It means something when someone listens to you. Let's be clear. I'm not talking about the socially mandated, "Hey. How are you?" "Fine, just fine." sequence. I'm talking about the moment when someone sits down, focuses on you and asks to hear your story. They listen -- not waiting to interrupt you with a brilliant summation or with, "Oh that reminds me of a time when...", no. They sit and listen to every word you share. The time seems to fly by, and you had no idea you were going to share that story.
Actress, playwright, and professor Anna Deavere Smith says that we don't listen very well to each other, although we like to think we do. Listening is a skill -- sharpened or relegated to non-use, should the user desire. But when deployed at the right time, and under the perfect circumstance, genuine and active listening to another person's story is at the same time poignant, progressive, and political.
As I have listened to folks across California talk about the California State University's budget crisis, I have also witnessed waning media coverage and diminishing discourse. A little over a week has passed since the March 4th day of protest, and it just feels quieter. There are fewer updates in the major news outlets on what occurred, yet many are still dealing with a myriad of issues from an educational system in crisis to broken arms to hospital bills.
Recently, an administrator from a CSU spoke with me about the state of the system:
This is the meanest I've ever seen it. The culture has changed, and the feel of the university has changed. And the way people take care of each other is not here anymore. I had...worked with nine Deans, by the time I left, and I just wasn't up for it anymore because it's changed so much. The first Deans I worked with were about the institution. They would protect their departments, but when there were problems within the whole university, everybody would make sure that everybody within the university was ok. It is cutthroat now and so...it's kind of like Republicans and Democrats. Everybody's afraid of their own territory. And it's like, you're missing the big picture. If you all get yours, and the University suffers...it's not good.
We do not come away with a total understanding of the other person just by listening to them: that would be an ignorant assumption on my part. However, I do contend that if I actively listen to another person, I can come to knowledge that has been previously unavailable to me and perhaps many others. And if I listen and share what I find, perhaps I can shed light on the intersectionality of this current crisis with other issues affecting an entire nation.
Maybe through listening and sharing, we can begin to discuss what happened between the LAPD and Associate Professor Karren Baird-Olson, 73, of Sociology & American Indian Studies at CSUN, who was taken to the hospital with a broken arm and other injuries while protesting on March 4th. We can begin to discuss why Jaime Escalante, the famed LAUSD high school math teacher and inspiration for the movie Stand and Deliver, is battling to pay hospital and insurance bills while battling metastasized cancer. And perhaps we can begin to talk about what it feels like to know that your child is attending one of the worst schools in the state, and why everyone thinks it's the parents' fault. Power, privilege, safety, access, equality and quality of life are universal issues, whether we talk about them or not.
For today, at least, let us have these conversations, and let us commit to taking part in these conversations by first listening to someone else. We can't possibly know everything about everything, already: what a complete and utter bore that would be.