Generating ideas, connections, and action

Listening Deeply, A Leadership Competency

Earlier this month, we attended the Othering and Belonging Conference in Oakland, California. It was a healing experience to be able to be grounded in art, music, and dance to find answers to what belonging and othering truly mean. We were tasked with analyzing the systems that create belonging and othering. One of the most inspiring themes from the convening was the need to listen deeply to each other’s stories. This is the role of social justice movements and of leadership development. Listening, deeply, is a leadership competency that creates change. As each presenter acknowledged, this country is highly divided and by not listening deeply to one another we create othering, we can leave many outside of the work.

Even weeks later, I keep reflecting on the “Bridging to Belonging” panel with Alicia Garza, Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-founder of Black Lives Matter; Tara Houskal a tribal attorney and Campaign Director at Honor the Earth; and Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of the Council for American Islamic Relations. Alicia, Tara, and Zahra all gave concrete examples of how to build movements that bridge us towards one another.


The trio shared stories of what they are seeing on the ground in their respective movements. Alicia Garza spoke concretely of the importance of hearing people’s truths, for example her work in SF’s Bayview Hunters Point fight against gentrification. The work centered around uniting people through their similarities and when differences were questioned, people were told to repress those opinions out of fear of causing division. Ironically, as a result of not listening fully to those differences, key parts of the full story were being left out.  We cannot create robust movements without full, inclusive narratives. Zahra Billoo also spoke about committing to working with one another in the long haul. She spoke about her work within the Muslim community and meeting people where they are and hanging in there for growth over time.


It takes practice to listen deeply, intentionally, while being analytical of the systems, but without judging or blaming the individuals. Shakti Butler shared a resource that helped me put this into concrete practice, Strategic Questioning by Fran Peavey. During Shakti’s breakout session, we divided into groups of three and together practiced for a few minutes, taking turns listening without comment or question, asking strategic questions, and answering questions. Together we practiced asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity without trying to push a hidden agenda but rather to hear whole stories. It made our conversations richer and 15 minutes later, my group felt truly connected because we all felt we belonged, we had synergy, and found common ground, though our work varied and we lived in different parts of the world. It may sound  like a simple task, yet it takes work, a work of love no doubt, to be acutely aware and listening at all times and in the spaces we hope to transform. It takes awareness of the self and of others to know what questions to ask and when, but together we can resist injustice.