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