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Moving through tough terrain: The role of hope

Colleen Magner
December, 2019


Reos Partners owes a lot of its learnings and origins to the place of South Africa, as much of the formative and high-profile work of Reos has happened here. This is in part because South Africa has had a story unfolding that has captured the world’s imagination where everyone hopes for a happy outcome. This reality has presented a number of invitations over the years for Reos to support different issues to bring people together in our work including: to bridge divides, to imagine possible futures, and to address the ills of the past. In responding to these requests, we have used in particular the Transformative Scenarios Planning methodology to support the initial and seminal work, for example the Dinokeng scenario processes.

Yet, despite all the efforts we’ve been part of, as well as important collaboration processes we haven’t been part of, there remains a stubborn “stuckness” to the status quo of the country’s issues. A few weeks ago, I was on my way to the office, and was listening to a talk-radio show (The Eusebius McKaiser Show). A man called into the programme to tell the host and the world that he had decided to ''call it a day''. Very skilfully, McKaiser was able to keep the man on the line for an extended period of time to fulfil that human need to be heard and recognised. The man shared what is an increasingly common story, one of losing hope. He is unemployed and sees himself as a dissapointment to everyone he cares about. (Read McKaiser’s reflection on the Mail and Guardian here).

What this incident highlighted was the tangible way that structural inequality presents itself in our work; the inequalities that Mont Fleur and Dinokeng scenarios had hoped to address. The bigger phenomena of structural inequality related to this story is what my colleagues and I have attempted to shift through our work in, for example, food systems, land reform, and creating economic opportunities. What we are learning in each of these situations, is that although the issues need urgent action, there are high levels of mistrust and trauma due to the stuck structural inequality that plays out in every system, and in every personal story. And yet the ask to Reos working on these issues often includes – “Please help this group to create a common vision, or a plan for a better future”. We have responded to these requests by facilitating processes that build collective ideas of possible futures. Although scenarios don’t tell stories about “heaven or hell” they do still tend to identify a preferred story, that aims to create an alliance of hope.

I was recently on a panel at a Reos conference in Mexico where we were asked to share our examples of collaborative work in highly polarised environments, in the 3 contexts of Thailand, Mexico and South Africa. One of the participants asked the panellists what the “Role of Hope” in this work is. As I listened to my fellow panellists, it struck me how attached we are to the notion of hope as an enabler for collaboration. It’s still an unresolved question for me, and I’ve written and thought about it often. Maybe I’ve become less afraid of letting go of the notion of hope, because I think that within this notion lies a fixed idea of what one wants for the future, which is based on our personal experience of what is possible. In my case, my experience is based, among other things, on what I felt as I listened to the man that called in to say “thank you and goodbye” to Eusebius.

The request is to stay long enough in the despair and face it with clear eyes and an open heart. An openness which goes beyond our individual notion of hope to what emerges in a group which creates a sense that “we’re not alone in the struggle”. This collective notion is the birth of something new, that has the chance to carry forward an alternative intention of the future, one which we can't carry forward alone.

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