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Listening projects

Listening projects have been used since the early 1980s to organize in local communities. Trained interviewers go door-to-door asking powerful questions about local issues. Once people become convinced of the interviewers' sincerity, they are only too glad to give their opinions. The interviews often last about an hour, delving deeply into the knowledge, needs and concerns of those present. Their purpose is less to gather data (although that is also a part of it), than to bring the issues to life in the minds and hearts of those being interviewed, and to generate change not by telling but by listening. Often both interviewers and interviewees come to understandings or possibilities they hadn't foreseen, with many interviewees asking how they can take action. Many listening projects simultaneously discover (and bring to life) both community concerns and people who want to do something about them.

Early Listening Projects

Change agent Fran Peavey originated the idea of listening projects. She would sit on park benches in other countries with a big sign that read, "American Willing to Listen" and just listen to whoever showed up. People who were concerned about nuclear war heard about this and started going door-to-door interviewing their neighbors in depth about how they felt about this issue, with sometimes dramatic results. Then some other peace activists picked up the idea and set up tables near major vigils and demonstrations, with signs saying "Peace Activists Willing to Listen," an activity that drew opponents and observers and often calmed down confrontations.

But the most sophisticated listening projects are those designed with the help of Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP) in North Carolina, an affiliate of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They use listening projects to organize in rural communities. The first one I remember hearing about involved a middle-class white peace group that wanted to involve people in a poorer black community. Instead of going in and proselytizing about the importance of their issue, they decided to create a listening project around the fact that their hand-outs about a nearby naval base had failed to engage local residents. So they went door-to-door in the poor neighborhood explaining the problem and asking folks what was wrong with their literature about the base. In the process of reviewing the literature and giving their opinions, some of the local citizens were amazed by what they read. They shared with the listening project interviewers their own concerns about the base, military expenditures, nuclear war, and related issues. Some asked how they could get involved. All this came about from a well-designed effort to listen.

As noted above, one of the signs of real dialogue is that participants come to understandings or possibilities they hadn't foreseen. Once RSVP, concerned about its own antagonistic feelings towards the counter-revolutionary Contra rebels in Nicaragua under the tenure of the socialist Sandinistas, did a listening project at a Contra base in Honduras. They discovered many of the Contras were not former right-wing Nicaraguan soldiers but peasants who had been abused by the Sandinistas. When RSVP published their findings, many of their peace movement friends attacked them, but I felt respect for the group's willingness to open themselves to what they didn't expect to hear.

The most co-intelligent listening projects have involved community organizers who had no agenda except what their community said it was concerned about. Their listening project simultaneously uncovered those concerns and found people who wanted to get active in dealing with them and fixing up the community.

Informal listening projects not sponsored by organizations are called "listening to our neighbors programs."



Rural Southern Voice for Peace
International Listening Project Training and Resource Center
1036 Hannah Branch Rd.
Burnsville, NC 28714
828-675-5933 OR


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