By Gregory Varnum
“You have got to give them hope.” Harvey Milk delivered that now famous line during his successful 1977 campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Harvey would have turned 88 on May 22nd of this year, had he not been assassinated 40 years ago this November – just over a year after his monumental electoral victory.
A lot has changed in the United States during those 40 years. The communities that Harvey championed have made significant progress in our collective battle for equality. The global economy has bolstered both the city that helped form his political identity – New York City – and the city in which he applied that identity with truly historic outcomes – San Francisco. Technology has transformed not only the nation but also his most well-known passions – photography and politics. However, the hatred that took Harvey away from us is still palpable in our nation’s culture.
It can be difficult to hang on to Harvey Milk’s hope when that hatred seems to be consuming more and more of our nation. Donald Trump was elected into office utilizing the fear which feeds that hatred. The joy and pleasure many of us felt following historic victories in the past decade have quickly been replaced with anxiety, doubt, and concern for our own safety. It is hard not to look at our neighbors differently than we did the last time a political leader passionately told us about the power of hope.
So where does that leave us? As Harvey admitted in his speech just moments before that famous line, you cannot live on hope alone. Some of us have had to make difficult decisions in the world in which we find ourselves today. Moving across the country to find new ways to thrive. Pivoting life goals to meet new challenges. Making sacrifices so your ability to finance the healthcare you need to survive continues, despite uncertainty surrounding insurance. But as Harvey points out, “Without hope, not only gays, but those who are blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s; without hope the us’s give up.”
But what does Harvey’s hope look like in Donald Trump’s America? Fortunately, the political leader who was also fond of talking about the power of hope, Barack Obama, had wisdom to share on what choosing hope over fear looks like. “Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”
Sustaining hope is not easy when fear is lulling our neighbors and families into actions that challenge not only that hope but inspire hate that endangers our lives. However, giving each other hope, as Harvey Milk has been inspiring us to do for more than 40 years, is the most profound political act we can take to counter that fear. I have hope that together we will overcome the challenges facing our nation today, that a blue wave is coming this election, and that the victories we experienced this past decade were not a peak we are falling from but a glimpse at a better future.