How an open, listening heart can lead to meaningful change

“It’s coming to America first/the cradle of the best and the worst/. . ./And it’s here the lonely say/That the heart has got to open/In a fundamental way” – Leonard Cohen (“Democracy”)

The Zoom meeting on 18 March 2022 involving members of the Talloires Network’s Next Generation Leaders “structured listening group”* differed from other sessions held by the network.

In those other sessions, groups of student leaders and recent graduates discussed their proposals, for example on how to mitigate climate change or to advance gender equality in universities and their countries.

This time, the eight participants of the structured listening group discussed how the “awareness-based systems change approach” (A-BSCA) applied to their struggles against racial and other injustices.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Founded in 2005, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities is made up of 425 universities in 85 countries that work together to foster civic engagement. The network is hosted at Tufts University’s Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life in the United States.

Introduced to the group by the article “Commentary from the field: Awareness-based systems change and racial justice”, written by Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham, A-BSCA’s emphasis on changing an individual’s “heart” and responding with “love” may not immediately appear to link to the struggle for justice.

However, as Cunningham told the participants in the structured listening session, she turned to A-BSCA after realising that her efforts as a civil rights lawyer in the American South had hit a brick wall.

There’s more to justice than rules

“The US courts were changing in a way that was not in our favour. Ronald Reagan was president and he had no interest in fairness and equity. It made me realise that there was more to justice work than imposing rules; you had to figure out a way to get to people’s hearts.”

Developed by Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute and chair of MIT’s IDEAS programme, A-BSCA has three parts.

The first requires individuals to look at the world with an open mind. Though Cunningham did not use the term ‘phenomenology’ when she spoke to University World News, she was outlining a phenomenological approach when she said that as you examine the world around you, you have to monitor your own preconceptions about the world.

By way of explanation, Cunningham told me that in a one-day session, learning to look would take up the morning and could entail dividing groups into dyads and sending them on a “dialogue walk”.

During the walk, each member would be required to talk about him- or herself for 15 minutes, after which both members would journal about what they heard, paying careful attention to when their own judgments or preconceptions got in the way of listening to the other or, indeed, sharing information about themselves.

“You learn about the things that get in the way of deep listening: the voice of judgment (I’ve heard it all before) and the voice of fear (If I ever said that, I’d be considered a fool) and the voice of cynicism (That would never work).”

The participants were struck by Cunningham’s link between looking and social justice, exemplified by the story of her yoga teacher who was compelled to watch the entire eight minutes and 46 seconds of the killing of George Floyd that was shown on television, to be, in short, a witness not just to murder but to the structural racism in America and, specifically, racist policing manifest on the streets of Minneapolis.

Duaa E Zahra Shah, who comes from Islamabad, Pakistan, and is studying economics at the National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, told the group that while Pakistan’s government has recently passed laws protecting women and transgendered persons from violence, it is important to see that the laws on the books have not changed the lives of women and transgendered persons.

Nigerian-born Philip Adebayo, a Mastercard Foundation scholar studying for a masters in engineering at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, responded by first appearing to praise our advancing moral vision by noting our revulsion at the idea that 150 years ago in the United States people owned slaves. He then pivoted and pointed out how we efficiently avert our gaze today from inconvenient facts.

“Maybe I have an iPhone. But there are people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) we know are in child slavery [mining precious metals] basically for me to be using an iPhone,” he said, knowing the irony that both he and everyone he was speaking to was dependent upon their smart phones.

Such clarity of vision makes the iPhone a nexus that connects DRC’s colonial past (especially the period between 1885 and 1908 when it was a private fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium and millions of Congolese were essentially slaves on rubber plantations and hundreds of thousands had their hands cut off or were raped) to its present place in the high-tech economy.

This history of slavery, of imperial and capitalist violence that runs through the DRC’s history, leads to a moral imperative.

As Cunningham told University World News, after clearing your mind and really looking, “you connect with all of what is [eg, the historical and-or political situation of the DRC crystallised in the iPhone example], as well as what could emerge in the future if you attend to the relationships with compassion and cultivate an organisational structure with compassion”.

From anger to tenderness

The second part of A-BSCA begins the shift from feelings to action in the world. It “invites us to look with an open heart”, to move, in the case she uses of American racial injustice, from anger to tenderness toward others, including (as difficult as this is) those who benefit from oppression. “It is the caring gaze,” Cunningham writes, “the listening heart, that can shift structures of violence.”

Mercy Koti Fri, who is studying at the Redemption Higher Institute of Biomedical and Management Sciences in Muyuka, Cameroon, emphasised the difficulty of shifting from anger to tenderness in the face of oppression.

She told a story about a police shooting in her home country. While driving their children to school, police signalled to the parent who was driving to stop and, when the driver failed to do so, the police fired a bullet, killing a three-year-old child in the car.

“The angry population killed the policeman immediately. They stoned him to death. There was no way that the angry population could change from anger to tenderness,” she said.

The people who stoned the policeman felt that they had done the right thing even though Fri was less sure, noting that two wrongs do not make a right. Her example ended with her telling of the pain felt by the little girl’s grandmother whom Fri visited as part of a group of other women: pain that no-one could lessen.

Because of her experience working with the Mastercard Foundation and the Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, which researches how citizen action makes democracy work, to establish a programme that uses structured listening techniques (that follow guidelines) to engage divergent stakeholders in such areas as climate change, Duaa confidently put her doubts about the scheme on the table.

“I think anger and tenderness can coexist. I don’t think anger necessarily turns into violence. It also depends on what you’re planning on doing with that anger. A lot of times anger can translate into something constructive, something that forms a part of resisting.

“I don’t think people who have experienced violence or who have faced oppression deserve to feel guilty for that anger or should necessarily dampen that anger.”

Funwako Bakhile Dlamini, who is pursuing a masters in public health at the University of Cape Town (UCT, South Africa) and is the founder of Adopt a Child Foundation, which provides career mentors in the Kingdom of Eswatini (a landlocked country in Southern Africa), understood why Cunningham and some members of the group would want to lean toward mercy. But, like Duaa, he argued that anger and mercy could co-exist.

Indeed “we have a system, and they want to push against it”, he said, before emphasising his opposition to violence.

The challenge of definitions

Vuthlarhi Shirindza, a fourth-year medical student at UCT and the student representative of the Rural Doctors Association of South Africa as well as the co-founder of a company that uses drones to deliver chronic medication in rural and peri-urban (rural areas adjacent to cities) areas, asked: “What does tenderness look like? Is tenderness forgiveness? Is it compassion for the person? Is it reaching out to the person or the system or whatever it is?”

The session’s moderator Ruvimbo Mushavi, who was born in Zimbabwe and attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, picked up on Shirindza’s questions, though not Shirindza’s answer: that what allows the shift from anger to tenderness is a “proper godly type of love”.

Instead, Mushavi, who is on the paNhari team at the University of Zimbabwe and working with the Talloires Network secretariat to manage the Next Generation Leaders Programme, introduced the idea that tenderness may not go as far as forgiveness but, rather, can be thought of as “an understanding between two people”.

Mushavi works in communications and advocacy, harnessing the power of storytelling and youth engagement to advocate for urgent action to address the scourge of violence against women and girls in Zimbabwe.

With her eye on the clock, she admitted that she could not go into details, but suggested that tenderness was analogous to restorative justice.

Restorative justice, she explained, is “an approach to delivering justice that focuses on repairing harm by giving all the victims of crime an opportunity to connect with the perpetrator of the crime and really communicate what that [crime] meant to them and addressing what their needs are”.

(Cunningham told me that she too was not exactly sure what tenderness looked like. But, she believed that not all of the 71 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump were undeserving of compassion. “It is my belief that the majority of people do the right thing as best they can understand it. Maybe I’m a hopeless Pollyanna, but that’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going all day fighting [for justice].”)

Stopping the train

Cunningham explained the third part of A-BSCA via an arresting image: “When you have a rushing train, off of which people are constantly being pushed, you cannot say, ‘I’ll love the people on the train’. You have to stop the train.”

Stopping the train, as Akmaljon Akhmedjonov, who comes from Tajikistan and who is pursuing his masters in international relations at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, stressed that it would involve (to stay with the American example) passing laws, for example, against racism.

Cunningham wrote further that “it is a massive, multi-layered and multi-generational effort that not only requires making room for everyone, even the people who benefit from oppression (or are at least complacent toward it), and, of course, those who have experienced oppression first hand.

“People who have experienced the sharpest edges of institutional and systems failure are an integral part of these systems; their lived experience gives crucially necessary insights into how systems function and how we collectively might re-invent them.”

When I asked Cunningham, “What’s the game plan when on the other side is a Vladimir Putin, a Victor Orbán or a Donald Trump?”, her answer reminded me that Cunningham had cut her teeth as a lawyer in the American South and is the dean of a school with the mission of teaching its students to engage fully in civic life.

“These – in some way charismatic, very cynical, and very dangerous – authoritarian leaders are not our audience. They are not to whom I’m speaking. I am not speaking … I don’t seek to speak to them. But there are a tremendous number of people who are following them and who are suffering and they [these cynical leaders] necessarily misdirect [those] who are inquiring into why they are suffering.”

A few moments later she said: “My project is not to try to win over white people who identify citizenship with white rights. My project is to prepare the emerging majority to govern themselves and each other compassionately.”

The prevalence of racism

The emphasis on American racism in Cunningham’s article and during the Zoom call prompted me to ask Harunah Damba, who was born and raised in Bweyogerere Parish in the Wakiso District north west of Kampala, Uganda, if the prevalence of American racism affects him, an African, who has never been to the United States.

His answer went a long way to showing how American hegemony, its race-baiting politicians, its popular culture, what is seen on the news and what is promulgated by right-wing media outlets such as Fox News, have made, as Cunningham put it, the construction of citizenship along (white) racial lines seem almost natural – even in an African country.

“If we look closely at our societies, we could see that since time immemorial, societal behaviour and morals are largely influenced by human perceptivity; in other words, what humans learn we copy from others,” said Damba, who holds a BA in biomedical laboratory technology from Makerere University (Kampala), where he was part of the student government and focused chiefly on students with disabilities (Damba is deaf).

“We may not experience the treatment [what he calls “the sting of American racism”] in the same way as it happens in America. But there are ways in which American racism can manifest [itself] in our countries. I understand that when inequality or prejudice exist in the system, the impacts can be broad as well as personal.

“Examples can be seen in education, health care, the judiciary and even in our social spheres of life.”

* The Talloires Network of Engaged University’s Next Generation Leaders structured listening methods group meeting took place on 18 March 2022.