Author, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit drew a full crowd to Rackham Auditorium on Monday evening in her “Hope and Emergency” lecture as she discussed the importance of maintaining hope in current political climate and of using stories to affect change.

The lecture was a part of the Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture series, honoring the memory of Jill Harris who was an undergraduate student at the University in the 1980s. Each year, as part of the series, the University brings a distinguished visitor who will appeal to undergraduates interested in the humanities. 

English Prof. Megan Sweeney introduced Solnit to the crowd, sharing how she felt Solnit’s writing — spanning 18 books, numerous essays and a column in Harper’s Magazine — has impacted society.

“Rebecca Solnit tells compelling, lyrical, essential stories,” Sweeney said. “In telling these stories, she offers fresh insights about politics and social change, community, geography, wandering and walking, the environment … Whether she’s writing about an explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, or the birth of Zapatismo in Chiapas, Mexico in 1944, Solnit has an uncanny ability to make the faraway seem nearby.”

Indeed, when Solnit came on stage, she used powerful vignettes to illustrate the effect of the current administration has had on the nation in the last month, which, according to Solnit, has been to unite the country in protest.

“When the Environmental Protection Agency was silenced early in the (President Donald) Trump era, a rogue EPA Twitter account appeared, and then one for the National Parks Service … (and) 200 coders in a UC-Berkeley basement set about saving NASA’s data last weekend,” Solnit said. “Intelligence agencies and individual employees seemed to be placing themselves in opposition to the administration. The power of the presidency is to command. If people do not obey the commands, the power does not exist.”

Solnit went on to speak about the Women’s March, the travel ban executive order and how she came to think of hope as a catalyst.

For Solnit, hope became important in 2003, when U.S. troops descended on Iraq. Today, she sees hope as the driving force of all change in the country.

“Fourteen years later, I use the term hope because it navigates the way forward between false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency of passivity that comes with both,” Solnit said. “Hope, for me, has meant a sense that the future is not yet written, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but we may be able to write it ourselves.”

Solnit, a self-identified progressive whose political ideologies often color her writing, did not shy away from claiming partisan affiliation in her speech.

“I’m just assuming you’re all progressive here,” Solnit said. “For those of you who aren’t, I’m assuming we can bring you in … because it’s more fun and it has more people. It has better facts, too! The facts are generated on our side but the stories have not been. We need to tell riveting stories about how a progressive agenda can make their lives better.”

Solnit returned to her theme of hope later in her speech, saying that hope in activism — hope that what is being done will make a difference, even if it isn’t evident —  is what drives change forward.

“The most important effects are often the most indirect,” Solnit said. “I sometimes wonder when I’m at a mass march like the Women’s March a month ago … whether the reason it matters is because some young woman is going to find her purpose in life, that will only be evident when she changes the world in 20 years as a great litigator. Maybe the purpose of what you’re doing won’t reveal itself in your lifetime, but it will be tremendous nonetheless.”

Many audience members came to the event because of a passion for Solnit’s writing, and a feeling of connection to her words. Liz Bayans, a resident of Toledo, Ohio drove all the way to Ann Arbor to hear Solnit’s speech. She feels Solnit’s bold stances are what make her writing so important.

“I think that she talks about a lot of topics people maybe don’t breach or feel comfortable with discussing openly,” Bayan said. “I think it’s important that those things are discussed in a more mainstream venue.”

Taubman graduate student Phillip Redpath came to hear the talk because he’s using elements of Solnit’s work in his master’s thesis in architecture, but he also shared Bayan’s enthusiasm for the way Solnit presents her ideas.

“I came because I thought it might be relevant to my thesis, but also more so because of the current political climate,” Redpath said. “To me, she offers a way of approaching things, not like a ‘here’s what you do’ but a ‘here’s how to think about what to do.’ ” 

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