Kalamazoo Lyceum offers communion and hope in first of four hope-centered panels

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Have hope. Keep the faith.

If you're in a hopeless state, or, just like many of us, feel the crushing weight of a world we can't fix when we take a look at the news, being told to hope is like being told to levitate and fly.

What does "hope" even mean? 

The Kalamazoo Lyceum returned for 2024, Jan. 20, to ask about "Hope for Ourselves." Hope will be the theme of this year's talks, covering hope for the Kalamazoo community, hope for the planet and environment, and, featuring an all-youth panel, hope for the future.

The panel was to focus on how to have hope as individuals, but the theme of the talk turned outward — to find hope one must take action. To work on one's individual state, but more importantly, work to help others and connect with their community. 

Matthew Miller, founder of The Kalamazoo Lyceum, offered thoughts on hope and background on the Lyceum, which launched last year."The world is a really tough and confusing place right now," Kalamazoo Lyceum founder Matthew Miller says in his intro at the Kalamazoo Public Library's Van Dusen Room, to the 50 attendees.

A vast majority of Americans have a pessimistic view of the country's and the world's future, he says. More people report feeling lonely and disconnected.

"And so if we're going to be able to build a community that has some vision of a positivity, a progress towards something better for everyone, that everyone can be involved in, we have to build that concept of hope," Miller says.

The Lyceum's new moderator, Southwest Michigan Second Wave's managing editor Theresa Coty O'Neil, says she thinks of "hope as a kind of big, small word." Later, she says, "It can feel like a pressure, I think.... Some people say, well, keep your hopes up and you can feel like, 'Oh, God, it's something else I have to do. How am I going to do that?'"

The Panelists:

Justin Black had gone through hopelessness as a foster child. Now, he's the author, with his wife Alexis Black, of "Redefining Normal: How Two Foster Kids Beat the Odds and Discovered Healing, Happiness and Love." 

Justin Black, co-author of "Redefining Normal"He also heads their Redefining Normal company, booking speaking engagements and seminars on overcoming adversity, and Rising Over Societal Expectation, (ROSE), where he provides mentorship of Black and Brown youth.

"My personal history goes into not being able to see or understand the possibilities that are available for me in my life," he says. "And I think culturally, a lot of young people, and specifically young Black men, are not shown different options or possibilities that's available for them in their life. And we grow accustomed to cultural practices related to generational trauma."

Such trauma, "naturally passed down, on and on again," is seen as normal, thus the title, "Redefining Normal." 

The Kalamazoo Lyceum on Jan. 21 at the Kalamazoo Public Library focused on "Hope for Ourselves" and was moderated by Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Managing Editor, Theresa Coty O'Neil.With ROSE, Black wants to "work to create generational success through showing young Black men the possibilities that are available to them."

Dr. Regena Nelson is a professor of Early Childhood at Western Michigan University, who's been teaching teachers for 30 years. She is also on the leadership staff of ISSAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community). 

Nelson says she had a supportive upbringing. Her parents "looked to see if there were any barriers they could remove just to get out of my way. Just move those barriers out of the way and let her do what she wants to do."

This upbringing guided her methods as a teacher. "I think that young children are hyper-optimists. They come into the world believing that they can do anything," Nelson says. "And when I say that they're optimists, I'm thinking that this is where hope comes in for me."

Optimism puts one in a position that means "when you face a problem, you want to understand that problem, but then you want to put your energy into the solution. And when I have followed that path of focusing on the solution, that energizes me... And then that gives me more hope when the next problem comes."

Dr. Karen Hornneffer-Ginter, Chief Wellness Officer at WMedDr. Karen Horneffer-Ginter comes from the world of clinical and community psychology and is the chief wellness officer for WMed.
"Over the years, I've often had work positions where my title has been one that has made it a good thing for me to be hopeful. If you're the chief wellness officer, you know, hopefully, you're a somewhat positive person. And you're not making people feel miserable every day... that's kind of a problematic thing," she says.

"One of the things that I often think about is how it can be helpful for us to be honest about the ways in which we can feel hopeless in certain moments." If one is "attuned to what's happening in the world, my goodness, how can we not have moments of feeling devastated and feeling a hopelessness, and then knowing we don't want to camp out there forever?"

As a word, hope gets "a little bit oversimplified, which is why I was so compelled by this being the conversation for the day," Horneffer-Ginter says.

How to keep hope? Reach out.

Asked how they keep hope alive within themselves, the panelists spoke about reaching outside of themselves.

"When I think about hope, I think it's important that we attach hope to action," Black says. "Just saying, like, 'hey, you know, have some hope,' it's like, what does that even mean?"

Over 50 people attended the first 2024 Kalamazoo Lyceum on "Hope for Ourselves."As a speaker and mentor, he works with "communities who are feeling hopeless." He encourages them to attach some personal action to hope, "while we feel depressed or we feel hopeless, while we're going through the barriers in life, making sure that our hope is put into different steps moving forward."

When rising out of the foster care system, he thought of his future family, Black says. "How do I want their lives to be, and do I want them to be similar to the relationship that I might have had with family and community and the environments that I've grown up in? Or do I want something better for them and for the children who grow up in similar environments that I have?"

Looking at the "bigger picture is what allows me to keep my legs moving forward regardless of missed opportunities, regardless of bad things that happen. I need to keep my eyes looking forward because I have a daughter and I have children in the future, and great-grandchildren who need me to hold on to faith and hope in order to make change."

Nelson says "I feel a sense of hope when I am working with my future teachers, my students in the classroom, and we're trying to figure out what's the best way to share information with a diverse group of students."

Dr. Regena Nelson, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Western Michigan UniversityShe may be teaching the latest techniques to educate diverse groups of students but hears from her teachers that the educational system is not giving them the flexibility to apply those techniques. 

It's evident that this frustration didn't turn into hopelessness in Nelson, it turned to action.

"How do you navigate this big system that does not support you?" That inspired her to go outside of academia and into community activism, and join ISAAC. 

For her, education is a social justice cause. "Early childhood education is the best investment that you can invest in... If we want to change the outcomes for people, it starts early."

It's frustrating, though. "We do have the will and the funds to make this happen, but we don't do it. So that's what our teachers face. Like, we know the answer, but we're not doing it."

Nelson says she tells her teachers, "You have to be an activist if you're a teacher."

Horneffer-Ginter says, "When I'm busy and stressed, I actually notice that's when I'm most at risk for feeling hopeless."

"If I can somehow carve out time just to maybe exhale and sit... I need that time to return to my senses, my sanity, my wisdom. And sometimes in that moment, it can be something as simple as hearing the birds."

If one is feeling hopeless, she says, it's helpful to ask "Well, now what?"

"Well, you know, if I'm going to be around here, on this planet, I'd like to be part of reigniting hope or something positive happening."

Wellness beyond the individual

Horneffer-Ginter says, "One of the things that I'm struck by is I think wellness is often thought of at an individual level." 

"We think about physical wellness as what did I eat for lunch and did I exercise?"

But for emotional wellness, the individual might need to think of the world outside themselves. "And maybe what hope brings to wellness is, you almost have to start thinking about that in a community way."

Does personal wellness come out of actions beyond diet, exercise, and a hopeful attitude, "to be engaged and in connection with others in the community?"

She acknowledges, "I think both wellness and hope are terms that can be inspiring, and they can both be irritating. If you catch someone on an off day when they're busy and you talk to them about, 'Hi, I'm a chief wellness officer!'..."

Dr. Regena Nelson, WMU Professor of Early Childhood Education and member of ISAAC, and Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Chief Wellness Officer of WMed offered their insights on hope at the Kalamazoo Lyceum.Or, if you cheerily say "Have hope!" to someone having a bad day, "it can feel like it's almost a little like — I was going to say tone deaf, but just like not taking into account a reality."

One thing she sees that's "so important in the whole realm of wellness and hope is, I think so many humans, so many of us are hungry to be seen and hungry to be known. It's why I think opportunities like this (the Lyceum) to connect in person are so lovely, to get to see and to be seen."

To Black and Nelson, she says, "I'm so struck when you were both sharing your examples that you're with younger people and you're really seeing them, and you're allowing them to see you and to see kind of examples of who they can be."

Faith and hope

The panel was asked what role faith plays in their hopefulness.

Black says he has a belief in a higher power, "that each of us have the ability to be able to lift one another up and be able to serve in an amazing way." 

His faith tells him, "We're meant to do that. That's what we're here for, is to be able to serve and love one another and love our neighbors as we love ourselves."

When working with youth with traumatic backgrounds, he sees "they have a certain image and idea of themselves that they deserve to be abused. They deserve to be hurt. They deserve the lesser things."

He says, "I have the faith in being able to understand that they are made for something greater than that."

Black thinks back to when he was 16, feeling his "sense of identity completely lost and shattered." He then found himself in a group home where he met "successful Black men that I've never been able to meet before" and "faith-filled married couples."

During the second half of the Lyceum, participants share thoughts with each other and then offer a toast for the group.He suddenly had people around him who told him he would end up in college and get good grades, though his grades at 16 were "terrible."

"They spoke life into me and they spoke life into a kid who had like a 1.8 GPA in high school at that time."

Nelson says her "faith is very important to me... It's kind of the source of my energy for my social justice work, and it's my faith community where those things come together."

Her church work and social justice work are tied together, she says. "I have people there who are also on the same path, whose values are aligned around their faith and their social justice, and I do believe that the goal of our faith is that we take the blessings that we have been given and we try to make the world a better place."

Horneffer-Ginter has "a Unitarian perspective, and I have just tremendous respect for different faith traditions."

"If I'm talking to someone and I'm hearing how important faith is in their life, I just find myself so wanting that to be honored. And really respecting that there's good reasons why sometimes people are not participating in any faith tradition and, you know, respecting that as well," she says. "Like, it's lovely to have that arrive, and then one also can't force that upon others."

Faith is "as complicated as hope in some ways."

Audience discussion

During the audience Q and A, an audience member summed up the discussion: "What you have told us basically is that hope comes from having some action you can take to make things better, either for people close to you or for the world or whatever... You've shown us that hope comes through feeling like you can do something."

The audience broke up into groups to discuss hope and what they'd heard from the panel. 

During the second half of the Lyceum, participants share thoughts with each other and then offer a toast for the group.The group I was in had a freewheeling conversation on faith and the lack of, rugged individualism versus being part of a community, and how many of us aren't billionaires able to donate money for the good of society.

One person, self-employed, said hope was a necessary thing in her position. She talked about making a sweatshirt that had the logo of her business on the sleeves, but what really motivated her to make it in the first place was, it had to have the words "FREE HUGS" on the front, in bright orange on a black background.

"I've always wanted to do a free-hugs thing," she says. 

She put it to use with random strangers. "After that, I got sick. I was like, 'Did I get sick from giving out too many free hugs to random strangers?'"

Still, it showed in a small way, "You don't have to have any money to make a difference." One didn't have to make a huge effort to see and be seen.

Each group gave a toast summarizing what they thought. All said that they connected hope in themselves with the need to reach out to others.

"If you can change one person's life, just one person," a spokesperson for one group says, "like a teacher, if she gets one student, and they can change that student's life. You don't realize how much you've done. You've made a big thing in that, just changing one person."

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.