cowboy Graves, and Ocean Vuong’s Time is a Mother. But it was my reading of Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone, which provided me with the necessary framework to start my semester freed from the tyranny of the optimism and pessimism duality. It is a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it for her insightful inquiry into “democracy as a balance of paradoxes, an exploration of opposites” such as: freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, inclusion and exclusion, coercion and choice, spontaneity and structure, expertise and mass opinion, the local and the global, and the present and the future. But in her concluding chapter she taps into my interest in the dueling dualism of optimism and pessimism through a reflection on the Italian Communist philosopher and politician Antoni Gramsci take on that perennial conflict. She starts with his well-known slogan: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, and an optimist because of will” and goes on to describe his hopes to “never again despair and lapse into those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism.” He seeks to hold the two in balance which, he notes, arms him with “unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.” Taylor summarizes:
“Here is our final paradox, a duality central to democratic theory and practice: optimism and pessimism. Although they are present in all human lives, in our current political context, when the survival of our species, and many of our other fellow creatures, is at stake, the two states take on a special urgency. Hope and despair, confidence and doubt, suffuse our pursuit and practice of self-rule. Gramsci’s letter articulates how these dueling forces can productively coexist.”
The rest of the final chapter is a tour-de-force that holds optimism and pessimism in equipoise as Taylor toggles back and forth between the dystopic and utopic possibilities before us. She ends with another reference to Gramsci--this time his notion of the interregnum, “a new world struggling to be born” and asks all of us to aspire to be perennial midwives “helping to deliver democracy anew.”
I may not have realized it, but each summer I search for a paradigm, a critical framework, to start the academic year. Something that can hold the contradictions of our origins as a nation—and even the contradictions inherent in our higher education institutions—which include practices of oppression, exploitation and exclusion, but which also includes histories of cooperation, solidarity, liberation and justice. So, this Fall, and inspired by Taylor and Gramsci, I hope CESL staff, faculty, students and community partners—and everyone in the UMass community—find ways to navigate the optimism/pessimism divide with creative tension, courage, tenacity, intelligence, will and compassion.
My best wishes for a productive semester.