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Listening

I began to write this poem after a long and tiring week. Sometimes, when I step back from the visceral nature of my emotions, postive and negative, I find a kernel to prompt writing, thinking, and acting.

Too often, I find myself talking when I should be listening. This includes listening to me, and, more importantly, listening to those whose stories are silenced in unjust ways. I think those two forms of listening go hand-in-hand. Not listening to others is often a product of being so busy with the noise of my own life. When I listen from the heart, I hear words anew.

Rich stories silenced–

Seeking just spaces,

Sharing and healing;

To speak freely.

Listening deeply–

Sadly, stories unheard,

Of being oppressed;

Shunted to the margins.

Listening with heart–

Leaning into stories,

With grace and humility,

Hearing for the first time.

Am I ready to act?

Listening, hearing–

But, without doing;

(In)justice remains.

I listen to the blues, gospel, and jazz most of my life. When it comes to the blues, gospel, and jazz music I am aware of the privilege I experience and do not take it for granted.  As a Canadian, I attended concerts, because African-American performers came to Canada. They had access to venues I could attend here that they did not have in their own country.

Today, I heard Mavis Staples (on her latest album) singing and it resonated. For real and just change to emerge, I must be willing to listen and change the things I can.  When I listen to the blues and gospel music, particularlyperformed by African-American women, there is an undercurrent for meaningful and just change in the world.

Listening and Learning

I was going to press a wonderful post from Cheryl’s blog called Living in the Gap. Unfortunately, she does not have a press facility, so I did the next thing. I copied a paragraph from her post that I relate to:

“Am I ready to look at the part I play in the current reality, come out from the safety of the suburbs, and confront my own racism? To take a sober look at my own bias, privilege, and exclusionary practices. This is when I want to curl up like a pill bug and roll away, but this movement is not about me, it’s about listening, learning, and leaning into the race issues currently afflicting our country.”

We are in an unusual moment with the protests. They call us to stop and listen to one another in ways we may not be used to. They also call us to ask questions we have not asked in deep ways, such as “how do I confront my own prejudices? Am I even willing to confront them?” I use the word prejudice to open the space a bit more. It is not only about race. It is about gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.

Currently, I am co-writing an article for publication using Paulo Freire. Freire used critical theory and I paraphrase him here. He said prejudices are interwoven, arising from individual lived histories passed from one generation to another in unquestioned ways. It is listening to others without taking on a saviour role, without drowning their voices, and hearing them speak about their reality. They await opportunities to be raised into consciousness and critically questioned. How I understand this is through a Socratic lens where skepticism begins at home. How do I make the world better, more just, more democratic. Freire suggests it is a slow process. In his book, Pedagogy of Hope, he acknowledged using gender exclusive language in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published 30 years earlier. He learned to use more inclusive language as he became critically aware of the harm done without it. It was a small and necessary step.

Freire argues we need to listen to one another, not denying difference. Instead, he calls on us to accept “unity in difference.” At our core, (in French coeur is heart and core) we are each human. Too often, we talk over each other and listen to defend entrenched positions. A key theme in Freire’s writing is human “unfinishedness,” always becoming. I reflect when I took-for-granted privilege and wonder how I might overcome this. It is not easy. It will not be finished. I understand my role, as an elder, as one of serving and listening. Leadership is serving, transforming, and mindful, rather than transactional and hierarchical.

Robert Greenleaf stated “the best test [of servant-leadership], and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served: Since so many people seem afraid to grow, the true servantleader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.” If I look at the next generation and they offer me hope that there is better to come, perhaps I can take some solace in that. Without hope, we wither and flee from the scene, abdicating our responsiblity to one another.

I leave you with a video of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. If I expand the defintion of pedagogue to its broadest etymology, it is how elders interact with youth, allowing them to dream. Hope is not about a lack of obstacles. After all, no life is a crystal staircase and that is most evident for those on the margins of our societies, including in Canada with its history of residential schools and mistreatment of people of colour. It is, as Freire suggests, being willing to struggle and fight to overcome overt and covert injustices and inequities we encounter and witness. It is listening and testifying in those moments to offer a hand to those in need, regardless of race, gender, orientation, creed, and class without being dogmatic. How do we testify in each of those moments? It is not succumbing to historical amnesia and existential weariness.

 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
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