You know the phrase: “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt”?
That’s how we feel anytime we hear someone say that listening is the key to allyship and long-term justice.
Listening has been the thread in my work for many years. From my days as a student studying social change movements to my graduate work conversations about listening have been central.
Well damn it. As much as it feels repetitive, exhausting, or overwhelming, it’s still true: listening is the hardest gift we can give.
I’d much rather buy you something pretty, like the book I just finished reading, or send you cash for coffee. I’d rather clean my entire house, including the baseboards, and make a full spread of snacks and drinks, so we could spend time together. Or, I’d willingly grab my credit card (hello, airline points!) to give generously to organizations doing work in our community and around the globe.
But, if you asked me to give the gift of listening, I’d probably cringe.
Remember, it’s me, the one who is a running record player of “Listen. Learn. Love” (if you need the sweatshirt, it’s here).
But really. Listening is hard and exhausting.
It’s the emotional energy that zaps me every time. While I’m listening, I have to nonstop remind myself, “Close your mouth.”, “Nod to show you’re engaged.” Or my inner critic is asking, “What’s your face like? You don’t want to look bored or irritated.”
Listening requires that we set our agendas aside and pause the development of our three talking point responses.
Instead, we work to open our eyes to a different perspective, to seek understanding, rather than brushing aside our questions in fear of looking stupid.
We can’t have conversations about hard things if we’re not willing to listen.
But listening is hard. It’s a muscle that, if we don’t stretch it, we’ll develop excuses around.
You know, like, “My partner is a person of color, so I don’t have to read books about the experience. He tells me all about it.”
“My best friend’s sister is Queer, so I know how hard their experience is.”
“I used to work for an organization that helped teenage moms so…”
We know it’s a hard gift to give, so why even try? Oh, because the benefits are worth it. They far outweigh the momentary panic of if I’m nodding too many times while listening.
We increase empathy & gain new eyes
Listening attentively allows us to truly understand and empathize with the experiences, perspectives, and challenges of others. We can’t understand the struggle if we aren’t aware of its rippling impacts. We must listen to the full breadth of experiences and not hand-select the easy parts, like focusing on history and not on the present day. We can’t know the reason, the passion, and the drive for their dreams of justice if we don’t see that each community has specific needs and challenges.
At home, we have the same power! We can’t assume one child’s needs based on the first kid, so why do we assume that Indigenous People from the Plains States and those from the Southwest have the same needs? But how can we listen to these stories and experiences if we’re not in proximity?
In our modern world, there is no good excuse. We have books at our fingertips, documentaries to add to our watchlist, and music we can easily stream. It’s time that we take listening seriously because listening gives us eyes to see others in new ways that have the potential to shift policy, services, and everyday life together.
We hand over the megaphone and cheer them on.
Remember the talking stick from elementary school or debate class? That magical object that whoever holds it has the floor to speak. If you didn’t get the stick, you didn’t speak. Injustice feeds on silenced or marginalized voices. It’s how it gains its power and control over the talking stick.
When we strengthen and invest in our listening skills, we can amplify the voices of others, and in doing so, we express their inherent value. By giving these voices a place at the table-our kitchen table, at a coffee shop, or in the office conference room—we can challenge existing power imbalances and work towards a more just society. It’s like giving communities and people a megaphone, allowing them to voice their experiences in their voices.
With children, we can do the same by allowing them to verbally process their understanding of an injustice or describe what they saw before quickly interrupting them. In doing this, we’re signaling that their understanding, their personal experience, or even what they observed is valuable. We’re telling them that talking about injustice isn’t taboo, and we’re modeling for them this value when we allow them to speak.
This happened a few weeks ago to us. We were out finishing up grocery shopping when my children saw a man who appeared to be without a home, surrounded by his things. They quickly inquired if we had any money. The car coin holder (also known as an ashtray in my 2002 vehicle) was empty. Now, this wasn’t my moment to lecture them about raiding my coins for chips at the gas station. Instead, I needed to allow them to give me the mini-lecture on showing others love and care because in doing so they were communicating our shared value. And that’s much more important than my Mom lecture.
We build together and explode with creativity.
We believe so deeply that justice work is sustainable only when we work together, and we know that collaboration and creativity are key to combating injustice. When we listen attentively to diverse perspectives, we create a space for dialogue and collaboration that reflects more than the needs of those in power. Long gone, hopefully, are the days of smoke-filled boardrooms filled with whiteheads making policy decisions or guiding the direction of nonprofits or ad agencies.
We can’t hire people, expect them to diversify our staff, and limit their influence or voice. If that’s the case, our organizations will never change on the inside but rather be just glossy images of diversity. Doing the work of justice means that we build together and allow the synergy to lead us to creativity.
If you remember anything- listening opens us up to connecting to the people we love and the people we value.
Strengthening my listening skills alongside you,