I closely followed the recent Alabama senatorial race and outcome. Alabama is my ancestral home and I’m a proud graduate of Auburn University (War Eagle!). As many of you know, while living in Alabama in my 20s I was teaching in an all-black school in Sylacauga, Alabama when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and George Wallace was running for president. I felt enormous pride in this recent voter turn-out as well as the dialogue around the election.
Even so, I believe we must press on together to heal the divisiveness that exists in politics and our communities today. I don’t know how to do this other than by participating in some very deep listening and questioning of those who think differently than I do.
There is a particular New Dimensions interview that I feel is relevant to this malady. It was one of my favorites of 2017. I asked Andrew Forsthoefel, who was 23 years old when he walked across America, how he conversed with people he met along the way who came from very different backgrounds and ideologies. He told me that he aspired to be a “trustworthy listener.” Before he embarked on his adventure he was given this advice: “It’s your job to be a witness to all the races that you’re seeing. It’s your job to just really know the truth of what’s out there.” He tells the following story about traveling through Alabama:
“A couple of days after I left Montgomery I was on this highway heading to Selma and I finished the day at this run-down gas station. Attached to the gas station was a barbershop and there were probably about a dozen black men in there and it was one of these moments [where I wondered] what would happen if I went in there? My curiosity got the better of my fear and I walked in and the whole place just went silent. This white boy walks into a barbershop in Alabama and asks, ‘May I camp out back?’ That was just sort of my icebreaker. Then I described my trek to the men. ‘I’m doing this walking thing, listening to people’s stories, could I camp out back?’
“The barber says sure. I ended up spending the night just visiting with these guys and a part of me was hoping for some kind of ultimate conversation about the history that we were all coming from. And I wanted the healing and expression to be about how do you feel about this stuff. But I realized that actually just being in the same room with them and listening to whatever it was that they wanted to share, superficial or deep, whatever, without judgment was maybe a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of truth and reconciliation.”
I was deeply inspired by Andrew and all the stories he told about the diversity of people he met along the path and how their basic goodness and generosity was much larger than any differences that might show up. With that in mind, I aspire to do more deep listening in 2018. I feel every little bit helps to turn the tide toward a better world for all. May 2018 bring surprisingly good things for ourselves, our families, our communities, our world!
Justine Willis Toms