The Hard and Humbling Work of Listening

“I will stand here and listen, even if you don’t like me and want to listen to me.”

As I wrote down Dr. Abdul El-Sayed’s words, I was struck by their power as well as by their humility. Listening to people who may not even like you and want to listen to you? Who does that? These days, the surest way to demonstrate your antipathy to someone with whom you do not agree is to deny them the magnanimity of your listening.

Dr. El-Sayed knows a thing or two about not being liked, based solely on the sound of his surname and all of the assumptions that go with it. Prior to his pronouncement about his ethic on listening, Dr. El-Sayed told a story about a patient who refused to be treated by a doctor with the surname “El-Sayed.” The patient, an older, white, presumably non-Muslim man, railed against Dr. El-Sayed, hurling bigoted insults toward the doctor while questioning his worth and qualifications as a physician.

I took an oath, said the doctor, to treat patients to the best of my ability. My job is to listen and provide the best possible care that I can.

“I will stand here and listen,” he said, “Even if you don’t like me and want to listen to me.”

After several minutes, the patient calmed down, and the doctor proceeded with his clinical assessment and recommendations for care. The doctor was able to do what he was trained to do. He was a doctor, not a “Muslim doctor.” More importantly, he defused an ugly and combustible situation with his stalwart and patient listening.

By conventional measures, Dr. El-Sayed is someone worth listening to. He is a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of the University of Michigan with highest distinction, a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, an assistant professor in epidemiology at Columbia University, the author of over 100 papers and articles on public health, and the youngest-ever health director of the city of Detroit. He was also a candidate for governor of the state of Michigan in 2018 as a progressive Democrat. Obviously, there is more to Dr. El-Sayed than his surname and his religion. He is someone who lives on the edge. By “the edge”, he means that he intentionally goes into spaces where he might not be expected to go — and he listens.

Creating Change 2019 was one of those spaces. Creating Change is the nation’s largest gathering of LGBTQ+ activists, advocates, and changemakers. It’s an annual event, sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force, and it usually attracts somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 attendees. Given that Dr. El-Sayed does not identify as LGBTQ, his presence at the conference was notable — and remarkable. He was on a panel for the opening night plenary, along with two African American lesbians and a Native Two-Spirited woman. They all spoke of finding truth and power at the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, religion, national affiliation, post-colonial resistance, gender expression, and sexual orientation. This is what Creating Change professes to be about: intersections. Our liberation depends upon our abilities to join with others, even if we initially assume our causes to be different.

I was a volunteer at Creating Change. I committed myself in service to visually scribing several of the conversations that took place at the conference — the Racial Justice Institute, the opening night plenary in which Dr. El-Sayed took part, and the State of the Movement address by Task Force executive director Rea Carey and deputy director Kierra Johnson. When I say I “committed myself in service”, I say so with genuine intent. I considered my role to be one of the public listeners in the room, not unlike the ASL interpreters who conscientiously interpreted simultaneously so that the members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community would have access to the conversation. My job, like theirs, was to be a dedicated and deep listener so that others could listen, too.

What happened just prior to the remarks by Dr. El-Sayed and the other panelists gave me new insight into the role of the “dedicated listener.” In fact, though it was not by design, the constellation of events on the evening of January 23, 2019 in Detroit at Creating Change taught me volumes about what it means “to listen”, even when it is hard.

Just as Andy Garcia, in his debut as conference director, began his remarks to welcome participants and introduce the panel, a group of pro-Palestinian activists wrested control of the microphone. They were protesting “pinkwashing” — an accusatory term used to describe the state of Israel’s promotion of its liberal LGBTQ+ policies to distract from its continued occupation of Palestinian territories and oppression of Palestinian people — as well as the Task Force’s alleged ban on workshop content that addresses Islamophobia, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism. Some participants in the audience were clearly supportive of the protestors and joined in with their chants of “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Other participants were more measured in their responses, clapping politely while not chanting. Still other participants chose not to engage at all, sitting quietly. Others, I learned later, were seething with discontent. My back is usually turned to the audience when I am graphically recording. I turned around on a couple of occasions to see what was going on. Sometimes, it’s important to listen by seeing as well as hearing.

One of the demands of the group that had taken the stage was that the Task Force support and uphold BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). BDS is a strategy, initiated by Palestinians, to put pressure on Israel to exit the Palestinian territories, cease its control over Palestinian land and citizens, and work more earnestly toward a just peace with Palestinians that includes, but is not limited to, Palestinian right of return to lands occupied in 1948 and 1967. The BDS policy advocates for a political, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel; divestment from companies that do business with Israel, especially those that are involved with military, defense, and building the infrastructure of Israeli occupation; and sanctions on the Israeli government and Israeli companies.

I do not happen to agree with the tenets of BDS. While I abhor the Netanyahu-led government of Israel, and I would like to see a durable two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine can exist in sustainable peace, I know that there are also many Israelis of conscience who are critical of their own government, are committed to an equitable and enduring peace with Palestinians, and bear witness regularly to the abuses of their own government. For those of us who resist the excesses and atrocities committed in our names by our own government in the US, I know many people in Israel who decry and resist the abhorrent policies of theirs. Marginalizing them with a boycott would only serve to isolate the progressive and left-leaning Israelis who are closest to the work of dismantling Israeli occupation.

A lot of us, shamefully, are living on stolen land. How do we advocate for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions of and against another government — and people — when we, ourselves, are living quite happily (or at least blithely) on stolen land?

I had a million thoughts as I was writing down the comments of the protestors. Do I honor them with my listening? Do I document the occasion, in its entirety, or do I exercise my own protest by editing out what I might find objectionable? Is it a betrayal to graphically record what I am hearing, if I feel like it is hurtful to others? Is it a betrayal NOT to graphically record what I am hearing when the speakers are obviously in pain? What is my role here?

I have often said that my listening is my primary function as a visual scribe, a graphic recorder. The listening is what matters most. Anything else is just pretty pictures. Window dressing. Conversational aesthetics. While my subjectivity — the colors I choose, the words I choose to write down, the format and structure in which I depict them — is unavoidable (and even an attribute, if my clients trust that my subjectivity is of value), I knew at that moment that I needed to let my own story fall away temporarily. My role as “public listener” required me to be in service to a truth and story that wasn’t my own.

The protest began and concluded before Dr. El-Sayed even began to speak. Once he said them, I knew that the doctor’s words would not only shape my view of what “public listening” meant in this particular context, but his words would also cause me to re-evaluate my self-proclaimed role and service as a listener for days and weeks to come:

“I will stand here and listen, even if you don’t like me and want to listen to me.”

During the protest, I drew a pink circle-slash, along with the text “Cancel Pinkwashing!” I drew a Palestinian flag, to draw attention to the central focus of the protest. I dutifully recorded each of the demands of the group. As they chanted “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” I recorded their chant on the mural I was creating. When they concluded their remarks with the other chant of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” I declined. As much as I’d like to let my own story fall away as a listener, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes, I bring my subjectivity and all of its frailties to bear. I know what that means — “from the river to the sea.” I can’t. And I didn’t. I thought of Betty, my dear friend of 94 who lives in Jerusalem. She lost her entire family in the Holocaust. Whose fault is it? Not the Palestinians. And yet, I want her to have a place to be where she’s not scared, where she doesn’t have to hide, where she can live and write, where she doesn’t have to be alone. I don’t want her to be erased. I’m listening to many people at the same time. They have told me their stories. I hold them, and I honor them.

What does it mean to be a listener? It means a lot of things. It means standing there and listening, whether or not you like me. It means letting my own story drop away for a moment, so that another story can be told. Listening means writing down what someone else says. I may not agree with it, I may not like it, and I may want to have further conversation about it. Still, by writing down what you say, I’m letting you know that I hear you. Making my listening manifest through writing your words down makes your words real. They are instantiated in my consciousness. I have heard you. Listening does not connote agreement. It means that I am present with you as I am listening, and that I am here to bear witness to what you have to say. What change of heart might happen between the moment of your resistance and my listening? Does the change of heart happen BECAUSE I am listening? I won’t abandon you. We’ve come this far.

Listening is hard — and humbling. We find out what we don’t know. We find out who we are. We find out what it means to live in that space on the edge, where the only bridge to our humanity is the span between our own ability to listen and the voices who are clamoring to be heard. How can I give of myself while not giving myself away? There’s a difference. We need not agree, at first. We need only agree that our own story is not the only one, and that our stories are complex. They contain multitudes, if we are willing to listen.

Anthony Weeks is a public listener, visual storyteller, and facilitator, based in San Francisco. He can be found at www.thepubliclistener.com.

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Graphic recording of the opening night plenary at Creating Change 2019

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