Listening Works! How Listening and Empathy Can Heal National Divisions

by Youth On Board
YOB youth listen to peers on school discipline and policing during a listening project at a busy train station.

“Oh, I didn’t expect to stay here talkin’ so long…Lemme go vote now. Thank you. You have a good—BLACK LIVES MATTER?! Oh, lemme tell ya’ll something!”

As she prepared herself to express her thoughts that were triggered by the tiny BLM pin on one of our winter coats, the woman struggled to use her walking cane to twist her aging body around and face us once more. My colleague and I, both young adults, had spent the last ten minutes with this African-heritage woman who spoke passionately about the historical mistreatment of the elderly in the U.S. and how “it isn’t getting any better in Trump’s America.”

“I’m sorry,” she continued, “and yes I am black—but why do black lives matter only when the police is involved? Where were ya’ll at with your cameras when we killed our own people? I don’t get it. All lives matter. And our lives shouldn’t matter only when the police kill us.”

We stood in the cold, giving the woman our warm attention for another few minutes until she kindly bid us goodnight and walked toward the voting poll. After she left I stayed behind, feeling grateful for what the woman had shared. It didn’t matter whether or not I agreed with her perspective; for me, it was enough that our intentional listening had allowed her to trust us—complete strangers—and share deeply.

We missed something last election.

In November 2016, America’s presidential election—the biggest political platform in the world—gave voice to sexual violence against women, the degradation of the environment, xenophobia, racism, and exacerbated divisions among and between political parties. All the while, beneath the cacophony of rally cries, “alternative facts,” and Twitter feeds, lived the deep desire of so many to just be heard. And so we missed something—we missed the simple, yet revolutionary, act of listening to each other.

At Youth on Board (YOB), a nationally recognized youth-led, adult-supported organization focused on dismantling inequities that largely impact young people of color, we’re on a national mission to make sure we don’t miss this opportunity again. Through ListeningWorks, Youth on Board’s newest project, we are responding to the current political climate by training a national multi-generational network of activists in listening and in the support skills that deepen connections, build resilience, and ensure sustainability in movement building. We provide technical support to activists as they use these skills to mobilize and bridge gaps across communities.

Community activists engage in listening partnerships at Action & Support training

Almost 30 years ago, Youth on Board developed the Action and Support Model as a way to center the lived experiences of young people. This model is the foundation of ListeningWorks and is rooted in the tenets of peer counseling, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning. Action and Support builds an intentional culture supported by internal support circles, meaningful listening partnerships, and thoughtful appreciations. Action and Support fosters mutual listening and deep connection naturally lends itself to becoming the foundation for mobilizing our communities to end systemic oppression.

With ListeningWorks, YOB is building on the understanding that ridding our society of systemic oppression begins with a culture shift in our people—one where listening among and between communities allows for the empathy and communication that bridges people and uproots bias. Less than a year in, we have already trained nearly 100 activists in our model to tackle the most contentious issues facing our communities today —from police brutality to immigrant rights.

We are seeing the tide shift with organizations like the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM). Cairo Mendes, Organizing Director at SIM, has been implementing YOB’s Action & Support model within his organization, where it “continues to be a key part of the culture.”

Says Cairo, “Because the model is rooted in human connection and relationships, the ability to listen, empathize, and think about each other as human beings, first and foremost, has yielded stronger relationships. SIM is more resilient, better able to handle conflict, and have a better understanding of human beings and how to reach them with our message.”

Just last week, ListeningWorks offered the Action & Support model to over 250 young people from the UndocuBlack Network and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) as they built bridges on Capitol Hill to protect immigrant communities

If organizers and leaders get the chance to center healing, listening, and connection in their movements, we will be stronger, smarter, and more sustainable than ever before.

If you or your organization is interested in being part of this exciting movement, please visit our website or contact ListeningWorks Project Managers, Esteniolla Maitre ([email protected]) and Carlos Rojas ([email protected]).

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