October 6, 2020

Personal Connections are Born Out of Listening to Personal Stories

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill

This past week, my dear husband realized a life-long dream of mine - built me a wall to wall window seat with bookshelves that that extended from the top of the seat to the ceiling. And so I must confess that I, Krysta G., am an unabashedly avid reader, and have been since the moment I learned how to do so. Phew! I am so happy to get that off my chest!

From the moment I learned that letters on the paper signify words, and strings of words form sentences, and sentences have meaning, I have been utterly and completely in love with reading. It is funny because I can actually remember the very first moment I learned how to do so --I was about 5 years old and one afternoon, I ran downstairs from our second floor apartment to get the mail out of our silver lockbox that was in line with all the others right inside the apartment building's front door. I looked at the stack of envelopes in my hand, at the one on top, and proceeded to read my mother's name for the first time ever! In that instant, I remember an intense feeling of happiness and sense of pride, and ran back upstairs with the biggest, most accomplished smile on my face.

Roots are Sown through Reading

As I became more fluent in reading, I devoured books, reading them in the bath, reading them for hours before bedtime (oftentimes staying up into the wee hours of the morning), in the backseat of my father's truck as the sunlight quickly faded away. I read so much that my levels quickly advanced and was so proud when the librarian told me in second grade that I could read from the 4th grade bookshelf! To this day, you will most likely find me reading instead of doing anything else.

You may be thinking to yourself, wow, she just really loved to read! But for me, it was different. As a child growing up in an unstable environment, reading was a way to escape my reality. It allowed me to travel to worlds unknown, explore unimaginable possibilities, empathize with characters who were like me and others who were not, and imagine a world focused on social justice and humanity. Reading offered a different version of what life could be and the characters quickly became like family. Their trials, their tribulations, their successes, their triumphs all were were like windows into a reality that I did not and could not ever experience, but I could empathize with and celebrate. My reading journey started off innocently enough with books like the Borrowers and the Babysitter's Club, like most children. But as I grew older I became more drawn to books like Rolling Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Books that placed their characters in the throes of the social injustices of their times. The personal stories of these characters, and the personal impact of the unjust laws, biases, prejudices, and systems, were stamped on my soul as if it had happened to me personally.

Art Mimics Life

As I grew older, I did not necessarily realize that the personal stories I read in fiction bools would turn out to be lived experiences of those I would meet in real life. When I entered college, unlike some, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So -- because of my love of reading and other justice oriented experiences -- I enrolled in a variety of Anthropology/Sociology classes. One class in particular was focused on the issue of poverty, specifically the social conditions leading to poverty. Now, before I move forward it must be made clear that we cannot change a system if we do not see and hear firsthand from those who are directly impacted by said system. As I tend to say, we cannot sit in our offices and make decisions affecting other people's lives without getting out into the streets, actively listening to personal stories with empathy, unrelentingly soliciting feedback on proposed changes, and sitting side by side with impacted people at the table sharing our decision making power. If we don't, we run the risk of blindly perpetuating inequities no matter how good our intentions are. Now that I said that, we can return to our normally scheduled programming.

So how did my desire for reading and the real world converge? In this poverty class, we went undercover to the local pork packaging factory to see the conditions the workers were working in for their low wages. The plant management thought we were there because we were majoring in plant management. As we were all suited up and ready to tour the factory, the first question our guide asked us was "Has anyone read the book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?" My ears perked up, I raised my hand,and wondered why asked us this since it was written in 1906 as a fictional expose on the inhumane conditions of the meat packing industry. His response? "Yeah, not much has changed since then." I was floored!! We then toured the plant and saw first hand the extreme temperatures the workers endured, the repetitious movements that caused the physical disfigurements for longtime workers, the continuous streams of animal fluids that flooded the floors, and the the iron smell of blood in the air. I could not help but hold back my emotions as fiction came to life before my very eyes, especially as workers tried to avoid looking us in the eyes. I left that plant that day in shock. In shock that this was someone's normal for little pay. In shock that in 100 years, a system, the animal processing plant industry that was described in the fiction book so many years before, had not figured out a way to create more humane conditions for the mostly immigrant workers. Seeing this story first hand, my desire for systemic change deepened so people would not have to be exploited for another's gain.

Personal Stories are Needed for Change

So, you may be asking yourself by now, why is she talking about reading and personal stories? For me, reading was my pathway to preparing myself to truly listen to the personal stories of others in the my journey to create a more just, equitable world. In my first blog, I talked about the need to reflect on our past to begin to create your own personal story for change. Your personal story holds power and it needs to be told. But that is only half the equation. We need to share our stories, but we also need to listen to the stories of others to gain a deeper understanding of the world we are living in, and build the connections we need for change. In a society that seems to be more and more polarized, that lives in so many words tweets, we have lost the nuance of connections. We seem to have lost the desire to understand how different people see and experience a system, and work together so all can thrive.

My intense love of reading set the foundation for my intense desire to connect with others and listen to their experiences in life. I listen to people who are like me and others who are not in conversations that occur in my office, in community focus groups, in meetings, in random places on the street. And this is why- each conversation, each personal story I listen to sheds a light on a blind spot in the systems that surround me, blind spots that I could not see simply because I belonged to a different social group than the other person. If we do not seek to listen to each other's personal stories, we will never create a world that welcomes and serves us all. By authentically listening to each other, we are able to connect on a deeper level, and finally understand how systems may be working for some of us but not for others.

But how do we do this? How do we authentically listen to each other's story in a world that thrives off sound bites? I must say that I do not recommend going up to strangers and commanding them to tell you their story. That would most likely yield you a ton of suspicious stares and choice words. Especially in these times.....

I personally recommend that you start with books and documentaries. Seek out voices from those that do not have similar backgrounds to yours. You know your experience walking through this life. How is someone else experiencing it? When you feel more confident, and knowledgeable, you can begin to organically strike up conversations with those you seek a closer relationship with. However, to do this effectively, you must remember the following:

  1. Seek to listen with empathy, not sympathy. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sympathy is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. It is important to place yourself in the other person's shoes and see, feel, experience the situation as they have. Empathy leads to change; sympathy can lead to further victimhood.
  2. Set aside any biases, prejudices, and stereotypes you have developed and listen to what the other person is saying with a fresh lens. If we are to change systems to be more equitable, we have to truly understand how all are experiencing it without our own pre-conceived notions getting in the way.
  3. Be curious. Not curious in that you want to be a chismosa (gossip), but in that you truly want to hear more about what the person has to say. Show that you value the person and consciously demonstrate that what they have to say is important. So many people walk through life feeling/being silenced. Be the one person that gives them a platform to speak their truth.
  4. Listen to understand, not debate. Just because you are empathizing with the person does not mean you have to agree with all their views. However, in listening to understand their experience, you just may find a thread of commonality that can begin to unite you and turn into allyship in the future.

Ok, so what do we do once we have heard all these personal stories? Well, for one, we allow them to challenge our personal biases, prejudices, and stereotypes that we have formed throughout the years. We as humans are not meant to be a fixed, staunch people. We are meant to adapt to the environment we live in and adjust as we learn new information. We use them to build bridges with others who are different than us as we realize there are more commonalities that tie us together, that are stronger than our differences. We allow them to break down the walls that divide us, the ones that those in power try to reinforce with their policies, their laws, their definition of culture. And we use them to unite to banish the inequities in our systems that continue to oppress some of us, while others thrive.


For you, what has been your own path towards listening to the personal stories of others? What personal stories are your seeking out and listening to the most? Are they only those that think like you and look like you? Do you find yourself only searching out voices from a specific group, or are you searching out a variety of voices that are touched by a certain system or topic? Reflect on your answer. How does this make you more or less effective in your "work?" Of the above steps in listening to personal stories, which step is most challenging for you and why? If you are not searching out and listening to diverse voices, what is preventing you from doing so? How is impacting you personally and how is this impacting the country as a whole?

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