Sunday, August 5, 2012

Becoming better listeners

Last month America lost a voice for rational and civil national discourse. William Raspberry, a veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Washington Post, produced some of the most cogent and balanced commentaries on race relations.
He came to Richmond nearly two decades ago to meet with a multi-city committee of the Initiatives of Change program, Hope in the Cities, and offered this sage advice: "We have forgotten the difference between problems and enemies. Focusing on the enemy diverts time and energy from the search for solutions. If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problem be nearer to a solution? By treating people as potential allies rather than enemies we can focus on solving problems instead of continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions.“ 

His wise and challenging words encouraged us to focus on creating welcoming spaces and to reach out to those outside of our comfort zone. As a result, people of liberal and conservative persuasions, grassroots activists and corporate leaders, felt that they could speak honestly and listen with respect. Unexpected friendships and partnerships grew. 

My book documents many of these honest conversations and actions to move beyond the mentality of “them and us,” including a process of constructive engagement with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, long notorious for its racially biased policies and news coverage. Last year the newspaper won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists for a series of articles on race in Richmond.

It’s too easy to look for targets to blame: big oil, unions, politicians or the media. Yes, injustice, discrimination and corruption exist and must be confronted. But in my experience most people are trying to do their best in the context of their experience. Venting our anger may make us feel better but often does little to change things. If we don’t engage with each other how can we grow in our understanding? So I find it important to read opinions in the press that challenge my own biases because I can learn something from those with different political or social views.   

Initiatives of Change in the US deliberately seeks the engagement of people of many backgrounds and viewpoints. It may surprise some liberals that an organization dedicated to racial reconciliation, economic inclusion and understanding between religions, has a lifelong Republican as its chair.  
But why not? The work of creating flourishing communities is too important to be seen as the property of any single political viewpoint. Everyone is needed.

Thank you, William Raspberry, for helping us to avoid the pitfalls of recrimination, blame and self-righteousness and urging us to become better listeners.

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