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Listening Space Reflection

By Lani Parker and Marion Damnit

Part 1

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). 

Why listening?  

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…

Check the blog next week for Part 2 on how we applied this in practice.

1 The Listening Space was not a safe space for people in active mental health crisis.

Listening Space details

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 those most impacted.

The Listening Space is an opportunity to listen, share our experiences and wisdom and have space to process and work against The Listening Space picturethe oppression we are faced with and the situation we are in.

This is not counselling, instead this is a space where we have time to listen to and support each other. The space is aimed at those who have lived experience of being disabled, neurodivergent or with a long-term health condition but others are welcome.

We will acknowledge and reflect on our different positions in relation to this crisis and the oppressive structures which we are living in.

The group takes a similar format each week, beginning with a short grounding exercise/meditation, and we work on ensuring ground rules and access needs are met.

We meet weekly on a Thursday 6-7.45 BST. The next sessions are Thursday May 7th, Thursday May 14th and Thursday May 21st and Thursday May 28th.

For more information or to join, contact us via sidewaystimespodcast@gmail.com or DM @SidewaysTimes or call Marion on 07591 702849. If you want to, you can tell us about any access needs you have.

We will send the Zoom link to you on the day.

Listening Space

This is an OLD POST

Please see post ‘Listening Space details’ on April 10th for up to date information

 

I would like to make new connections and support each other!

During this period many of us have been working hard to put in place support networks. Many of us have already been in isolation for a long time. Some already have networks of friends, family and colleagues who do listen to us in these scary times but many of us do not. Often in a crisis it’s difficult to find the time and space to reflect and connect with others.

But human beings are creative – that is what is so brilliant about us. People have always found and will continue to find ways to connect with others and make new networks. There are already many examples of local groups offering practical support as well as a listening ear: search for Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. Even though this is a time of social isolation it is also an opportunity to make new connections that could last into the future.

I would like to create a space where we can listen to each other and maybe release some of the emotions that we might be feeling, not as professional counsellors or therapists but as a group providing mutual support rather than delivering a service.

I’m suggesting one of two things:

– Regular drop-in group sessions with no commitment (but a specific start and end time)
– A closed group which meets for a set period of time each week and practices in-depth listening skills

Other ways to organise are also possible.

Please message me directly if you’re interested – sidewaystimespodcast@gmail.com. I would like to discuss it online with anyone who wants to be involved on Monday 30th 7-8pm March but if you cannot make this please get in touch anyway.