how young people take action to make things better

All too often hope is equated with a desire for something fleeting: good results in an exam, the victory of a favorite team, the sought-after gift. But whether something so trivial can actually be called “hope” is a question that has become particularly poignant over the past two years.

After the challenges we have faced collectively – and globally – since March 2020, people, especially young people, are feeling overwhelmed. Many may feel despondent, even hopeless.

Depression and anxiety rose by almost 10% in the general UK population during the first lockdown with a further 7% increase in January 2021. For university students, the rise in mental health problems is even more alarming. Humen’s mental health charity has warned that nearly half of its COVID cohort of students have had their college experience negatively impacted by mental health issues.

A young woman in a hijab and jeans sits on the floor and takes a picture.
Creating, making, doing and campaigning young people is what hope as action looks like.
Loubna Benamer | Unsplash, FAL

Quarter life, a series from The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues that concern us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as adults. The articles in this series examine the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life._

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Indeed, due to isolation and further limitations, anxiety and depression among college students increased by 50% above normal baseline. Of course, COVID is not the only culprit here. The pandemic, along with the climate crisis, has only exacerbated the damage through racism, misogyny, transphobia and classism, among other ills.

My research explores how hope begins in a place of despair – in the desire to make things better. Too often understood as a feeling, hope is better understood as an action.

How hope is a necessity?

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, wrote the following verse in 1891. They are beautiful images, but too cute and incomplete in my opinion:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That’s in the soul –

And sing the tune without the words –

And never stops – not at all –

I find the 2018 review of Dickinson’s words by Caitlin Seida more accurate. In a poem entitled Hope is Not a Bird, Emily, It’s a Sewer, Rat Seida says that hope is not a feather thing, but “an ugly thing with teeth and claws and a blotchy fur that has seen some shit”.

It’s the gritty, nasty little carrier of diseases like…

Optimism, perseverance,

Perseverance and Joy

This ties in with German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s definition of hope as a stubborn desire, born of hard times and oppression, to see a better, alternative future.

A young woman wearing a protective visor during a protest march.
Hope is more than a feeling, perseverance.
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona | Unsplash, FAL

Just as feminist author Bell Hooks says of love that it is ‘a doing’, hope can also be described as a doing. It may be an optimistic feeling, but it is above all a necessity: persevere and persevere.

In 2003, feminist and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit wrote a book called Hope in the Dark, about acting even when there is great uncertainty, but still. As she explained in 2016, “It’s important to say what hope isn’t; it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be all right. Evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities that invite or demand that we act.”

Such action cannot be separated from the collective. Hope is outwardly focused on the community and society. There is a deep sense of responsibility in it.

A former dissident against the USSR, Czech playwright Vaclav Havel underlined in his 1997 book, The Art of the Impossible, that we have a “universal sense of responsibility” for our communities and for each other:

Real hope is humanity’s profound and essentially archetypal certainty…that our life on this Earth is not just random.

Likewise, civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter supporter DeRay McKesson has described how he gained hope by facing the many threats to his life and safety:

Hope is the belief that our tomorrow can be better than today, when we talk about being hopeful for a future where black bodies are not considered weapons, it is so easy to mock hope as a platitude, or even a enemy of progress. But hope can also be a driving force.

How learning can be hopeful

As an educator, I am well aware of how much students’ lives have been fundamentally shaped and their educational journey disrupted by the pandemic.

Tickertape falls on a budding student crowd.
Learning as hope, despite obstacles.
Keith Luke | Unsplash, FAL

There are ongoing debates about whether students have had a poorer education due to the impact of the lockdowns, with students unable to meet in person for class and in some cases unable to travel to university. On the surface, it seems that those enrolled in college between 2020 and 2022 are mourning the loss of something very valuable about their educational experience.

Time in school or college is, of course, about academic learning. But, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity, it’s also about building a community, figuring out your core values, and making plans for the future.

Young people who graduated during the pandemic have persevered despite enormous challenges. They’re already navigating issues — from racism to the climate crisis and gender fluidity — that many others still crave. They are here, campaigning, starting, creating, doing – learning. This is what hope as action looks like.