Posted by: MC | February 22, 2012

Georgians in the Radical Act of Listening

I want to tell you about the last three groups to hear about 100 VOICES – AMERICANS TALK ABOUT CHANGE. 

Night before last in a Decatur, GA neighborhood, about 20 women who know each other from the Presbyterian church they all attend gathered the way they do every month.  They come for dinner, community and inquiry at the home of Kent Leslie author and scholar.  Most of the women are in their 60’s and 70’s – all appear to be white women.  A few younger women attended, one in her 20’s (my niece) and one in her 40’s (one of my little sister’s friends since elementary school).

There was privilege in the room.  There was also an unusual awareness of that fact.  These are lives that enact both the opportunity and the responsibility of their access.  They gather together to support and encourage each other.  They gather together to keep learning.

The conversation danced between matters of human relationship and spirit; between ideals and on-the-ground practical questions of how really to do this listening across differences thing.  One woman, retired communications professor Jimmie Meese Moomaw spoke of the difference between starting a conversation with a statement of what “should be” and starting with the question, “what ought to be.”  She suggested that listening across difference can only happen with an approach more like the latter.  “It’s more about dialogue,” she said, “instead of debate.”

This morning, I met my college friend at the Georgia State University School of Social Work.  She is a faculty person there, now and invited me to speak about the book and project to seniors in that program.  The 30 or so people gathered in the room qualify in my experience and observation as urban scholar angels.  They were entirely with me as I read and told stories of the people and journey behind 100 VOICES 

My interaction with this group of people affirmed once again how practical it is to ground our action in our experiences of relationship and community.  Out of their lives, these students and their instructor offered observations and asked questions that served only to fortify the connection we all share in the fact of being alive in the same place at the same time.

The class instructor asked how I’ve been changed by the project.

A man whose internship is with urban homeless people asked, “What have you had to give up or sacrifice to do this?”

A woman working in the schools asked what my personal and professional goals were for the project.

Each of these questions was a gift to me.  That’s the way it is going as I share this book with groups.  The questions are curious about and affirming of the people who lent their thoughts as part of the book itself – but they are also clearly focused on what each questioner can do to be a part of listening and supporting connection and social solutions.  And then, more personally and in a way I had not anticipated, the questions support me.  They help me think with increasing depth and learning about what I have learned and am learning about Americans and change – about people and change – about myself and change.

Then tonight I met with a group of neighbors from what “Anna” (Voice 063) described as one of the most homogeneously conservative counties in the U.S. – Cobb County, GA.  The discussion was lively and curious.  People were thoughtful and energized by the idea that the stories we tell about each other can severely limit what we know and gain from the community resources we have right in our own neighborhoods.

One man said, “Really, the influence I can have on government is right here in my own community.  I want things to change for the country, but my action has to start right here.”  Later, around conversation breakdown related to the words “social justice,” he agreed that we all need to slow down and define our terms.

Afterward, my friend Luanne, who joined w/ her family to host the event, said as people left, all had told her of their interest and appreciation of the opportunity to consider change this way.  Many of them left with books and the intent to let me know what they think.

Listening speaking and risking trust across differences.

Three events…just the last three in a series that started in Santa Barbara.  Again and again – across people who live in significantly different lives; who consider the world, its troubles and solutions in different ways – the folks I’m talking with around the country are energized by the story of EX:Change and 100 VOICES – AMERICANS TALK ABOUT CHANGE.

Conservatives, liberals, richer, poorer, privileged, struggling.  They are curious.  They are inspired.  They want sincerely to try out this listening idea.

I’m not making this up.  They tell me.

It can be a long way from considering a change in the way we interact to actually risking it – to trying it out once, then again and again.  But if there’s any chance of this kind of relating, it has to start somewhere.

Here in communities in and around Atlanta, GA there’s remarkably heartening evidence that people are ready to check out the radical act of listening – to see if the maturity among us right here in our everyday lives can make a difference.

It’s really an empirical question.  What happens if I listen because I really want to know how the world makes sense to a person who I sense is different from me?  What do I learn?  What do we together see as solutions to common concerns – matters of public safety, school finance, job creation?  If we listen to each other a little more than usual, do defenses drop enough to get to some of these good ideas?  Do our ideas complement one another in ways we couldn’t see when we just wrote one another off?

Check it out.

Once.  Then maybe again.

Let me know.

Imagine a revolution of wisdom and respect in the face of empty witticisms and adversity.  The latter may be entertaining (and more winning of advertising dollars), but the former shows up consistently in what the people I’m meeting  articulate as changes they’d like to see  in the leadership of our country and its people.

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