While I was leading a vendor orientation last week, a returning vendor commented that he was coming back to sell Real Change because “last time I sold the paper, the connection to customers lifted me out of my depression.” The next day, I was speaking to a major donor who said that one reason he supports Real Change is because it “facilitates connection — through the paper — with people who are truly vulnerable.” From both sides, vendor and reader, the paper creates a platform for connection between two parallel universes.
For 18 years, Real Change has been facilitating hundreds of those connections every day. Last year we conducted an experiment: What if people could connect, instead, in small groups where they could deepen their understanding of themselves and each other? In March 2012, we piloted a series of “listening circles” at Real Change. Over the next two months, thanks to the enthusiasm of one of last year’s participants, we are ramping up to do it again.
Listening circles are small, facilitated gatherings of people who come together around a single focus, with the intention of listening deeply as each speaks from the heart. At Real Change, we are organizing listening circles to provide an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to reflect on and share experience of class and economic inequality. We ask simple questions, such as “When was the first time you remember meeting someone you thought was from a higher class than you? What about from a lower class?” Participants tell their stories. And others listen, learn and challenge their assumptions about class differences.
Through their participation in listening circles, many people become inspired to act and join our ongoing advocacy efforts. For example, I recognized many participants in last spring’s listening circles at the Occupy CEHKC campouts that occurred the following week. When people come together in a listening circle, their commitment to ending homelessness becomes grounded in emotional investment and relationships. The commitment is not based on facts and figures but on a sense of outrage and unwillingness to tolerate the way our economic system treats the poor as disposable.
A couple of months ago I wrote about people with privilege living in class bubbles. There’s no better antidote to living in a bubble than opening oneself to the experiences of people who are suffering. A listening circle provides that opportunity. For low-income participants, it provides the opportunity, like selling the paper does, to have their voice heard and to feel like they matter.
Dorothy Day once said: “As we come to know the seriousness of the situation, the war, the racism, the poverty in our world, we come to realize that things will not be changed simply by words or demonstrations. Rather, it’s a question of living one’s life in a drastically different way.”
Listening circles can be a doorway into a different way of living. I’ll be facilitating the first of these this year at Real Change on Feb. 9. The other two are tentatively scheduled for March 16 and 30.
If you want to join, please email Jess at firstname.lastname@example.org.