Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Listening to Community

All of us have heard it said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason. My grandmother would say that we were supposed to listen to others twice as much as we share our own thoughts. If you could call what we talked about as kids "thought."

When I first came to the John Perkins Center, I spent the first summer reflecting on a related concept in Christian community development: Listening to Community. This idea is related to the felt need concept and asset-based community development. The former is connected listening to community for a number of important reasons:

"As we listen to their stories and get to know their hopes and concerns for the present and future, we also begin to identify one another person's deepest felt-needs; those hurts and longings that allows us opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level, which is always necessary for true reconciliation to take place."

Listening helps locate the community-based assets. These assets provide a launching pad for self-directed community improvement. The Christian Community Development website states:

"Asset-based community development focuses on the assets of a community and building upon them. When fused together through Christian Community Development, they can have extremely positive results.Every community has assets, but often these are neglected. When a ministry utilizes Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), it names all of the assets in the community that helps the community see its many positive characteristics. It is through these assets that people develop their community."

I thought listening to community seemed great in theory. We Americans, however, believe in relying on experts to lead us in the most rational and efficient direction towards our goals. These experts—our doctors, teachers, ministers, therapists and government officials—tell us how to improve our lives and our communities. So, I thought that listening to community sounded great, but it’s not best practice. In other words, we need some experts to help us out, I would have argued back then.

After working and teaching at Seattle Pacific for almost two years,I have grown a lot in this area. While I bring a degree of subject matter knowledge to bear on my work, I’ve learned to listen to my colleagues and students.This might seem counter-intuitive when thinking about community development involving poor communities. In my mind, wherever we work or live, as Christians, we are all involved in reconciliation. Paul writes:

"All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (New International Version)

Being reconciled to God involves human reconciliation. I'm learning that the reconciliation the leads to developing communities involves listening to and honoring the thoughts of others above my own While my colleagues at other universities find no repugnance in trying to insinuate themselves, and their ideologies, into institutional policy and their students' belief systems, I’m more interested in dialoguing around the material that I teach or institutional issues.

Dialogue requires a generous conception of the other that leads to generous listening. On the one hand, trying to change others is hard work. In fact, I’ve been trying to lose 10 pounds for a year, only to gain 10 more pounds. In other words, changing oneself is difficult enough. Letting go and listening to others allows me to understand their goals and to try to support them, where I can.

Generous listening requires trying to understand what the other is attempting to communicate. It requires forgetting about inserting one’s opinion when our conversation partner takes a breath, but honoring their words and thoughts by allowing them to speak without imposing our own thoughts on their communication.

On the other hand, developing a generous conception of the other is critical to reconciliation.This requires recognizing the sacredness and dignity of others based on their being made in the image and likeness of God. This attitude should lead to our treating the other with dignity while acknowledging the integrity of their thoughts, beliefs, and perspective.

When reading Kat Charron’s book, Freedom’s Teacher, I was surprised to hear the same concept emerge in her biography on the grassroots educator and activist Septima Clark. As an educator Clark learned to listen to parents and meet her adult and school-aged students where they were. As a young brash teacher and community organizer, she experienced negative consequences for her presumption and then began to take this more wholistic approach more seriously. She also learned to listen to her white political mentors, the Warings, discovering that listening led to gaining their ear, and the ear of others.

Clark began to appreciate this concept, around 1918, at the beginning of her teaching career. Clark learned this skill among the poor black farmers who spoke Gullah on St. John’s Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Eventually, she became a leader at the Highland Folk School. Afterward she would return to St. Johns, for intermittent periods, to teach in the black community and help residents with their economic, social, and political goals. This work would continue until the grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement passed in 1987.

Charron’s narrative helped me to appreciate how empowering education has always been mutually constitutive. It educates and empowers both student and teachers. Its power comes from the teacher's recognition that the all students is bring a mind, ideas, and a wealth of knowledge to the table. This awareness leads the educator to pay attention.

When it came time for Clark to choose a collaborator on a return trip to St. John, listening was the most important skill that she looked for. Consequently, she chose Bernice Robinson, a former beautician. Clark explained, “We felt that she had the most important quality; the ability to listen to people.” Robinson had learned to do so in her beauty shops in New York City and Charleston. We might find this an odd choice, but Clark's and Robinson’s ability to listen to community allowed them to train and influence thousands upon thousands of activists and educators. Many were practitioners themselves such as Rosa Parks and the great Fannie Lou Hammer .

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