Listening while "Woke" and White

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


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.

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,



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 For more information about NWOC, visit

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

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:


For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075

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


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

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.


For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075

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, 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 (

Debilyn Molineaux, Co-Director of National Week of Conversation and Bridge Alliance (, 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 ( “We matched political opposites at 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 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 ( “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:


For media inquiries and interviews, contact Stephen Kent.
Phone: (336) 239-9075

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


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.  

"Listen First in 2018" - The Hill

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Happy New Year! Today, I call on every American to "make a fresh choice for 2018 — a new resolution to listen first." My New Years column in DC's The Hill looks back at 2017 as a year of serial controversy lacking in real conversations — illuminated by stark survey data — but finds hope in the words of former presidents and a trauma surgeon as well as in the opportunity for our Listen First Coalition to grow the movement this year. In the Washington publication, which has praised LFP's "heroic steps to get people to talk to each other," I call on political leaders to be Listen First Candidates in 2018. But "change is up to us — the people... In listen first conversations — and the relationships they build — is hope for bridging the divides that threaten the fabric of American society." Read the column here.

A reason for hope this season

The holiday season traditionally brings great hope. But many are losing hope that we can save our society from ripping itself apart. It feels like divisions are deepening and rancor is rising. It's scary to think about where our current path is headed. We can't afford to give up hope for a turnaround.

I'm heartened by the fact that our fractured society is still made up of individual people. That means each person who adopts the Listen First Pledge and each person who engages in a Listen First Conversation tips the scales towards a new direction for society at large. If we can reach enough people, culture will change. 

Each of us must decide what role we're going to play in shaping our shared future. Will we passively accept perpetual 'us versus them' conflict or will we actively encourage 'me and you' conversations that bridge divides?

In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope.

Voices of Healing to be at Listen First in Charlottesville


On Saturday, April 21st, we'll begin writing the first chapter of a new story for America, one of restoring humanity and civility to our conversations and our protests. We're going to Listen First in Charlottesville—where the collapse of civility in America was tragically put into stark relief this past August. With inspiring national voices from across the spectrum, we'll spark a transformational grassroots movement of respect and understanding, in a city that witnessed just the opposite.

I'm excited to introduce you to two of our event co-hosts, heroes of reconciliation who emerged from the racial violence of Ferguson, Missouri and Dallas, Texas with messages of hope and healing. 

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Dr. Brian Williams, a black trauma surgeon, treated the white police officers who were killed in Dallas. He said through tears on CNN, “I don’t know why this has to be us against them… we are all in this together… all this hatred, all these disagreements, it impacts us all… Something has to be done. I don’t see people truly listening to the other side… and until we’re ready to do that, there probably will not be any truly substantive change.”


Pastor F. Willis Johnson stood in the middle of the racially charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri to offer love and strength. Reflecting on a poignant moment with a young protester, captured in a dramatic photo, he said, "This is not a race issue in and of itself; it's a human issue." He continues to lead the Ferguson community towards "some point of reconciliation and resolution" because "we want the cycle to stop." 

I'm honored to have Dr. Williams and Pastor Johnson join our movement to bridge divides through Listen First Conversations.

Fostering a New Generation of Listen First Leaders

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When I launched Listen First Project from Africa in 2013, one of the goals I wrote down was "Foster a new generation of Listen First leaders." Now dedicated full-time to this mission and joined by a team of 130+ passionate leaders, that vision is becoming a reality. Last week our original college chapter at Duke hosted a Listen First Conversation among Duke Democrats and College Republicans that earned rave reviews.


Today, I'm excited to announce a joint venture with our friends at BridgeUSA to amplify our message on college campuses coast to coast by launching many new college chapters together. BridgeUSA, begun by students at Notre Dame and Colorado, has had remarkable success promoting rich Listen First Conversations among fellow students of widely diverse perspectives. Our Bridge college chapters will complement Listen First chapters in high schools and communities. We also welcome BridgeUSA executive Manu Meel, a sophomore at Berkeley, onto the LFP Leadership Team. Manu shared the following thoughts on our partnership: 


“Our team at BridgeUSA has been thrilled to see students on campuses across the country successfully bridge divides in their communities and champion ideological diversity. I believe these young people are models for the change we need to better our culture. We at BridgeUSA are excited to apply our early success and experience to this joint venture with Listen First Project, leading the expansion of college chapters across America as a foundational component of the Listen First movement to bridge divides.”

Please let us know if you or someone you know would like to launch a chapter at their high school or college. The Listen First movement to bridge divides is taking off, and we'd love for you to be an active part of our mission!

Why I Listen First

When I think about how I developed the listening skills I have today, my mind immediately jumps to my month-long adventures on the coast of North Carolina. Camp placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of listening and respect, which created an atmosphere that truly demonstrates the Listen First mentality.

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A major goal of camp founder Wyatt Taylor was to “foster self-confidence, independence, consideration of others, respect for our fragile environment, and a spirit of cooperation.” With this in mind, summer camp provided a place where campers, counselors, and directors could immerse themselves in a culture that fosters respect and listening. Campers, coming from all over the world are encouraged to listen to and learn from one another. When conflicts arise, campers learn to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and come to a conclusion civilly. Each night before bed, campers share their thoughts during devotions. They voice what is on their minds, while all of their cabin mates listen quietly and provide meaningful insight. Campers do not fight to be heard but rather strive to understand each other’s stories. This atmosphere leads to sincere friendships and substantial character growth.

For counselors, there is a huge emphasis placed on actively listening to your co-counselors, directors, and most importantly, your campers. During training, the directors stress the importance of unplugging from our tech-reliant world and placing all of our focus on the campers’ experiences. It is more than just listening, but rather honestly trying to understand their needs. The best thing a camper can have is a counselor that makes them feel heard. It is amazing how much I learned from kids ten years younger than me just by listening and engaging in what they had to say.

I have tried to take the listening skills I acquired at camp back to the real world. However, being an attentive listener in today’s world makes you the minority. It is so much easier to have the Listen First mindset when others around you are actively trying to embody this as well. Though the camp bubble is in some ways just that, a bubble, this does not mean that we cannot apply this camp mindset in our schools and in our everyday interactions with one another. Now more than ever, it is critical that children learn the importance of listening to one another. If they don’t, all they will know is the hostility that currently exists. So whether you are a teacher, a counselor, a parent, or just a friend, remember to set the example and be a Listen First role model for those around you.


Divisions have never been worse. Why?

America is waking up to an existential crisis within our borders. More than 7 in 10 people say our divisions have never been worse and that incivility has reached a crisis level. How did we get here? And what can we do about it? The following societal trends and survey data tell an incredible story. 

Causes of unprecedented division

  • Steadily rising social and political tensions rooted in diverging reactions to relentless economic, demographic and cultural changes reshaping American life.
  • Most profound demographic transformation since the Melting Pot era at the turn of the 20th century. Almost 40% of the total population is now non-white, roughly double the share in 1980. People born abroad now constitute about 14% of all Americans. 
  • Eight in 10 Americans identified as white Christians through the 1960s. Increase in non-white population and decline of Christianity has pushed white Christians to just 43% of the population. Nearly a quarter of Americans today are unaffiliated with any religious faith.
  • Rapid change in cultural mores has followed. Fifteen years ago, same sex marriage was not legal in any state and was opposed by a significant majority; today it is legal everywhere and supported by 64%.
  • In 1965, core blue-collar industries of manufacturing, construction and mining accounted for more than a third of American jobs. Today, less than one-in-seven. Job growth now driven by post-industrial occupations such as health care, education, business services and tourism. 
  • Growth concentrated in large metropolitan areas racing into the globalized, information economy.
  • Political parties have starkly divided over these trends. Republicans rely on what Ronald Brownstein calls a “coalition of restoration” that revolves around older, blue-collar, and evangelical Christian whites, mostly outside of urban areas, who feel most uneasy about these changes. Democrats mobilize a competing “coalition of transformation” centered on minority, millennial and college-educated white voters, who are mostly clustered in major metropolitan areas and the most comfortable with the changes.
  • 2016 presidential race widened divisions to new extremes, illuminating deep fractures along lines of race, generation, class and geography. 79% of Americans say 2016 election was uncivil. 79% also say uncivil comments by political leaders encourages greater incivility in society.
  • Americans blame three major factors for the erosion of civility: politicians (75%), internet/social media (69%), and news media (59%).

Evidence of historic division

  • 75% of Americans believe the lack of civility has reached a crisis level.
  • 71% of Americans believe our nation’s politics have reached a dangerous low point.
  • Most Americas (52%) are bothered “a great deal” by “politics being too divisive and there being a lack of respect for people who disagree with each other.”
  • Most people engaged in politics are afraid of the other side. Not just frustrated or angry, but afraid. (70% of Democrats; 62% of Republicans) 
  • On a thermometer of 0 to 100, Democrats’ and Republicans’ view of people in the other party is frigid at 24 and 23 respectively. 
  • As the partisan gap on major issues has exploded over the last decade, most people have just a few or no close friends in the opposing party. (64% of Democrats; 55% of Republicans) 
  • 56% see fewer things that bind Americans together today than in the past. 
  • 84% have personally experienced incivility.
  • 56% expect civility to get worse in the next few years. 

The Solution = Listen First

  1. Tell your friends to join the Listen First Movement! 
    (75% would be willing to set a good example by practicing civility; 66% would encourage friends, family members and colleagues to be civil; 36% want to see a national campaign to promote civility; 20% want a national day of civility) 
  2. Suggest a school, college or community for a Listen First chapter! 
    (49% recommend civility training in schools and colleges as 50% of parents say their children have experienced incivility at school)
  3. Bring Listen First Means Business to your workplace!
    (11% would start or join a civility group at their workplace)
  4. Use #ListenFirst to call out incivility! 
    (53% would speak up against incivility when they see it) 
  5. Invest in rebuilding civil discourse in America!
    (11% would donate money or time to support organizations that promote civility) 

It's not a pretty picture, but together we will bridge divides one Listen First Pledge and Conversation at a time. How can you help? 

Sources: Civility in America VII: The State of Civility survey; CNN: "America, a year later" by Ronald Brownstein; NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey; Pew Research Center surveys; Washington Post-University of Maryland survey

A Day in NYC with President Bush

As our Listen First movement gains steam, exciting new opportunities abound. Last week I was invited to attend an event hosted by George W. Bush in New York City. It was an honor to be with national leaders from both sides of the political aisle but even more encouraging to hear each of them speak to the need for Listen First.


I heard President Bush decry “our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

First Lady Laura Bush echoed her husband’s sentiments, saying “we must teach our children how to listen, to show empathy, to show civility in the face of disagreement and to overcome malice and hate. And we must model that behavior ourselves.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright added that we must have “honest conversations… based on respect for other people’s views.” On the same day, President Obama decried “folks who… demonize people who have different ideas.”

Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center said, “When people respectfully listen to opposite points of view… that itself is an exercise in citizenship of the highest kind.”

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At his first inaugural address in 2001, President Bush said, “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment; it is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.” Last week he told those of us gathered in New York that America today needs organizations to champion civil discourse. Listen First Project and our Listen First Coalition of organizations coast to coast are answering that call. Will you?

With real conversations towards increased respect and understanding, we will restore relationships, build bridges, and mend the frayed fabric of our society. As foreign adversaries seek to foment division among us, that’s hope and change that will make America great again.

Listen First after Charlottesville—How we can save America


On the morning of Saturday August 12th, I was driving to Charlotte to meet with partners in my Listen First Coalition when I heard that violence had broken out at a rally in Charlottesville. I arrived at Dish in Plaza Midwood to have lunch with Molly Barker and Ann Crehore of The Red Boot Way and Patrick Redmond, one of my vice presidents. We had an exhilarating conversation on how to rebuild civil discourse in America and were blessed by our server Yolanda Pender's vibrant cheer. But behind Yoyo's smiling face, I could see a horrific tragedy unfolding on the television. As we grasped the magnitude of what was happening just a few hours north, conversation turned to how we should respond. Supporters of Listen First were texting me for a reaction. What should I say? After lunch, I sat in the parking lot of Dish and wrote my first Listen First response to the tragedy.

The vile hatred and violence in Charlottesville was a disgrace to the United States of America. We were witnessing not only the now-common vilifying of opponents but physical violence and lives lost—casualties of the incivility that is destroying the fabric of American society. This internal scourge on our nation threatens the future of the United States because a healthy and vibrant society cannot survive amidst such attacks on the humanity of our fellow Americans.

My initial statement elicited hundreds of comments and shares on Facebook. Among the most popular were a man calling Obama a sub-human terroristic traitor and a woman citing sadistic Trump "Republiklan" traitors. One sober-minded commenter asked, “how can you read this Listen First post and immediately start blaming others?” Good question. Another said that based on the comments there's no hope for Listen First so I should find a new mission.

I woke up the next morning feeling that a stronger, and much more difficult, statement was needed. Charlottesville put in stark relief that abject racism and anti-Semitism is still very real and repugnant. Unless we fully understand that these views still exist in the United States of America and confront them head on, we will not mend the frayed fabric of our society. I spent the 5-hour drive from Charlotte to my childhood hometown of Ahoskie consulting with my leadership team. We agreed that it was time to draw a hard line around the Listen First ideal.

Listen First Project in principle welcomes perspectives from all points on the ideological map. We should all strive to Listen First — prioritizing respect and understanding — even to ideas we find offensive. Only by engaging those with whom we disagree will we make progress. However, we drew the line at stating another person or group of persons is less human or less valued due to an immutable characteristic or any other personal trait. So as with physical violence, abject racism or anti-Semitism voids the privilege of a Listen First response. While I would like to gain an understanding of that perspective in order to eradicate it and heal our land, I need not respect or normalize the belief. Listen First is about improving humanity by rebuilding civil discourse. We cannot improve humanity if we attack the humanity of our fellow Americans or anyone else.

But let's also challenge ourselves—despite the abhorrent views and actions of abject racists—to respect their humanity as well. I know; I don't like the sound of that either. It doesn't seem fair. But no matter how right we think we are, and may be, when we start thinking another person is less human or less valued—for any reason—are we not falling into the same bottomless pit of hate that will destroy this nation?

Listen First is meant to be for everyone. When we alienate a segment of society, when we convey that someone's perspective is not worthy of being heard, we push extremist elements farther into the fringes of society—allowing them to fester and become more virulent among other ostracized populations. They do not go away; they sit and wait for opportunity, for a signal that it's safe to speak up. This is a very real danger. We just saw the consequences. But the solution is most certainly not to accept every belief as valid or equivocate on basic human, and American, values. There is no moral equivalence between abject racist and those standing to oppose abject racist.

Unfortunately, Listen First is the last thing most people have wanted to do in the aftermath of Charlottesville. As evidenced by vicious comments on my posts, many of us quickly closed ranks in our familiar corners defensively pointing to facts—real or alternative—that supported our preferred narrative of the traumatic weekend. We took cues from our national leaders on how to respond and spin events to suit our political purpose. Too few people thought for themselves and took an honest, empathetic look at the event—messy and complex as it was.

Upon arriving in Ahoskie, 24 hours after the tragedy in Charlottesville, I visited the 78-year-old black woman I consider my second mom—Zenora. We mourned Charlottesville and talked about race relations in my old hometown. Zenora shared that even now she finds blacks and whites sitting in different sections at the Bojangles’. To Zenora, such division is utterly nonsensical. "White and black are the same. You skin us and we're the same inside. If we bleed, we bleed the same. We all need the same things to live." Yet here we are—with deadly race protests and self-segregation at Bojangles’.

We can keep behaving like this. In a free country, there's no one to stop us. But we'll sacrifice the heart and soul of America, and we'll destroy our society.

I want to see a different story unfold, one of restoring humanity and civility to our conversations and our protests. Listen First has the power to restore relationships, build bridges, and mend the frayed fabric of society. As each one of us individually pledge to Listen First, we can rebuild civil discourse—one Listen First Conversation at a time. And we believe the first chapter of that story should be written in Charlottesville—with a major Listen First Event. A humbling list of national influencers and local leaders have agreed to participate, and we'll be releasing details soon. We've already launched Listen First chapters at UVA and in the Charlottesville community.

Our future depends on turning this story around, now. But before we go to Charlottesville and many other communities across the country growing the Listen First movement, I'm starting back in my hometown, at the Bojangles’ in Ahoskie. Where will you start?

-Pearce Godwin, Founder & CEO

Please help us realize the vision of a major Listen First in Charlottesville event!