About Stephen Preskill

I am Professor of Civic Engagement and Leadership at Wagner College. I work in the Center for Leadership and Engagement encouraging participation and activism at Wagner and in the larger community. I am passionate about democracy as a way of life and its potential to help us become our best selves and to guide us toward the creation a more compassionate and inclusive society.

The Geometry of Hope

A few years ago there was a remarkable exhibit at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery focused on the abstract art of mid-20th century Latin America called “The Geometry of Hope.” I remember being struck by how creative and playful this show was, but also how upbeat and optimistic it seemed to be. It was inspired by the geometry of urban areas really, with all of the vertical lines and grid-like patterns we associate with cities. As the curator of the exhibit noted, the works were “structured around the city as the unit of context. The City,” the curator observed, “is where ideas circulate, where different voices and intentions collide in the same physical space…” To get an idea of how thrilling the works from this exhibit were go here.

Cities are places full of both enormous possibility and debilitating despair. This, too, is reflected in this exhibit. The belief in the idea of progress is constantly being pitted against a stubborn sense that poverty can never be eradicated. This back and forth between the grand potential of modern cities and the seeming hopelessness of ghettoized, marginalized environments is also part of the geometry of hope. Struggling to overcome those patterns is where the audacity of critical hope comes in.

Audacious, critical hope is different from optimism in that the purveyors of this kind of hope make no assumption that tomorrow will be a better day. In fact, it is likely, they say, that tomorrow will be just as grim as today was. But their inextinguishable hope for a better tomorrow derives from two understandings: 1)The challenges ahead are enormous and the odds are against us. We should never underestimate how hard it is going to be bring about positive change. 2)The only way to have any chance of overcoming the obstacles resulting from past racism and entrenched poverty is to struggle and to strategize and agitate for a better world. To encourage people to work together and to use every incentive possible to remind them that bridging the gap between a dark past and a bright future is entirely a function of how committed ordinary citizens are to holding their leaders accountable. When people are willing to raise their voices and tackle the hard challenges that confront them everyday, then hope which is grounded, realistic and critical can produce a difference that mere optimism could never have achieved.

Snow – A Leading Cause of Civic Disengagement

As predictions hit the airwaves of a huge blizzard for the Northeast on Friday evening and Saturday morning, scholars who focus their research on the correlates of civic engagement are once again directing attention to the understated links between bad weather and lowered participation in public life.J. Grady Lowman, Associate Professor of Civic Enthusiasm and Community Partnerships at Warren Gamaliel Harding University, recently mused: “Of course, when Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone that television and certain generational trends have the largest long-term impact on the level of civic engagement, he was almost certainly right. But what Putnam neglected to take into account were the short term effects of snowstorms, floods, and hurricanes. When these events and other natural disasters occur, our data clearly indicate that even the most civically engaged individuals retreat from the public sphere.”

The effect is not long lasting, Lowman pointed out, but it is statistically significant and directly proportional to the severity of the natural disaster. Lowman held up a graph that demonstrated clearly that when 15 or more inches of snow fall, the level of civic participation plummets. “Notice here,” Lowman said pointing to the data represented on his graph, “before any high intensity storm, the number of civically engaged individuals tends to hover around 120 per thousand, but as soon as a major storm hits this number is reduced to near zero.” Dr. Lowman went on to say that this impact on civic engagement in particular localities is consistent in virtually every instance of a heavy snowstorm or natural disaster.

When asked if there is anything that can be done to maintain a high level of civic engagement in these instances, Dr. Lowman shook his head and grimaced slightly. “There really isn’t. You just have to wait out the storm, so to speak. We have found that once the snow has been cleared or the damage from a flood has been addressed, civic engagement returns to its former levels. That, of course, is the good news. The bad news is that when the next natural disaster occurs, there is nothing that can be done to forestall diminished civic engagement, at least not until the effects of the event have ended. I am working on a book about this, sort of taking an arrow from Professor Putnam’s quiver. The working title is: Shoveling Alone: The short-term impact of natural disasters on civic engagement.