The Flames of Hate and How I Cope in the Smoke

Each passing day seems to increasingly expose the surprisingly utopian bubble where I grew up. A beautiful suburb filled with diversity. Truly perfect? No. But the community and schools were filled with a variety of religious backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic backgrounds, etc. The schools placed a focus on discussing and addressing the concept of diversity and inclusion. Whether we “succeeded” at perfect diversity or not, however success may be defined, it was surrounding each of us. For me, it became a priority for me in every environment I entered once I ventured off on my own as it had been so core to my younger years and growth.

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Beyond the diversity, growing up Jewish, I was part of a large, vibrant Jewish community in the area – enough to lead to our public school respecting many major Jewish holidays with additional days off. This was normal life to me. Normal was my mom cooking Shabbat dinners for me and my friends – Jewish, Catholic and Hindu to name a few identities. Normal was friends having some basic understanding of Jewish culture, holidays and vocabulary (and me enjoying some basic understanding of their religions). Normal was friends not needing to feel my head to check for horns or question my intentions in life being any different from theirs.

Oh how I wish that bubble extended beyond the boundaries of my hometown.

A Week of Hate

Mailed pipe bombs to government and community leaders. Racially motivated murders at a grocery store. Fatal mass shooting at a synagogue.  Another week passes in 2018.

I am torn between feeling terrified and feeling numb. Saturday, the day of the shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA, was a day of numbness. Squirrel Hill, another suburban US city known for its Jewish community, is where my mom was born and not far by car from where her family moved shortly after - where I grew up. We were warned about anti-Semitism around the country and around the world.  Last year, during the protests in Charlottesville, we even heard chants of it. But this weekend, we were faced with it head-on, no looking away, in a way we hadn’t felt in US history on US soil. But, as the theme of fortified and dangerous divisions has continued throughout 2018, I was left without shock. The deadliest anti-Semitic attack in our country’s history and I simply sat numb watching the headlines, videos, interviews and analysis of hate. Just our regular replay: breaking news alerts and panels of experts; videos of SWAT team or military teams or groups of local law enforcement rushing into a structure previously thought of as a safe space; pictures and lists of names memorializing those gone much too soon.

The days after were filled with sadness. For the lives lost. For all the lives lost this year due to hate or mass violence. For the Jewish community. For the American community. Then to end this week, back to the feeling of concern and, sure, terror. For our country. For our future.

We Hate Too Easy

Is this who we are? Is this who we are meant to be? From across the political aisle, from across geographical borders, from across our inserted, unseen divides, we stand and blame. We judge and criticize and let hate fester towards each other. We shoot words and bullets, both to cause equal harm. We don’t understand each other and ironically in a world that is over-connected, we elect to find our corners of like minds and disconnect from any others. In a world where likes and comments seem to be confused with self-worth, we crave to be the first and loudest and don’t always filter our most extreme thoughts. We throw the word hate around without weight and are quick to label a neighbor as an enemy. So are we surprised when that somehow manifests itself into what many of us would call unthinkable acts?

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The Anti-Defamation League created a resource they call the “Pyramid of Hate”. At the bottom-most layer is “Biased Attitudes”, at the top, “Genocide”, with “Discrimination” neatly sitting in the middle. They speak to the fact that the top of a pyramid is completely dependent on the foundation that sits below it. Similarly, something as common and simple as a biased attitude potentially builds into violent acts. The ADL discusses how normalizing the bottom layers can, maybe inadvertently, lead to normalization of the more drastic behavior that sits above.

We seem quicker to fortify divides than to bridge them. We find it easier to blame than try to understand. We create a hate culture that is no longer sitting in pockets. Our actions and our words are fueling fires that allow it to linger in the cloud of smoke above us. And in the aftermath of this last week, we yet again are in darkened smoke wondering if it will ever clear. Well, I have not lost hope.

Cooling the Fires

Can we rid the world of hate entirely? I don’t know. But something needs to change. We need to leave it only in the corners we can’t access, and we need to better recognize when we ourselves are fueling flames.

With the Pyramid of Hate in mind, we have a chance to catch the fire before it takes over. We know bias is all around us, including within us. Though there will still be extreme hate that creates itself within communities we don’t have access to, there are too many stories I have heard of those who were found by extremism at a point of complete vulnerability and desperation for belonging. As we increase our division, I fear that we are leaving more and more longing for belonging, feeling unheard and feeling undervalued.

So, first, let us look inward and set an example for those around us. Let us within ourselves try to allow love to respond instead of hate. Let us find a curiosity underneath it all that makes us want to reach out and learn more, instead of sit back and judge from afar.

Then I make a personal promise in the memory of those we have lost, and I ask you to join me, to reach out to the stranger. If somehow I am lucky enough to cross-paths with an anti-Semite and they are willing to listen, I will share my story to simply give perspective to who I am and who I am not. But for anyone I disagree with, I will reach out with an intent to engage in conversation where we #ListenFirst to understand each other before leaping to conclusions or trying to change each other’s minds. And for those who seem alone and lost, I will try to reach out to listen to their story and give them open ears and an open heart.

And even for those with bias and hate, I will listen to understand better where and how they reached their conclusions as that perspective will only help me better explain mine. When we attack, they attack. When we listen, they may listen. And when we talk, we open minds including our own. We humanize each other, and we quiet a spark instead of fanning a flame. So let’s talk about hate; let’s talk to stop hate in its tracks.

Jaclyn Inglis is on the Listen First Project Executive Team and serves as Partnerships Director for National Conversation Project

Candidates Nationwide Commit to #ListenFirst to Understand; Comment on #ListenFirstFriday (Press Release)

Candidates Nationwide—Including Duetting Opponents in Vermont—Commit to #ListenFirst to Understand. Also Comment on #ListenFirstFriday.

Listen First Project Recognizes Cultural Influencers Who Join the #ListenFirst Movement as #ListenFirst Leaders. Dozens of Federal, State, and Local Candidates—Republican, Democrat, and Independent—Have Stepped Up to Help Mend the Frayed Fabric of America. 4 Days Before Election, Statements Support #ListenFirstFriday. 

As Election Day approaches, many political candidates—including two opponents for Vermont State House who recently made national headlines singing a duet—have joined the #ListenFirst movement alongside other cultural influencers by committing to “Listen First to understand,” earning recognition as #ListenFirst Leaders. While welcoming all candidates to join thousands of others in the growing #ListenFirst movement, Listen First Project and National Conversation Project—the shared movement platform—are strictly nonpartisan and do not endorse or campaign for any individual candidate or issue.

"Cultural influencers, especially those seeking elected office, have a special opportunity to lead in turning the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in America. We are experiencing a dark moment as a society—political opponents targeted with bombs, Americans slaughtered in a place of worship, people gunned down in a grocery store due to the color of their skin, all amidst another socially polarized election," said Pearce Godwin, Founder of Listen First Project and Executive Director of National Conversation Project.

"The words and actions of our civic and cultural leaders play a role in shaping attitudes, speech, and behavior among society at large," adds Godwin. "We appreciate those leaders who have made a commitment to engage with fellow Americans as human beings worth understanding rather than as enemies with bad intentions or threats to be destroyed. Their example inspires others to move from a corrosive mindset of 'us vs. them' toward 'me and you.' Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' will require all of us, together."

#ListenFirst Leaders in final days of campaigns offer comments for #ListenFirstFriday

Zac Mayo & Lucy Rogers—candidates for Vermont State House who sang a duet following debate: Zac said, "I was honored to be recognized as a #ListenFirst Leader, along with my opponent. I believe strongly in mending the wounds of division and de-escalating the hyper-partisan culture we live in. The fire and fury of today doesn't lead to solutions, but instead breeds distrust and a further breakdown of our culture. My belief has always been that all voices need to be heard, regardless of which side of the aisle you are on." Lucy added, "I'm proud to have been recognized by the Listen First Project as a leader who pledges that 'I will listen first to understand.'"

Nick Thomas—Congressional candidate in CO-2: "People across the spectrum recognize that we're facing a cultural and political crisis. Surveys report that most of us see fewer things that bind Americans together today and have few or no friends from the other side. Experts warn of a 'soft civil war.' The current trend of vilifying people rather than honestly discussing positions is a disaster for our society and governance. I'm proud to champion and practice #ListenFirst. Listening first to understand others, especially those with whom we disagree, is the only way we move forward together and address the greatest issues of our time."

Cooper Nye—Congressional candidate in MI-11: "Make no mistake: Tribalism is unraveling the fabric of our free society. I signed the #ListenFirst pledge because America's greatness and our shared prosperity demand we listen first to understand one another and bridge divides now—not later."

Joe Pinion—Candidate for New York State Assembly: "We are the most connected society in the history of the world, and yet today we find ourselves more divided than ever before. In these times of great uncertainty and community upheaval, it is more important than ever to remain committed to the eternal moral quest for common ground and common purpose. I’m proud to stand with #ListenFirst and all those committed to the work required to help resolve our differences."

Ryan Watts—Congressional candidate in NC-6: "I’ve committed myself to listening to the people throughout the campaign. Our future is dependent on #ListenFirst Leaders willing to set aside party affiliation to truly represent the people."

Frank Ward—Candidate for Austin, TX City Council: "Many Americans are currently questioning whether we are and can still be a nation of the highest ideals. The #ListenFirst movement is a direct response to the frustration many are feeling about our frayed public discourse. It is a particularly American sensibility to endlessly pursue common ground. We can and must do just that. Listening first in our public discourse should be the standard, not the exception. Both the beautiful idea and reality of America continue to march on because we have always striven to appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ There’s no time like the present to get back out there and engage with voters and neighbors of all political stripes and perspectives. Imagine what we could all learn if we simply listened first.”

Emmanuel Wilder—Candidate for North Carolina House: "Being a #ListenFirst leader is a responsibility. We have real problems in our society and if we are going to solve any of them, we are going to have to understand one another. That starts by listening, having a truly honest dialogue about where we are, how did we get here, and where we want to go. By encouraging others to listen first, we can bring a generational change to our society."

Karen McCormick—Congressional candidate in CO-4: "I'm running to restore government that's of, by, and for the people again. That requires listening first to the people—showing up to gain greater understanding of the issues we face. That's why it's always been my priority to build a close relationship with the people of our district."

Jamie Schoolcraft—Congressional candidate in MO-7: "A true representative should be the voice of the people, which requires listening first to them."

Former Presidents Bush and Obama have also spoken to the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”

Other cultural influencers championing #ListenFirst include former party chairs (Donna Brazile & Michael Steele), journalists (Bret Baier), athletes (Dominique Wilkins), business leaders (Stephen M.R. Covey), activists (Susan Bro & Christian Picciolini), musicians (Peter Yarrow), mayors (Robyn Tannehill), superintendents (Dr. Catherine Edmonds), doctors (Dr. Brian Williams & Dr. Mark Goulston), and religious leaders (F. Willis Johnson & Cissie Graham Lynch).

What is National Conversation Project & #ListenFirstFriday?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. The problem is that we increasingly don't just disagree with one another. We dislike, distrust, even despise those who see the world differently. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by 150+ organizations—is the platform for that movement.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, and any conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 150 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

Every Friday, National Conversation Project elevates the #ListenFirst spirit and practice, encouraging all to be extra intentional about positively connecting with folks they encounter on #ListenFirstFriday. Friday is a great day to foster new connections, share stories of conversations earlier in the week, and consider opportunities to #ListenFirst over the upcoming weekend. Please share thoughts, pictures, and video using #ListenFirstFriday, encouraging all of us to #ListenFirst to understand.

References

Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Rather Than Argue Over 'Civility,' Let’s Listen First to Understand

In the midst of last week’s National Week of Conversation, a renewed debate broke out among top political leaders including two former First Ladies over the merits of 'civility.' While I don’t use the word ‘civility’ in encouraging Listen First conversations across divides, the ‘civility’ debate hits close to home for our more than 150 #ListenFirst Coalition partner organizations who are driving the new National Conversation Project to bridge divides and mend the frayed fabric of America. 

This debate on the merits of ‘civility’—occurring between and within ideological camps—epitomizes the hyper-polarization and tribalism that has gripped American society. Increasingly, we don’t just disagree; we distrust, dislike, even despise those who see the world differently. Animosity for positions is becoming contempt for the people who hold them. Difference and disagreement are deeply personal as we both rage against and recoil from those we see as enemies across widening divides—political, racial, religious, economic, educational, generational, and more. 

We frequently find ourselves talking past those with whom we disagree, dismissing them as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be destroyed, rather than fellow Americans—human beings—worth understanding. We often make very little effort to understand people outside our many increasingly narrow camps. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—which threatens the foundational fabric of America, creating a cultural crisis. 75% of Americans say the way we interact with each other across differences has reached a crisis level, according to Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America survey.

Part of the challenge is that many of the words we use mean very different things to different people. ‘Civility’ is no different. There is the formal definition of the term (politeness and courtesy) and then more toxic connotations. Calls for ‘civility’ are understandably threatening to some who’ve been disproportionately silenced over time, and still today. The abstract concept of ‘civility,’ however understood, is a distraction from what we believe America needs right now—fresh conversations including all voices, not about terms or behavior but with each other, sharing our diverse perspectives, experiences, hopes, and fears.

The many organizations behind National Conversation Project are interested in encouraging a shift in attitude and behavior—beginning with ourselves—that can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in this country. We humbly suggest that an effort to listen first to understand each other, especially those with whom we disagree, would move us toward a stronger and more equitable future for all—one built on relationships created by conversation. Whether in personal relationships (in which being heard and understood is part of being loved) or on the front lines of activism (where conversations can galvanize support and increase understanding of resistance), we believe listening first to understand has the power to make all of us stronger.

As experts see America “at the beginning of a soft civil war” and say the solution is “more positive social connections,” we are committed to encouraging conversations that move ‘us vs. them’ toward ‘me & you.’ All are welcome and necessary. This unprecedented collaborative effort to bridge divides won’t work if only a portion of Americans join the conversation. We recognize that for much of America’s history, many have been excluded from the conversation. That must change now.

75% of Americans say they're willing to set a good example by practicing conversations across divides, according to Weber Shandwick. 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting such conversations. That campaign is the new National Conversation Project which is promoting in-person and virtual conversations that prioritize listening first to understand on any topic during semi-annual National Weeks of Conversation, on the first Friday of each month (Listen First Fridays), and throughout the year—inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle similarly recognize the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”

As for other national leaders, we invite them to join the many thousands of Americans who have committed to "listen first to understand." Dozens of current candidates for office—across the ideological spectrum—have signed the Listen First Pledge and are campaigning as Listen First Leaders. Other influencers championing #ListenFirst include former party chairs (Donna Brazile & Michael Steele), journalists (Bret Baier), athletes (Dominique Wilkins), business leaders (Stephen M.R. Covey), activists (Susan Bro & Christian Picciolini), musicians (Peter Yarrow), mayors (Robyn Tannehill), superintendents (Dr. Catherine Edmonds), doctors (Dr. Brian Williams), and religious leaders (F. Willis Johnson & Cissie Graham Lynch).

Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” will require all of us, together. Let’s get started.

Pearce Godwin is Founder & CEO of Listen First Project, Executive Director of National Conversation Project, and leader of the #ListenFirst Coalition of 150+ partner organizations. He catalyzes the #ListenFirst movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. Godwin can be reached at Pearce@ListenFirstProject.org.

Why #ListenFirst

In a very simple sense, conversations boil down to speaking and listening. On one side of the equation, you have an individual who is disclosing, sharing, laying bare his soul. When we open up to another, we become vulnerable, trusting that on the other side of the equation is a person who is genuinely trying to understand our perspective. When this ideal is met, not only are conversations more productive but meaningful relationships form. As the theologian Karl Barth once said, “If I give you my time, I give you everything I have, I give you all that I am.” When we take the time to really listen to others, we are helping to build a foundation for a lasting relationship. And it is in relationships that we learn to work together, regardless of divides.

National Conversation Project wants to highlight the power of listening because of what speakers often find on the other side of the conversation equation, an adversary who seems to go to great lengths to tear us down. It has become more than simply disagreeing with opinions, something that effective listeners can do. As an excellent example of this, take the podcast, Conversations With People Who Hate Me.

In Conversations, Dylan Marron records Skype calls with people who have posted hateful messages about him on the Internet. As he explained in a Wired interview, “I wanted to put in the world an example of two people talking, without the goal of agreeing with each other, but also without the goal of shutting each other down.” Indeed, there is not much agreement that happens in the 30-minute episodes of Conversations, especially about policies or social issues. There is, however, quite a bit of opening up, especially about why each person believes what he or she believes.

The kind of change we find in Conversations involves a change of heart, a connection between two people even if they might be divided in their beliefs. In the introduction to episode four, Facts and Feelings, Dylan reminds listeners that “there is a person on the other side of the screen.” What is so amazing about this statement is that the person to whom Dylan was referring was at one point posting inflammatory personal attacks!

To humanize “people who hate me” involves a large dose of empathy, what scholars define as our ability to understand another person’s perspective, their point-of-view. Colloquially, empathy is the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes – something that is neither literally nor figuratively possible, but something toward which good listeners strive. Good listeners suspend judgment, not to say “I know how you feel” but to ask questions and prompt extended disclosure from the other in order to get the full story. Dylan gets this full story by asking why, the kind of why that is less about “why could you do such a thing” and more about “why do you believe what you believe.”

If empathy is about a genuine curiosity of other people and the reasons behind their beliefs, acceptance is about hearing these reasons as legitimate, at least from that person’s perspective. The power of acceptance comes from being heard on our own terms, in our own language and our unique ways of seeing the world. In episode four, Dylan responds to Ann’s comment that she is nervous by saying, “Don’t be nervous. Just be you. And I’ll be me. And that’s all we can agree to.” In this way, Ann is not forced to be a stereotype or how Dylan wants her to be. Instead, she is free to be her, to open up on her own terms and be heard as a person rather than a position. Ann is accepted and thus able to be herself; and Dylan is interested in that self, to listen to Ann as she is, not as how he wants her to be.

And so the purpose of a Listen First mindset is to connect with others, not on positions per se but on a fundamentally more interpersonal level. If listening is about relationships and relationships begin with connection, then listening to connect is the first skill that NCP tries to foster. Listening to connect is about exhibiting empathy in the form of perspective taking and acceptance of the individual. Indeed, it is much easier for us to agree with a person’s position on himself than we are with his position on some controversial issue.

As Conversations illustrates, the connection we get from listening has little to do with agreement (or even agreeing to disagree). In episode 2, for instance, Dylan did not suddenly realize “being gay is a sin” after his conversation with Josh, and neither did Josh suddenly accept Dylan’s lifestyle. Both did, however, feel more understood, and both had a better understanding of the other. Each also felt accepted for who he was. When based in empathy and acceptance, conversations create powerful connections, something each person can build on if they so desire toward a deeper and more meaningful relationship. These desirable outcomes are only possible if we listen first to understand. So, #ListenFirst.

Graham Bodie, PhD is Chief Listening & Operations Officer at Listen First Project and a recognized listening expert

Listen First Celebrates 5 Years!

Five years ago today, Listen First Project came alive. I had written a blog—"It's Time to Listen"—in Africa before returning home and was amazed to see such a simple message resonate through major newspapers all over America. So we launched Listen First Project to translate those words into action and make an impact on society. One year ago, the tragedy in Charlottesville compelled us to focus on this mission full-time

Over the last five years and especially the past 12 months momentum has grown to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides with conversations that prioritize listening first to understand. It's been recognized in reporting that we're "taking heroic steps to get people to talk to each other," descriptions of us as the "heart of bridging divides," and coverage in USA Today and New York Times. Our strategy has always been collaborative to make the greatest possible impact, for which 97 organizations have joined the Listen First Coalition! The #ListenFirst hashtag, adopted for April's National Week of Conversation, has reached millions of people. And now we're taking the #ListenFirst movement to much greater heights by aligning and amplifying 100+ efforts to bridge divides across the country into a mainstream National Conversation Project launching in October! I hope you'll join this unprecedented effort as a Hosting Partner or Sustaining Member.

Past Year Highlights

  • The first National Week of Conversation—based on #ListenFirst—engaged 130 partner organizations hosting thousands of conversations across divides in 32 states. 
  • We're now launching and leading an ongoing National Conversation Project to mainstream conversations across divides with monthly events coast to coast. 
  • Our first large-scale event, Listen First in Charlottesville, brought local and national leaders together across divides, inspired change, and was featured in national media including the New York Times.
  • The #ListenFirst hashtag reached millions and was promoted by celebrities, journalists, and politicians as we recognized influential Listen First Leaders across the country.
  • We launched Business Recognition and Training programs.
  • Our columns and interviews appeared in print, radio, podcast, and television nationwide, and were shared by thousands of people.  
  • The Listen First Pledge earned thousands more signatures.
  • We expanded the Top 10 Tips for Listen First Conversations
  • We began designing programs for Listen First Schools. 
  • Listen First Coalition membership skyrocketed to 97 aligned organizations.  
  • We expanded internationally with chapters and engagements in the Netherlands, Uganda, and Japan. 

Thank you for championing #ListenFirst in your community as we revitalize America together!

Pearce Godwin
Founder & CEO, Listen First Project
Director, National Conversation Project

A Year Later, Charlottesville Revisited

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This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the terror that tore through the streets of Charlottesville last August. I experienced that weekend and the aftermath as UVA Student Body President. The city and university are still grappling with trauma, pain, and anger as centuries-long conflicts have surfaced and dominated public discourse. Charlottesville has shown us that the processes of community reconciliation and understanding take time, patience, sacrifice, and shared commitment to a united and just society. With divisions deep and common understanding lacking, it's not been easy. 

Listen First Project became part of Charlottesville's journey with our Listen First in Charlottesville event in April. See the videos of powerful conversations and perspectives from local and national leaders who joined us. Our work in Charlottesville is featured in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. Pearce shared his thoughts in a recent television interview. One of the Listen First champions who spoke in Charlottesville was former white supremacist Christian Picciolini. See his special "Breaking Hate" on MSNBC Sunday at 9PM ET.

Now that I've graduated from UVA, I'll spend the anniversary standing against dehumanizing hate in Washington, DC, where the same dark forces are set to convene again and face counter-protesters. As we all remember the tragedy that further divided a community and nation, let's reflect on the ways that we can promote equity, openness, understanding, and peace in our own relationships and communities.

Sarah Kenny
Listen First Project Vice President
UVA Student Body President '17-'18

Listening while "Woke" and White

Guest Blogger: Bryan McCann, Associate Professor, Louisiana State University 

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When we think about listening across lines of difference with regard to racial justice and community activism, it is tempting to think in deeply polarized terms. We ask how we can best listen and deliberate with individuals whose opinions and experiences vary significantly from our own. Such an approach to listening is, of course, absolutely vital and well worth pursuing. When we think in such polarized terms however, we often neglect important considerations about listening between individuals with shared commitments regarding the kind of world in which we wish to live. Being on the same side of a controversial issue can create invaluable bonds of solidarity and friendship, but also lead us to ignore important differences that can threaten relationships and undermine progress.

I write this as a white man who has spent the majority of my adult life interested in the experiences of black people in the United States. I am a professor of communication studies specializing in rhetoric and culture. I recently published a book chronicling the emergence of gangsta rap during the war-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s. I have also written several academic and public articles addressing matters of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, I teach classes on similar topics and have engaged in community organizing work around issues such as the death penalty, mass incarceration, and labor rights. I do not offer this brief resume in the service of establishing my credibility as a “woke” white guy who does work related to race. Rather, my goal is to complicate my own credibility and invite similarly positioned white people to do the same.

While I believe a principled commitment to creating a fairer society motivates my work, I have not always excelled at listening. The nature of racism in the U.S. is incredibly complex. I understand racism not only as the expression of personal prejudices between individuals, but also as a historically durable and flexible system that rationalizes disadvantages for some on the basis of socially-produced markers of difference. My engagements with racism have led me to consume volumes of academic and political literature with an eye toward better grasping what it means to live in a racist nation. I have learned a lot over the years, but I have also frequently moved forward with an inflated sense of my ability to understand the nature of race and racism in the U.S. I have participated in coalitions with people of color in which I come to the table with a pre-figured and often inflexible understanding of what the problem is and how we should move forward. I have written on issues that are matters of life and death for black and brown people in the U.S. with what, in hindsight, strike me incredibly arrogant assumptions about my grasp of the subject matter. In short, I have spent a good deal of time speaking and writing, but not nearly enough time listening.

For white people who want to work toward racial justice in the U.S., we are only as helpful as our capacity to listen. No amount of theoretical depth or historical knowledge regarding the history of racial struggle can replace the practice of listening to individuals for whom racism is a fact of daily life. Such listening includes entering into activist spaces with a desire to learn from stakeholders for whom police brutality, mass incarceration, and other matters of racial justice are not abstractions, but everyday realities. When I have allowed myself to listen in such settings, I have gained invaluable insights from individuals who, regardless of educational background or profession, possess knowledge I can never hope to acquire. These insights have always made me a better participant in such work, for there is no book on a topic such as the death penalty that can provide me with the kind of knowledge possessed by, for instance, a woman whose son languishes on death row for a crime he most likely did not commit.

Another avenue for listening is to engage with the world of letters, music, and other forms of artistry from people of color. While history and theory can draw a comprehensive map of how inequality works in our world, it is no substitute for the kinds of artistry that can, to paraphrase the iconic black novelist Richard Wright, plant flesh on the bones of the skeleton of society. In fact, reading Wright’s highly influential 1940 novel Native Son was a turning point for me in terms of being a better listener with regard to racial justice. Native Son tells the tragic story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living on poverty on the Chicago South Side. After a series of violent events, all of which were a function of poverty and racial inequality, Bigger finds himself standing trial for the murder of an affluent white family’s daughter and is sentenced to death. While Native Son is a multi-layered testament to the consequences of racial inequality in the U.S., I was most struck by the white characters in the novel who claimed that they were on Bigger’s side. Written in the years leading up to the Second World War, Native Son features several white Communist characters who seize upon Bigger’s ordeal as an opportunity to advance the party line on racial and economic justice. Wright calls our attention to how much time these characters spend speaking in lofty platitudes about class struggle and racial harmony while Bigger sits silently. At one point in the novel, Wright narrates, “Bigger listened to the tone of their voices, to their strange accents, to the exuberant phrases that flowed so freely from their lips.” These white people were speaking, but not in a language that Bigger understood. While he was the one facing the electric chair, the exuberant Communist characters in Native Son left little room for Bigger to speak. They spied in his experiences an example they could generalize and use in the service of a larger cause.

Upon finishing Native Son, I felt as if Wright was speaking directly to me. I saw myself in these well-intentioned Communist characters. I wondered how many times I had filled a room with my voice and ideas without taking time to listen to people whose experiences with racism and poverty granted them a level of expertise I would never achieve. How many times had I, whether as an author, teacher, or activist viewed the flesh and blood experiences of others as raw material for an argument that would advance a cause about which I cared or my own academic career? The answer, I fear, is frequently. Another deeply influential black American author, James Baldwin, once warned readers that reducing black life to the practice of politics often stripped it of its individuality and substance. He wrote, “Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty.” Too often, our desire to master that which we wish to end, such as racism, leads us to ignore the complexity and voices of those for whom the stakes are life and death.

In the title of this article, I use the term “woke.” The term, derived from African American Vernacular English, refers to being deeply aware of matters of social justice. I am increasingly ambivalent about this term, especially when applied to white people such as myself. To say that one is “woke” implies finality, as if there is nothing left to learn. The moment we believe we have nothing left to learn is the moment we stop listening. To other white folks reading this piece, I want to suggest that we are always in a state of waking. For those of us who care deeply about racial justice and wish to use our abilities to that end, we should by all means continue doing so. But part of doing that work is to proceed with humility and to listen first as a matter of principle. Even the most credentialed white scholar or experienced white activist has an immeasurable amount to learn from people of color who experience the indignities of racism on a daily basis. This is not to suggest that we cannot or should not bring our own ideas and arguments to the table—quite the contrary. Rather, I am arguing that we will generate better ideas and make better arguments when we have sufficiently listened to those with whom we seek to work. Agreeing that we need to create a better world is only a first step toward bringing that world to fruition. The process moving forward is one that requires listening on all sides, and especially from those of us whose experiences have shielded us from the worst versions of that which we wish to change.

Courage for Conversation

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America today is a nation of increasing animosity for those we don't understand. Our divisions are vivid, our shared humanity diminished. Many people feel our core values are being threatened. However, this fear looks very different across the ideological and demographic spectrum. While we may disagree on the source and nature of our challenges, there is a shared sense that something is terribly wrong.

Conversation—listening first to understand—is a powerful and necessary part of the solution. On this Fourth of July, may we reflect more on what unites us than divides us, have the courage for conversations across divides, and listen first to understand.

Announcing National Conversation Project!

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The first National Week of Conversation, kicked off by Listen First in Charlottesville, was a huge success! More than 130 schools, libraries, faith communities, activist groups and nonprofits hosted conversations among thousands of Americans coast to coast in 32 states. These conversations were grounded in our pledge to listen first to understand and consider another's views before sharing our own. The official #ListenFirst hashtag reached hundreds of thousands during NWOC and continues to be promoted by celebrities and journalists to millions of followers. Two-thirds of NWOC participants rated the value of their conversation as a 9 or 10 out of 10. Among all Americans, 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting this kind of conversation.

Building on this tremendous success and momentum, we are now working to launch an ongoing, monthly National Conversation Project to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. National Conversation Project (NCP)—a special project of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund—will engage increasingly more partners and participants through synchronized monthly conversation opportunities as well as semi-annual National Weeks of Conversation. I'm honored to serve as director of the project. 

Now is the time to seize momentum from NWOC and meet the desperate need of a nation in crisis! With your help, we'll create a tidal wave of conversations to revitalize America together!

Pearce Godwin
Founder & CEO, Listen First Project
Director, National Conversation Project

Listening for Difference

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
— John F. Kennedy

There appears to be a crisis of civility in America. And while it is easy to place the blame on our current political atmosphere, surveys show that incivility experiences go beyond Washington. According to the State of Civility survey conducted by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research, Americans reported experiencing incivility across several domains – the workplace, on the road, in school, and online. Their data also suggest that while experiences of incivility have not universally increased, most believe that America is losing its status as a civil nation. So what are we to do?

Answers vary, but the majority have two things in common. First, there is a call for less talking and more listening. At the Listen First Project, we agree with this recommendation; we believe that in order to show respect for others, we must first listen to their opinions and have a genuine desire to understand multiple points of view. We also note, however, that while a call for more listening is generally positive, detailed recommendations on exactly how we should listen are missing.

A primary recommendation for how to listen toward a more civil society is found in the second common thread among recent calls for increasing civility, the need to recognize differences. Listen First Project fully embraces the underlying motivation of this perspective: to understand others we first have to realize that each of us is coming from a unique perspective, one that may not be reconcilable with other perspectives, at least not completely. In other words, being civil starts with listening for what divides us in the first place.

The focus on difference makes sense as a practical matter. Why else would we need to argue for the merits of civility if we all agreed? It stands to reason that where there is little disagreement, there is likely little need to focus attention on making things more civil. As the excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address reminds us, however, focusing on what unites us may prove to be a more successful starting place.

If we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on what separates us, we foster a sense that we are more different than we actually are. More generally, the risk we take when teaching others to listen for difference is to focus on only one tiny part of the equation. What if, instead, we stressed the importance of listening for similarity?

The Listen First Project offers a set of conversational guidelines, and we believe a crucial part of any Listen First Conversation is to listen for similarity. Listening for similarity means to focus attention on what unites us rather than on what divides us. It means to explore areas of mutual agreement before you start to hone in on where the dividing lines begin. Conversational partners should come to the table ready to first outline where there is common ground and to build the rest of the dialogue around these points of agreement.

By starting with where we agree, our conversations are more likely to stay on a course toward mutual understanding and respect than if we start with areas of disagreement. Coming to a conversation with the mindset that “you want to raise taxes, and I want to lower them” not only sets a false dichotomy, but it also sets a combative tone. Coming to a conversation with the mindset that “we both want what is best for the American public” sets a collaborative tone – it turns a “you vs. me” mentality into a “what can we do to improve things” frame of mind.

Listen First to Capitalize on Employee Diversity

I have been reading a lot lately about the critical role diversity plays in establishing high-producing work teams. When teams are built to be diverse, the argument goes, they make better decisions and ultimately are better able to solve complex problems. Describing what he calls the diversity bonus, Scott Page says,

When a team applies diverse ways of thinking to a task—whether it is solving a problem, making a prediction, or coming up with creative ideas—they don’t get the average of the individual answers. They do much better. In fact, on complex tasks, diverse teams outperform their best member. That’s the diversity bonus. Diversity doesn’t supplant individual talent. We need talent, but it must be diverse.[1]

Creating a diverse work team is only the first step, however. Companies must encourage employees to share opinions and foster unconventional ways of thinking in order to see the benefits of a diverse workforce. That is the conclusion of a 2013 report published by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) which concludes that “when leadership lacks innate or acquired diversity, or fails to foster a speak-up culture, fewer ideas with market potential make it to market.”[2]

The idea of a speak-up culture is similar to what Listen First Project promotes, that by listening first to understand other perspectives we can grow not only a more inclusive and diverse culture but also one that thrives. Indeed, the first behavior highlighted by CTI that helps “unlock diverse work groups” is “ask questions, and listen carefully.” Even the five remaining behaviors have much to do with our abilities to listen appropriately:

1.     facilitate constructive argument;

2.     give actionable feedback;

3.     take advice from the team and act on it

4.     share credit for team success; and

5.     maintain regular contact with team members. 

Ultimately, what this and other research supports is the importance of listening to the bottom line of businesses. Listening makes business possible. If you want to find out how to build a Listen First culture in your organization, we would love to be part of that conversation!

Graham Bodie, graham@listenfirstproject.org

[1] https://press.princeton.edu/interviews/qa-11077

[2] http://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/IDMG-ExecSummFINAL-CTI.pdf[1] https://press.princeton.edu/interviews/qa-11077

Listen First event in Charlottesville to kickoff National Week of Conversation (press release)

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Listen First event in Charlottesville to kickoff
National Week of Conversation

Michael Steele and Donna Brazile added to lineup of local and national influencers slated to support Charlottesville’s healing and to inspire the nation as more than 100 organizations coast to coast sign-up for NWOC events

Charlottesville, Virginia—Listen First Project is hosting a weekend of events April 20-22 to support the continued healing and reconciliation in Charlottesville - while inspiring a national week of bridging divides through conversations that prioritize understanding.

Former national party chairs Michael Steele and Donna Brazile will end the weekend with a conversation on “Finding Common Ground on Government’s Role in Bridging Racial Divides” presented by Common Ground Committee. Their conversation and others in Charlottesville will launch a week of thousands of conversations coast to coast prioritizing listening first to understand the other in an effort to revitalize America. The first National Week of Conversation is now supported by more than 100 organizational partners.

Charlottesville and many other communities across America have been devastated by division in recent years. With this National Week of Conversation, we can forge a new path, one guided by personal relationships built in conversation.” said Pearce Godwin, founder of Listen First Project, organizer of Listen First in Charlottesville, and co-director of National Week of Conversation. “We can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that bridge divides—move from 'us vs. them' to 'me and you.'

To see participants and learn more about the Listen First in Charlottesville weekend, visit ListenFirstCharlottesville.com. For more information about NWOC, visit NationalWeekofConversation.org.

About Listen First Project

Listen First Project encourages conversations that prioritize understanding the other and inspires hope for a stronger society one Listen First Pledge and Conversation at a time. LFP drives the Listen First movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides. The Listen First movement is promoted coast to coast by 60+ organizational members of our Listen First Coalition as well as local Listen First programs in schools, communities, and workplaces. Learn more at http://www.listenfirstproject.org/.

About National Week of Conversation

NWOC is nationwide series of events and individual conversations April 20-28, 2018 in which people all over America participate in conversations that prioritize listening first to understand the other across political, socio-economic and cultural divides. Individuals will participate at public events or in private groups at libraries, community centers, schools, clubs, online video conferences, restaurants and homes. This movement of bridge-building conversations will be promoted on social media using #ListenFirst. Additional information and opportunities to get involved as a host or participant are on the website: https://nationalweekofconversation.org/.

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For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075
Email: stephen@listenfirstproject.org

Listen First event in Charlottesville to support community healing and inspire nation (press release)

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Listen First event in Charlottesville to support community healing and inspire nation

Main event at Sprint Pavilion on Saturday, April 21st will feature panels of local and national civic leaders focused on prioritizing listening and understanding of the other.

Charlottesville, Virginia—Listen First Project is hosting a weekend of events April 20-22 to support the continued healing and reconciliation in Charlottesville. We hope to inspire America toward mending our frayed social fabric by bridging divides with conversations that prioritize understanding of the other.

“The horrific events of last summer continue to have a profound, personal impact on the Charlottesville community. They also epitomize the depth of division affecting communities coast to coast,” said Pearce Godwin, founder of Listen First Project and organizer of Listen First in Charlottesville. “Increasingly in America today, I don’t just disagree with you; I distrust, dislike, even despise you because we see the world differently. Whether you see last summer’s headline-grabbing events as an aberration or an illumination of long-standing fractures, a dangerous trend is clear and must be addressed, together.”

“There is hope for writing new headlines and painting a starkly different picture for Charlottesville and America in 2018. At Listen First in Charlottesville, we’ll turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that bridge divides—move from 'us vs. them' to 'me and you.' With conversations—and the relationships they build—we can mend the frayed fabric of our local communities, realize the change that is still needed, and revitalize America."

Agenda Details continued on page 2

Listen First in Charlottesville, presented by the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, will begin Friday, April 20th with Village Square & Connect Cville Challenge inviting the public to host or attend diverse Charlottesville Dinners for enriching conversation with people not in their usual circles. Following dinner, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary will perform a free concert at The Haven (8:30pm).

On Saturday afternoon, April 21st, the main event at Sprint Pavilion (1-5:30pm) will feature Listen First Conversations which prioritize understanding the other among panels of local and national influencers as well as personal conversations amongst all attendees that both enhance understanding and spark ideas for action, followed by inspiring keynotes. Conversation topics will include: Charlottesville's Historical Divisions and Fresh Wounds; Charlottesville Working to Heal and Progress; A Nation Divided; and Bridging Divides Across America.

Finally, on Sunday, April 22nd, members of the Listen First Coalition such as Living Room Conversations and Better Angels as well as local organizations such as Montpelier, Converge UVA, and Playback Theater will host opportunities to continue the conversations.

To see participants and learn more about the Listen First in Charlottesville weekend, visit ListenFirstCharlottesville.com.

About Listen First Project

Listen First Project encourages conversations that prioritize understanding the other and inspires hope for a stronger society one Listen First Pledge and Conversation at a time. LFP drives the Listen First movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides. The Listen First movement is promoted coast to coast by 60+ organizational members of our Listen First Coalition as well as local Listen First programs in schools, communities, and workplaces.

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For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075
Email: stephen@listenfirstproject.org

National Week of Conversation, April 20-28, 2018 (press release)

National Week of Conversation, April 20-28, 2018

Thousands of conversations coast to coast will prioritize listening first to understand the other in effort to revitalize America

At a moment in history in which we’re increasingly isolating ourselves from our fellow Americans, especially those with whom we disagree, the first National Week of Conversation, April 20-28, is an opportunity to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time.

More than 50 organizations—libraries, schools, activist groups, nonprofits, and churches—have already signed up as National Week of Conversation partners. They will be hosting conversations coast to coast, online and offline, and providing conversation guides so anyone can easily participate. Events are already scheduled in Charlottesville, Dallas, Santa Monica, Boston, Kansas City, New York City, Columbus, Washington DC, Boise, Atlanta, Lansing, and Tallahassee as more are added daily.

At NationalWeekOfConversation.org, participants start by taking the pledge to #ListenFirst to understand and consider another's views before sharing their own and to prioritize respect and understanding in conversation. From there, people may find an event near them, join others over a meal or coffee, have an online video conversation, or host their own conversations with friends and family. The website also provides special programs for libraries, schools, and faith communities.

“Increasingly in America today, I don’t just disagree with you; I distrust, dislike, even despise you because we see the world differently. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level, as historians say our country hasn’t been this divided since the 1850s. A healthy, vibrant society cannot survive amidst such attacks on the humanity of our fellow Americans,” said Pearce Godwin, Co-Director of National Week of Conversation and Founder of Listen First Project (ListenFirstProject.org).

Debilyn Molineaux, Co-Director of National Week of Conversation and Bridge Alliance (BridgeAlliance.us), agrees. “Our country is at risk. And power brokers are exploiting our divisions to serve their own ends. Individuals—citizens themselves—are in the unique position of saying ‘NO MORE’ to the demonization of our fellow Americans or any human being.”

Godwin points to conversations as a solution. “In today's hyper-polarized and tribal society, we can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that bridge divides—move from 'us vs. them' to 'me and you.' Each person who listens first to understand the other tips the scales toward a stronger future for our nation. In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope for mending the frayed fabric of America.”

“There is a real thirst for conversation across divides—that’s because conversation works,” said John Gable, Co-Director of National Week of Conversation and Founder of AllSides (AllSides.com). “We matched political opposites at Mismatch.org for structured video conversations. After just one conversation, 92% of the participants reported better understanding the other person or the other side. This is the kind of experience that can transform our society.”

The coalition of organizations and people behind this event span the political spectrum, including the co-founder of MoveOn.org and a staffer for President Bush. The team that’s united around a National Week of Conversation both encourages and embodies the bridging of divides.

Molineaux reflects, “It is our capacity to trust one another that has made this country the longest surviving democratic republic. If we want to keep it, we must reach out to each other with dignity and prioritize the country before our political agenda. It’s our patriotic duty to do so. The National Week of Conversation will help us start the de-escalation of internal tensions, leading to a more perfect union.”

“With the National Week of Conversation, we’re providing opportunities for healthy conversations to take place where listening and learning take precedence over arguing and grandstanding,” said Sandy Heierbacher, Founding Director of National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (ncdd.org). “We and our Partners are creating spaces where everyone who shows up can tell their story and share their perspective on issues we usually debate or avoid entirely. This kind of dialogue builds trust and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own.”

What is National Week of Conversation?

A nationwide series of events and individual conversations starting Friday, April 20 and ending Saturday, April 28, 2018 in which people all over America participate in conversations that prioritize listening first to understand the other across political, socio-economic and cultural divides. Individuals will participate at public events or in private groups at libraries, community centers, schools, clubs, online video conferences, restaurants and homes. This movement of bridge-building conversations will be promoted on social media using #ListenFirst. Additional information and opportunities to get involved as a host or participant are on the website: https://nationalweekofconversation.org/.

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For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075
Email: stephen@listenfirstproject.org

Listen First in Charlottesville & NWOC 4 Weeks Away!

Listen First in Charlottesville (April 20-22) will be covered by multiple national television networks as we seek to both support the progress of healing and reconciliation in Charlottesville and inspire America toward mending the frayed fabric of society by bridging divides with conversations that prioritize understanding the other. Charlottesville—the scene of horrific violence epitomizing the depth of our divisions—can be a city on a hill lighting a new way for America. 

Listen First in Charlottesville will begin an unprecedented National Week of Conversation (April 20-28) based on the #ListenFirst message. In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope for revitalizing America together. 

You’re invited to participate in both events! Please also consider a donation to help us realize the dream of a Listen First movement sweeping the nation to turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening divisions in America.

What United Teaches About Listening

The recent report about the backlash of United Airlines employees teaches an important lesson about listening. On the one hand, United could be said to have listened adequately to employee opinion and thus changed course on an unpopular and perhaps detrimental company policy. This type of retroactive listening is indeed vital to company success. Organizations, be they for profit, not-for-profit, governmental, public, private, or somewhere else in the spectrum, can powerfully demonstrate attentiveness, caring, empathy, openness, responsiveness, understanding, and other important attributes by listening to public opinion and changing course.

On the other hand, the United Airlines story teaches the need for a more proactive style of listening, what we might call a need to Listen First. A more proactive attitudes toward listening involves gathering various opinions prior to a decision - and not just "what do you think about this policy we plan to implement" but, rather, a true openness to crafting company policy around the needs of those you serve. Examples abound, but recently there have been a host of "listening tours" by politicians and other public figures that serve as a viable model, assuming the intention is to actually attempt to understand than to persuade. When listening to understand, organizations suspend their own agenda, seeking to align their purpose with, to use a term from journalism, the common good.

Putting the principles of listening into practice is not terribly complex, and yet how many of us truly focus on trying to get better at this important skill every day? How many of our businesses are truly designed to start with listening and continue its employment in all our endeavors? To Listen First starts with a shift in mindset and continues with daily development and re-commitment. What would you need to understand to start implementing such a mindset today?

What if it's all of us?

What are the chances that we're always right and they're always wrong? That we're largely good and they're largely bad? That our problems are mostly their fault? That behaviors I'm quick to rebuke among them are reasonably justified among us? That we have the answers and gain nothing from understanding them? That we hold the truth and all their facts are fake?

A black and white view of the world, and other people, doesn't leave much room for humility, or learning, or real progress. What if it's not just them? What if it's all of us, and we're all in trouble, together?

As disagreement increasingly escalates to distrust, dislike, and disdain, our natural tribalism may destroy this thing we call America. Right now, it might be too much for us and them to bridge our divides, but me and you, we can do something different. Let's me and you buck the trend together and see what happens—one conversation at a time. National Week of Conversation is April 20-28.

National Week of Conversation, April 20-28!

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I'm thrilled to announce the first annual National Week of Conversation, April 20-28!

Alongside the Bridge Alliance and other leading partners, Listen First Project is spearheading this landmark event to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. 
A healthy, vibrant society—especially in a democratic republic—requires effective communication among citizens. But the past several years have been hard on conversations. 75% of Americans now believe the lack of civility has reached a crisis level. Our modern technology and society separates us into tribes that seldom interact. 

Without relationships, animosity grows. Not just for different perspectives, but also for the people who hold them. Disagreements grow into dislike, distrust, and even disgust with the other.

But we can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division. In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope for bridging the divides that threaten the fabric of America. Each person who listens first to understand the other tips the scales toward a better direction for our nation.

During National Week of Conversation, people across the country will enjoy conversations that prioritize understanding the other. After pledging to #ListenFirst to understand, participants will choose the type of conversation they want, then have an enriching experience that may span political, social-economic and cultural divides. People will participate at public events such as Listen First in Charlottesvilleor in private groups in libraries, community centers, schools, clubs, online video conferences, restaurants and homes.

Mark your calendar and tell you friends that April 20-28 is the week we make America greater together by listening first to understand!

2,500+ people have shared our call to #ListenFirst in 2018!

"The past several years have been hard on conversations. 75 percent of Americans now believe the lack of civility has reached a crisis level. The growing problem is that animosity for positions has become disdain for the people who hold them. A healthy and vibrant society cannot survive amidst attacks on the humanity of our fellow Americans.

But each person who sets aside interpersonal conflict for conversation and pledges to listen first tips the scales toward a new direction. In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope for bridging the divides that threaten the fabric of America."

From "Resolving to Listen First in 2018" by Pearce Godwin, published in The Hill 1/1/2018

Former White Supremacists at Listen First in Charlottesville

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Listen First in Charlottesville hopes to be an impactful event for a hurting city and an inspiration for America as a whole. With national media coverage and many partners from across the country joining us for the weekend, it will kick off the first annual National Week of Conversation. Local and national influencers will model and practice Listen First in Charlottesville—where the collapse of civility in America was tragically put into stark relief. One of those influencers is Christian Picciolini.

As a former leader in the white supremacist movement, Christian offers a poignant and eye-opening perspective on the abject hate and racism that visited Charlottesville last year. His story of falling into, then abandoning the movement and spending the last 20 years helping others escape hate is one of pain, transformation, and redemption. I asked Christian how listening has played a role in his work. He told me the following.

"People want to be heard, not talked to, so I listen more than I speak. I listen for potholes -- the trauma, fear, shame, joblessness, mental illness, poverty, privilege -- that detour people's lives. And then I fill them in. It's amazing how building human resilience, self-confidence, connection to others versus a culture of blaming others can obliterate hate without ever saying a word."

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Christian shared this message on 60 Minutes recently when asked what he says when he first sits down with someone lost in hate. He replied, "I'm there to listen because they're used to people not listening to them." On the Today show, Megyn Kelly asked what his message is to adults worried about young people falling into such darkness. Christian said, "We need to listen I think more than we speak."

Faced with an opportunity to change, and even save, someone's life, Christian listens first. His example in such a high stakes situation should inspire us to do the same when we're attempting to change a mind, advocate a cause, or build a relationship. 

In this gripping video, Christian challenges us "to go out there as human beings every day to make good happen and to show compassion and empathy for the people who you think deserve it the least, because chances are good they're the ones who need it the most."

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I've just finished listening to Christian's new book White American Youth, and strongly recommend it to you. He ends the book by saying, "what becomes of the human race is everyone's responsibility... when one of us refuses to be part of what is wrong with the world, the world becomes brighter for all of us... we all have the ability to make good happen if we just try." Amen to that! One conversation at a time.

Christian's friend and partner in this redemptive mission, Shannon Martinez, a former skinhead herself, recently shared her own story of trauma, rage, and relationship on the Today show. We're honored to have Shannon and Christian both joining us at Listen First in Charlottesville on April 21st.