By Lani Parker and Marion Damnit
The coronavirus pandemic and the response to it has exacerbated attitudes and structures of ableism, racism, classism and cis-hetero-patriarchy. Many of us are building spaces where we can support each other and mitigate the effects on the most impacted. This includes spaces for healing and repairing injustice. The Listening Space was an experimental, multiracial space for peer listening and support, aimed at disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. This was not counselling, and it was not about ‘fixing’ ourselves or saying there is anything wrong with us. It was to make connections and support each other, share our experiences, knowledge and wisdom, and strengthen our listening skills at a time when we are particularly isolated.
We ran the Listening Space weekly for 6 weeks from 16th April to 21st May, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages in England. It was led by Lani who is an experienced peer support facilitator in London, and assisted by Marion, an experienced organiser, in Manchester. We based the space in an intersectional understanding of disability and ableism as inextricable from other forms of oppression (racism, classism, cisheteropatriarchy) and capitalism. We drew on a Disability Justice perspective, developed by disabled, queer and working class people of colour in the US (although as facilitators, we are both white).
Listening deeply can be a way to be by someone’s side, which can bring about connection and change. We can use deep listening to process our personal experiences of oppression, listen to others with different experiences, think about those experiences and how they relate to our own, become part of something bigger than just ourselves and build collective power. These practices have been used in the consciousness raising movement and in popular education.
Neoliberal capitalism encourages us to talk, for example, through the mental health industrial complex. But are we really listening? Oppression encourages us to focus on our differences and be suspicious of other marginalised people who have different experiences, or to pretend that we are all the same. Neither of these practices involve really listening to each other. If we could really listen to each other’s pain, perhaps we could listen to the ways we have been complicit in that pain and the systems that support it. Perhaps we would do things differently.
Really listening to people and being listened to can be scary as it can bring up things we are not expecting. Many people are traumatised and there is very little deep long-term support for trauma which honours all of our identities and does not try to ‘fix’ us. We may numb ourselves in order to survive. Even if we are not traumatised, many of us are acting on stress responses all the time, both in the present and from our past.1 It makes it hard to engage with these difficult, deep issues in the long-term way necessary to really create a different society without oppression.
A thought on trust and accountability
We tend to get defensive or protective of people if somebody says they feel bad about something. We want to reassure them that they are doing their best. I (Marion) have often experienced this from counsellors or friends. But deep listening would be to support the person to be accountable and make the changes they want to make.
It may be obvious to say, but it takes time to build the trust needed for deep listening. In our personal experience of ‘activist’ spaces, it can feel like there is an expectation for us to already be perfect and this can inhibit us from really being ourselves and building authentic connections. Relationships can feel conditional on knowing the correct language and doing or being a particular way. For the two of us, this has sometimes led to us feeling disengaged from spaces and engaging in what feels like a superficial, performative way, while leaning on other sources for emotional and practical support. We wanted the listening space to be a place where people could be themselves while also engaging in anti-oppressive practice.
Listening is an important part of allowing people to be themselves. But being yourself is difficult when parts of your identity are marginalised. It can be difficult to put your own stuff aside and listen to others if you have a deep need to be listened to yourself. For example, disabled people often feel we are not really listened to. But how we’re listened to and how we listen to others is shaped by all aspects of our identity. As white disabled facilitators, we are aware that whiteness often shows up as a sense of entitlement to speak and to question others without needing to be vulnerable or our safety being compromised. But mutual aid means reciprocity and building deeper solidarity. If ‘we refuse to listen until we are heard, will not be allies until we have allies’, nothing changes (Aurora Levins Morales).
Listening is an important part of accountability and potentially in restructuring power relations. But this is hard to achieve in reality. Much of the recent thinking about accountability has come from prison abolitionists. We are trying to learn ways to hold each other to account which are not carceral, meaning about reparation, not punishment. In this we have found the work of D Hunter useful. He writes about times when he has harmed others and others have harmed him, and about his attempts to find ways to hold them to account and to be held accountable for his actions. Prison abolionists, such as the generation5 collective, engage with questions of serious harm such as child sexual abuse. We agree with Hunter that we need to engage in a similar way with the small everyday acts of harm as well. If we don’t deal with the small things we can’t deal with the big things…
1 The Listening Space was not a safe space for people in active mental health crisis.