Eight Years Ago – Listening to American Voices

Today, eight years ago, I was just across the threshold into a giant project. A listening project. Only 16 days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, I’d decided to take time off from work so I could drive around the country with a flip camera to record the voices of  everyday Americans.

I would start the day after the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States – Barack Obama.

I would ask three questions:

  • What do you mean when you say the word change?
  • In all of the change, what is important to you to have stay the same?
  • How will you recognize positive change when it is happening?

Then, I would listen.

My goal was to gather 100 voices in the first 100 days of the new administration. With luck and with the generosity of each person I interviewed, and that of the dozens of people who housed, fed, provided directions and encouraged me, I met my goal. The result was the book, 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.

Here are a few things I learned and described there. Split as we were at that time, no matter who people supported for the presidency, and no matter their spiritual orientation, economic standing, gender – sexual identity – ethnicity, or the region of the country; every one of the 100 had way more in common than at odds. The primary shared concern was for the end of the wars of that time. They were also interested in clean water and clean air. They wanted jobs and good education for their kids.

By the time the book was published and I found myself driving again share it – the commonality in interests and concerns was still very evident. In early 2012, the emphasis was economic – people wanted work and livable incomes. The other thing mentioned every stop along the way – whether, for example, in a class of seniors at Georgia State, diverse in ethnicity and age, studying to be social workers – or later that day in a wealthy suburb of Cobb County known for its heterogeneous conservatism – was listening. People spoke of feeling unskilled for listening, and in particular, for listening across differences. In Georgia and around the country whole groups indicated sincere, but cautions desire to get that skill – the skill of listening and speaking with people who see things differently than they do.

Here on January 16, 2017 – a few days before the country inaugurates its 45th President, the thoughts and the wisdom of these 100 voices seem immediately relevant again. These days when listening seems at a terribly absent, when division has reached a level fearful to many, I’ve been looking back.

While there are no sure answers in the collection of 100 Voices, there are countless real sparks of enduring light for helping us find our way. So, I’m writing here, now, to tell you again of my experience – the one that led to the first entries in this blog eight years ago.

The books are still available. Some libraries have them, and you can order a signed copy here. You can also listen to podcasts here.

All along, my most sincere thanks to all of us with interest and committment – in this vital historical moment – to getting better at listening across our differences.

We will go on – taking the only path that is sustainable – relationship based right here and now in the action of respect that may only arise from love and its kindness.

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