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Self-help Motivational & Inspirational

Critical Hope

How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change

by (author) Kari Grain

North Atlantic Books
Initial publish date
May 2022
Motivational & Inspirational, Leadership, Future Studies
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2022
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Introducing the 7 principles for practicing critical hope--because hope isn’t something you have; it’s something you do.

Each person has a unique, ever-changing relationship to hope.

Hope alone can be transformational--but in moments of despair, or when you’re up against profound injustice, it isn’t enough on its own. Hope without action is, at best, naive. At its worst, it tricks you into giving up the power and agency you have to change systems that cause suffering.

Enter critical hope: a spark of passion, an abiding belief that transformation is not just possible, but vital. This is hope in action: a vibrant, engaged practice and a commitment to honoring transformative potential across a vast spectrum of experience.

Dr. Kari Grain, PhD, offers 7 principles for practicing critical hope:

Hope is necessary, but hope alone is not enough

Critical hope is not something you have; it’s something you practice.

Critical hope is messy, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions.

Critical hope is intimately entangled with the body and the land

Critical hope requires bearing witness to social and historical trauma

Critical hope requires interruptions and invitations

Anger and grief have a seat at the table

The principles for practicing critical hope are not what you might think: they confront toxic positivity and take up discomfort, social injustices, and an ethos of hospitality toward anger and grief. But held in this same space is a love for connection–and an honoring of what makes you feel alive.

Inspired by her global research, teaching experiences, and education curriculum taught at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Grain shows that to cultivate critical hope--and combat despair--you need to show up with your whole self, in all its messy, passionate, vibrant complexity.

About the author

Contributor Notes

KARI GRAIN, PhD, is a university educator whose work centers on global engagement, transformative learning, and social justice. Throughout her writing and teaching (as well as her everyday life), she weaves a love for relational, embodied, and experiential ways of knowing the world. Her professional path has included waitressing for nearly ten years; running diversity and human rights education programs; and leading in-school learning opportunities for immigrant and refugee youth. Grain earned her PhD in Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, where she is a faculty member in the Adult Learning and Global Change master's program. She teaches courses on community engaged research, leadership, and social change, and is currently collaborating as a co-editor of a volume on these topics. Grain also consults with organizations to enhance their community engagement practices and equity and inclusion strategies. Her work has been featured in various academic journals, podcasts, and websites.

Excerpt: Critical Hope: How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change (by (author) Kari Grain)

Surviving the Holocaust

I keep a black and white photo of Pinchas Gutter in a small box of pictures on my bookshelf. He leans against a tree at Auschwitz, a concentration camp where 1.1 million people were murdered under the Nazi regime. In the photo, he pensively gazes outward as tourists pass by in the background. He appears to stand with tired strength, clearly using the tree to support his aged body. In my mid-twenties, I (along with dozens of other young adults) walked beside Pinchas through several Holocaust sites in Poland and Germany. Sometimes we said nothing. Other times we spoke, told stories, asked questions. We cried. It was all part of a non-denominational education program called “The March of Remembrance and Hope,” which involved months of preparation, reading, history lessons, and group phone calls. Following that, we met up in Toronto, flew to Europe, and spent a week touring death camps and Holocaust memorials with two Holocaust survivors – Pinchas Gutter and Judy Cohen. Each night our program leaders brought us together in small groups for incredibly emotional debriefs that I remember as spaces of grief and connection.

Whenever I look at that photo of Pinchas, I wonder if the people in the background had any idea that survivors were among them. I wondered how it would change their experience if they knew that. To me, Pinchas and Judy’s presence somehow breathed life and sacredness into the space, and heightened the experience to an emotional degree that would otherwise be difficult to establish. I snapped that photo of Pinchas because he spent so much time educating young people about the horrors of the Holocaust, and sharing his heartbreaking memories with us. Throughout our week-long trip, he was usually flanked by students, program leaders, and close friends, and I remember walking closely beside him at Majdanek, which is where his own Holocaust survival story took place.

But in that moment captured in the photograph, he was alone at Auschwitz, unaccompanied by any of the students, unaccompanied by friends. He seemed to have taken an intentional moment away from all of us. I was struck by the thin line that separated the early 1940s from this very moment: more than half a century, a world of changed circumstances, but still the same threat of unchecked hatred, quiet anti-semitism, pervasive racism. It is a strange thing to walk on the very earth where unthinkable suffering occurred, and where horrific violence was once committed. When it is not your own memory of that place, the landscape can seem so harmless. Daisies dance in the breeze, a bird sings joyfully from the treetops, momentarily perches on the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) gate and then flits away to its next destination.

For so many folks walking around the grounds of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Dachau – these memorials are educational spaces, places to learn about a distant historical event that irrevocably shaped global politics and shook the very foundations of humanity. But for someone who experienced Nazi Germany, whose family was wiped out by a hateful ideology and its arbiters (and a nation state that itself committed and sanctioned such atrocities), what was it like to stand alone, leaning against a tree in this place? Does the land hold that pain? Does it stay for a while, like rainwater in the soil? Does the grass grow tall from the stories woven throughout its roots? Do the trees know their limbs contain molecular ashes of the dead, and that their leaves inhaled the carbon dioxide mingled with a million burned bodies? -Each body of those million bodies, a precious human life once rich with possibility, imbued with the love of family, friends, and lovers. Do the trees stand now as living witnesses to lives lost and families destroyed? Did the earth watch and weep as it all went down, knowing that its only option was to hold steady until time marched humankind into a different era? When I look at that photo of Pinchas leaned against a tree, I have so many questions, and they are questions that I have the responsibility to grapple with – now, and long after Pinchas leaves us.

On the morning when our tour bus did eventually make its way to Majdanek, where Pinchas had been abused and imprisoned as an eleven-year-old boy, it was a windy and overcast day. Majdanek was a concentration camp at the outskirts of Lublin during Germany’s occupation of Poland in World War II. In its early days, it was used as a forced labour camp for 50 000 Soviet Prisoners of War (most of whom died from appalling work conditions, starvation, and epidemics). It is estimated that 78 000 people were murdered at Majdanek, roughly 60 000 of whom were Jews, and up to 20 000 of whom were non-Jewish Poles[1]. I will never forget when Pinchas stood in a small meadow and had us gather around while he told us his story. Behind Pinchas stood an other-worldly circular structure, the Majdanek Mausoleum, where the ash remains of Holocaust victims were collected into a mound after the liberation of the camp. Pinchas’ mother, father, and twin sister were among the victims whose ashes rest there.

Pinchas proceeded to recount the fateful day when his family was forced onto a train with other Jews, and taken to the very place where we stood. His voice shook and his shoulders heaved as he described his final memories of his father, mother and sister. They had all traveled together by train, and when they disembarked at Majdanek, the Nazi soldiers instructed all the boys and men to go in one line, and all the girls and women to go in another. He described the anguish, as a young boy, of being separated from his mother and his twin sister. He still regretted, he said through tears, that he could not remember the face of his twin sister. Instead, his final and vivid memory is of her long blonde braid swaying in the wind, as she was led away to the gas chambers. Pinchas’ face was dappled with droplets, and it was impossible to discern how many of them were from the rain and how many from his tears.

We all sat silently, save for a few who were audibly weeping in the embrace of one another. Everyone processed it differently, but I remember a palpable feeling of oneness among our group. The place, the oral history of an unthinkable event that had played out exactly where we sat. It is one thing for a young boy to endure an experience like that, and it is another thing entirely to grow old with the weight of those memories, and to take a group of strangers to the very meadow where it occurred - to bear your soul, to display your anguish for all to see. To relive the trauma. To willingly return to that place of suffering again and again, in the name of remembrance. In the name of hope. This is what it means to bear witness in the truest sense: To listen, support, empathize, and stand in solidarity with another person, and to walk with them through the spectrum of ugly and poignant emotions that arise in the communication and sharing of trauma. To bear witness is to “understand the structures that sustain aggression and hatred”[2]
Pinchas’ courage to share stories, to willingly wade into historical trauma again and again, is at the crux of transformative education for human rights, and it relies on the critical hope of victims and witnesses who, despite suffering, believe that stories have the power to honour the past and change the future. Perhaps it is this commitment to education that, since the time I shared with him at Majdanek, led Pinchas to write and publish his memoir, a book called Memories in Focus[3]. He has also been actively involved in an innovative project called “Dimensions in Testimony[4],” which preserves genocide survivor testimonies in life-sized three-dimensional specialized display technologies. The idea behind Dimensions in Testimony is that students, museum patrons, and others can ask questions, and get real-time responses from survivors and witnesses, using pre-recorded interviews. It is a project that has the foresight to recognize that we will not always be blessed with the oral histories of Pinchas and other survivors, and one day we will rely solely on the metaphorical fossils they left behind.

Educating for Remembrance and Hope

The March of Remembrance and Hope changed me. My relationship with Pinchas, and the stories that he shared, changed me. The songs we sang together, and multifaith prayers that were shared by Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists were spiritually moving, even for me as a non-religious person. My understanding of the world and of human society, was irrevocably transformed when I stood alone in a hallway filled with the hair that had been shaved from the heads of Holocaust victims – And then, in a similar room that held thousands of their shoes – and then in a room filled with their eyeglasses. Not that I needed any proof, but here were material remains – eyeglasses that had once been windows through which children could read the world[5]. Now, they were piled high. A mountain of twisted wire refuse at first glance. And now other people, decades removed, read the world in a much different way because of what these glasses symbolize.

Like most Canadian or American students who go through a public school system, I had been taught about the Holocaust, but until I participated in that program, I had never felt a visceral, emotional connection of that magnitude; It was a truly in-depth excavation of the precursors, the people, and the consequences. To explore the learning impact of such a program in more depth, I spoke to a long-time friend and colleague, Ryla Braemer, who had for many years been a program leader alongside her now-husband, Yacov. Although I am still friends with several people who had long-term transformations because of the program, I was curious to learn about Ryla’s observations as someone who facilitated the program year after year. Ryla identified a similar trajectory among most participants:

There were similar phases of grief that people would go through: Learning, and then despair, and then “I’m gonna make a difference when I get home”…By and large, I can think of beautiful stories of individual paths that have been changed. People who are now teachers that didn’t think they’d be teachers. The people we’ve stayed in touch with or people who are doing interesting work that they would attribute at least in part to this experience. At the same time there isn’t this giant movement that was created or new organization or lobby of the government. It was a whole bunch of individual ripple effects.

Ryla and I recall a moment from my own cohort, wherein a particular participant had been quiet for days, reluctant to speak up in our nightly debriefs.

Sometimes people are just quiet, and the quieter they are, the harder it is to know from my end what is the impact, and what they’re thinking. And one night in the middle of our group he just started crying and said ‘My grandfather was a Nazi.’ And I remember him embracing Pinchas and one of the participants whose grandparents were survivors.

That participant, many years later, is still in touch with Pinchas, and still does work pertaining to Holocaust education and awareness.
Our key message was always: You need to learn what it was and hold those stories of the people. It becomes your story to tell. I think that’s really important - the hope part, because otherwise it’s just full of despair. That action piece may not be catchy; But if we are just hopeful for a different world, I don’t think it brings that hopeful world about.

Ryla goes on to describe a conversation that she and most of her Jewish friends have all had at some point, which brings the past into the present: If the Holocaust were to happen today, “Out of all our non-Jewish friends, who do you think would hide us? Who would save us?” She reflects on what she would do: Would she fight? Or, as a parent, would she calmly walk her children into the gas chamber so they weren’t scared? “Your understanding of heroics changes”. This is why hope cannot be the end point in an excavation of the past: Because xenophobia, anti-semitism, and racism, as precursors and ideologies that fueled the Holocaust, still exist.

If it ends with hope, then it is hopeless. If we learn these things about the Holocaust, do that hard work to dig things up – I mean we’re not in the Holocaust when we’re there learning about it. But those weren’t easy experiences. But every participant made a choice to engage with difficult subject matter when they could have been in Cancun instead. People made the decision to do it. But hope is the mid-point for me. It’s the catalyst for the change.

Ryla and I reflect on survivors like Pinchas who have generated transformative change through their efforts.

You look at individual stories of the survivors. They’ll say “I still believe in God and I got married and had children”; “I still believe people are good.” They didn’t just hope for those things. They do real work. They speak at events. They sponsor refugees. They start organizations. That part can go either way: You go through experiences and feel horribly unhopeful or you can think about those moments of deep beauty that we experienced on those educational programs. I remember feeling like my heart was floating outside my body in the intensity of the program. But if it ends there the program is not successful. It’s not about everyone becoming Prime Minister or creating a new movement, but it is about those little things each person does in their life and if you can attribute them in some way back to this experience, then it was worthwhile.
Painful encounters with the past constitute transformative struggles that, if we do the difficult labour of excavation and examination, can set us on a path to change the future. As Pinchas and Ryla so poignantly demonstrate, histories of injustice and suffering can never be righted, but they (and the grief and suffering they catalyze) can be powerful tools for education.
But what happens when you or a community you are a part of, repeatedly endures fracture, fire, and fossilization in perpetuity? What happens when specific groups of people struggle with hope because their collective dataset of lived experiences lead them to believe that the outcome is unlikely to be a good one? What are the consequences of sheer fatigue, and what could possibly be done when there is no more energy for the doing?

[1] This is the number currently provided by the Majdanek Museum’s website, although some estimates are as high as 360 000. For more information see,44.html.
[2] Deborah Britzman. “If the story cannot end: Deferred action, ambivalence, and difficult knowledge” in Between hope and despair: pedagogy and the remembrance of historical trauma. P. 29
[3] Pinchas Gutter. Memories in Focus. The Azrieli Foundation. 2018.
[4] Learn more about Dimensions in Testimony here:
[5] Paulo Freire frequently referenced the idea of teaching students to “read the world” – a process aided not by depositing knowledge and solutions into a learner’s head, but by asking them questions, and encouraging them to ask their own questions of the many knowledge forms surrounding them. Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Routledge, 2005.

Editorial Reviews

“In an age when we so often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of trauma in our communities and our world, Dr. Grain’s book couldn’t be more relevant and applicable. It is a compendium on hope in a way you’ve never seen before, and mixes academia with real, raw, and honest storytelling. It cannot be missed.”
—Candace Salmon, lawyer and cofounder of Reflections on Rwanda

“It is rare that one reads a book where the writer is so open and honest. One cannot help but admire the courage with which Kari Grain has dealt with the adversities she encountered in her life. On a larger scale, Grain shows an acute awareness of the challenging problems facing the world right now and the renewed strength and skills that will be essential to deal with these difficulties now and in the future. Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is that thing with feathers. In her book, Kari Grain makes hope fly.”
—Pinchas Gutter, Holocaust survivor and author of Memories in Focus

“I wish I had written this book. I have lived with the concept of critical hope without ever having had a name for it. This book told me something that I needed to know. Everyone should read it.”
—Douglas Courtemanche, MD

“This is a beautiful book with a powerful takeaway: the critical part of hope is seeded and nurtured by discomfort and humility. Grain’s deep connection to teaching helps us see how we can enter hopeful space with others. For me, the stories that Grain relays of friends, acquaintances, and coworkers navigating critical hope were icing on the cake—it’s Grain’s own experience as an educator and a seeker, guided by justice, that really catches us up and shows us the way.”
—Tristin K. Green, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and author of Discrimination Laundering

“It is a beautiful experience to read something that is so emotional, critical, and academic. I wish there was more writing like this.”
—Emily Yee Clare, anti-racism educator and equity consultant

Critical Hope is an important contribution to not only the field of education, but also the political realm that encompasses the world as invisible architecture. Grain’s emphasis on deepening structural analysis, praxis, and somatics, including the important work of metabolizing grief, are part of a time-tested trinity to become more contextually relevant beings. Given the current context, this is the urgent and eternal work of our times.”
—Alnoor Ladha, cofounder of The Rules, council chair for Culture Hack Labs, and coauthor of Post-Capitalist Philanthropy