One of my first tasks at Love146 was to help draft the language for our six organizational values. My favorite is:
WE LISTEN: We welcome diverse perspectives to the Love146 table, refining our approach by listening to others with experience. We are forever learners: hearing, thinking, and responding deliberately.
I think this value is a lot deeper than it seems.
When we crafted this language, I read the word “experience” as referring to experts, or to people with a history of working in the field. This interpretation of “experience,” my colleague Marilyn Murray has pointed out, favors listening to those with positive experience. But the passage reads a little differently when you include people who have had a negative experience, for example, of having been trafficked or exploited. This kind of listening, I have observed, is more than merely a “value,” It is actually a powerful tool for social change.
This is made clear in a section of Love146’s “Language and Media Guide”:
VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING ARE RARELY VOICELESS OR INVISIBLE.
We understand that this kind of language is meant to describe children in the shadows and out of the public eye, but it is disempowering. By instead focusing on how we don’t hear them or we don’t see them, the onus of responsibility is on us, rather than the child.
Just because we don’t hear them, doesn’t mean they are not speaking.
Often we hear of people who consider themselves “good listeners.” It’s as if there are two groups of people: those who are good listeners, and those who aren’t. But listening, real listening, is a skill, and one that can be learned. Being a good listener is more than nodding quietly while someone talks, or being supportive. It is active. You focus, you pay attention, you clear your mind of your own thoughts. Sometimes in conversations, for example, I feel myself formulating a response when someone else is talking. When I do that, am I really paying attention to what they are saying? How often to we get impatient and interrupt someone before they are finished expressing their thoughts? Real listening demands respect for hearing what the other person is saying. Like any other skill, it takes practice, and constant self-reminders.
This comes to mind when I hear our social workers talk about the young people they support. Recently, I heard a story from one of our social workers about a survivor she’s working with saying something surprising, and the adults around them immediately reacted in judgmental ways.
When I heard this story, I also felt the instinct to react, to chime in, to step in and speak for the child. But I was amazed to hear how our social worker responded instead…
With quiet attentiveness she asked the youth, “what do you mean by that?” THIS is listening. And this is when it is powerful, validating, and important.
I thought about this when I read a recent story in the New Yorker about a team of representatives from the Obama administration who went to Flint, Michigan to see what they could do to help the community in the midst of its drinking water crisis. I was surprised to read that the community had been opposed to the government’s water plan from the beginning.
“What the narrative has been about Flint is that we were this little poor, docile black community that didn’t have a voice, and needed someone to come and fix it for them,” said Kent Key, the director of the Office of Community Scholars and Partnerships at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. On the contrary, he stressed, locals had been fighting the switch in the water source long before it happened. “When a community does everything right by the book,” he went on, “and your voice is still disregarded? To me, that speaks to a larger historical, systemic issue of the disregard for communities, particularly communities of color.”
Just because we don’t hear them, doesn’t mean they are not speaking. When listening becomes one of your true, living values, you make a practice of including people who don’t look and think like you do, or those you have to go out of your way to hear.
When you are able to do this, your community takes on new vibrancy. Conversely, when you are in the habit of passive, selective listening, it speaks volumes about our actual values. Ask yourself: Who’s humanity do you value? You’ll find out by how you listen, and who you listen to.