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The Listening Project

By Herb Walters

To seek the light in all, whether foe or friend, is a challenge that calls us to do what might be unpopular—to care about someone who hurts others. It is a challenge to listen to those who disagree with us or oppose us. The Listening Project of the Rural Southern Voice for Peace have challenged activists doing peace and justice work—including ourselves—to be the listeners. We often don't listen to others whose ideas are different from our own—they support the arms race, they are racist, etc. We argue instead. We try to corner the person and show how wrong he or she is and how right we are. So the other person shuts down, and the potential for change is decreased. When we listen, on the other hand, we say to the other person, "I care about what you think and I accept you as a person, even if we have opposite beliefs."

It is very difficult to accept the racist or the contra soldier. One thing that helps is to envision the racist or contra as a newborn child. When I talk to someone who wants to bomb the Nicaraguans or to someone who refers to Blacks as niggers, I try to imagine that person as a beautiful infant. The perfect child I see is the essence of what that person is. Beliefs and ideas, like racism have been picked up along the way. When we are able to see that spark of pure light in the racist, we have in our hearts the most powerful deterrent against racism—love. We can fight racism and war, but only love can transform the heart of the racist or the warrior.

Active listening allows a greater truth to emerge. I remember listening to one woman who was being surveyed about the relationship between racism and poverty. She started off by calling Blacks inferior. I didn't judge her or react to her. I asked her to comment on the fact that many Blacks are highly respected doctors, lawyers, and professors. This led her to talk about the importance of education, and we soon began talking about the effects of slavery and unequal opportunity. Eventually she disagreed with her own statement on Black inferiority and ended by acknowledging a need in the United States to make equal opportunity for education a national priority. This transformation was possible only because my listening made her feel safe to risk examining her ideas on race, perhaps for the first time in her life.

In St. Mary's, Georgia, a Listening Project is going on in awareness of the development of the local Kings Bay nuclear submarine base. As a result of this project, residents have been able to talk openly about nuclear issues for the first time in their lives, and many of them asked to have written information sent to them. When asked to consider alternatives to the arms race, these people, many of whom had previously felt antagonistic toward the peace movement, came up with some very good ideas, including stopping the manufacture of nuclear weapons, teaching peace to our kids, establishing exchange programs between U.S. and Russian schoolchildren, and supporting negotiations and arms control. In follow-up visits, a number of residents went further, saying that they would be interested in getting together with other concerned St. Mary's residents to discuss issues and consider ways to act on their concerns.

In 1988, we traveled to the Nicaragua-Honduras border to listen to contra fighters—to learn about these men and why they were fighting. We were particularly interested in interviewing fighters who had come willingly to the side of the contras. In the peace movement, the contras have been the enemy. By creating an enemy, we created a good-versus-bad image that allowed the killing to go on. An enemy is a person without a face, someone it's easy to be against. I have been to Central America on three occasions, and I have felt very strongly the suffering of the people there. For so many of the poor in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas brought hope, and the contras brought death and destruction. Yet with all this, I also know that things are never as black and white as we would like them to be. I know that my job as a peacemaker is to seek the truth, to humanize rather than to dehumanize the "enemy." We conducted our interviews with 26 contra fighters in complete privacy.

We learned that there were quite a few contra fighters who sincerely felt they were fighting against oppression and injustice. What many of us have known about the contras—as terrorists, former Guardia and Somocistas, and kidnappers—was true, but it was only a part of the truth. We were right to call for an end to contra aid, but the Contra Listening Project also raised some important issues. Many peacemakers failed to raise a strong voice for dialogue and reconciliation between the contras and Sandinistas because they made the contras the enemy. By listening, I learned to release my "enemy" image and put a face on the contras.

In 1992, the Listening Project went to Yugoslavia. We interviewed people who had contributed to much anger and ethnic hostility in the villages. One young man talked about his hatred for the Muslims, but the questioning also helped him talk about the positive relations he'd had with Muslims before all the problems. In response to the listener's questions, he admitted that the small Muslim minority posed no real threat to the Serbs. The interviews enabled him to say that the war made things bad. By the end of the interview, he was ready to participate in a program on ethnic relations. The Yugoslav Listening Project revealed that a majority of villagers want peace and friendship and gave voice to positive feelings and ideas. Villagers said they wanted stronger responses from the authorities when ethnic incidents occurred. They suggested that rumors be investigated immediately to keep them from spreading. Several villagers asked for community meetings or mediation to talk things out. Programs for youth had strong support. Strategies for continued work in the villages include youth projects, continued dialogue with problem individuals, and working with village leaders and others wanting to improve the situation.

Herb Walters is a peace activist in rural North Carolina.

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