Telling New Stories – A Reflection on Listening Projects

Tatua Kenya, originally Be the Change – Kenya, was founded in 2010 with the goal of creating new and sustainable ways of eradicating child poverty in Kenya. The founding members were deeply disturbed by the fact that children at orphanages in Kenya ate one meal a day, had no clean drinking water and couldn’t afford to go to school. For years, people had been trying to address these problems through outside donations but every time the money would run out the Kenyan orphanages were left to find another donor. My experience as a community organizer gave me the knowledge needed to train youth leaders in Kenya to mobilize local resources for orphanages, thus providing a more sustainable revenue source. In doing this work, we were overjoyed, university students began a food drive to feed children, raised donations to pay salaries and organized a health clinic the treated 60 children who were in need of medical care.

However, something far more beautiful was happening under the surface, the team I worked with was transforming. Young adults, who had never had opportunities to lead began to assert their agency and in doing so recognized themselves as powerful agents of change in this world. They were waking up to the truth that they could do whatever they wanted and, what they wanted was to achieve justice in this world. In the past four years, I have come to understand that truth as the beginning of change.  Change begins with us realizing our intrinsic power and dignity.

Over the last four years at Tatua I have moved away from the attention to fixing the physical challenges of poverty and increasingly curious about this one question, “How do people wake up to the power that lay dormant within them?”

Last month, I had the pleasure of exploring that question with Herb Walters, co-founder and director of The Listening Project. The Listening Project begun as a way of overcoming division and conflict in communities, through the simple yet profound act of listening.  Herb has been leading Listening Projects since 1986 and has led projects in 15 states, as well as in Europe. Herb and I both believe that the practice of intentional listening is necessary if we want to bring about the sort of change I reference above.

Tatua’s work is primarily in Kenya, a country that has been told by western powers that they aren’t worth hearing and in communities whose residents have been ignored and hushed by corrupt leaders. In this country I have met some of the most brilliant, beautiful people. However, these people have been told, for years that “they aren’t good enough.” They aren’t good enough because they don’t have money, because they don’t have access to higher education or because they aren’t practicing ‘civilized behaviors.’ In this mindset, apathy reigns as they have decided they have nothing worth offering. Reconciliation requires that we reverse this narrative.

Tatua believes we can reverse that narrative, not by offering another story but instead by truly listening to their truth.

In 2013 Tatua Kenya worked in 6 communities to organize community-run movements that addressed local poverty. Through those efforts we are have seen children go back to school, parents form support groups around parenting challenges and begin community gardens as a way of feeding children and subsidizing school teacher’s salaries. Each of these movements began with a listening project in which Tatua Kenya organizers spent weeks listening to their communities. The organizers and the communities recognize the listening project as an essential part in the process. So important that I spent three days in North Carolina with Herb fine-tuning my training skills so we can offer an even better listening experience.

This year Tatua Kenya is training 50 community organizer who will work in 25 communities to begin community-run movements to address poverty.  These organizers will be addressing issues such as gender violence, environment, child poverty and healthcare and each of these movements will begin with an organized Listening Project in which voices are heard, power awakened and reconciliation begins.

Natalie with Herb Walters (Director Listening Project)
Natalie with Herb Walters (Director Listening Project)

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