Fostering Critical Hope (Part 2 of 3) What is Critical Hope? | Shea

written by: Heather D. Shea, Ph.D., 2023-2024 ACPA President

Author’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series for Developments exploring the concept and application of critical hope as adapted from the presidential address I offered at the 2023 ACPA Convention in New Orleans.

I distinctly remember one of the first books I read in my master’s program – a book called “When Hope and Fear Collide” by Arthur Levine and Jeanette Cureton, which described college students in the 1990s as motivated by a conflicting sense of hope and fear and positioned student affairs educators as those to both nurture students’ hope and also help them confront and overcome their fears (Levine & Cureton, 1998).

While Levine and Cureton’s book might have painted an overly simplistic picture of college students of the 90s, the juxtaposition of a generative and hopeful path–while acknowledging real and tangible fears – indeed a critical hope – is a path forward for us as an association as well as a profession.

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade defined critical hope as the “ability to realistically assess one’s environment through a lens of equity and justice while also envisioning the possibility of a better future” (2009).

As one of those hopeful college students of the 90s that Levine and Cureton depicted, I acknowledge the fear we experience.  That is why cultivating hope is so critical. Much like gratitude, hope can be more of a practice we develop, rather than an emotion we await. Hope is critical to us – together – contributing to the field and being restorative to the profession. 

I’m not talking about toxic positivity–or a naive hope. Rather I’m talking about our collective responsibility to assess reality, acknowledge fear, and dream of the possibilities of a better future.

Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

I have learned from a lifetime of dealing with anxiety and depression that I exist far more productively when I wade into uncertainty and acknowledge that I, like all of us, will likely make mistakes. I notice the fear I experience, but I don’t let it become me. I am at my most effective when I nurture adaptable and flexible expectations, embrace my imperfection, foster trust, and love in my colleagues, rather than allow uncertainty to limit me, I embrace it as a possibility. Sometimes the things you want in life that scare you the most can turn out to be the most worthwhile. 

HOW though do we do this? I believe we must work to create trust, foster accountability, and support, and keep a hopeful outlook on the future informed by the realities of the present.

In her book Critical Hope: How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change (2022), Kari Grain emphasizes that while hope can have a transformative effect, it is insufficient in moments of despair or when facing deep injustice. She argues that hope must be accompanied by action; otherwise, it is naive at best and can lead individuals to relinquish their power and agency to challenge and change oppressive systems.

Collectively, with critical hope on our side, we can harness our power and agency to understand and then address issues facing students that are keeping them from realizing their goals, to disrupt systems of oppression, to close opportunity gaps, and to amplify the voices of activists whose identities are often under attack. It gives me great hope to work alongside colleagues on my campus to advocate for more opportunities, greater access, and more resources to do this work.

So, then the question remains: How do we cultivate this hope, especially in times of tragedy, fear, pain, and campus crisis? I hope to provide a worthwhile answer in the third and final part of this essay in the next issue of Developments.

review Part 1 | continue reading Part 3