Listen First and the White Supremacy Culture of Dialogue and Deliberation

A longstanding practitioner of mediation and community engagement relays the problems of Listen First.

TL;DR: Listen First did neither, according to an expert in both.

[PHOTO] a photo of the author: a white man with glasses, friendly smile, gray hair, wearing a dark cap and windbreaker, standing outside in front of rocks and sparse trees

This piece was submitted to Solidarity Cville by Frank Dukes, Albemarle County resident and member of UCARE (University and Community Action for Racial Equity).

Charlottesville is struggling to recover from a recent occupation.

The occupation I am referring to is not led by the alt-right, neo-nazis, and klan members. The leaders do not wear robes, chant racist slogans, and demand a white ethno-state. They do not carry loaded arms or brandish sticks and knives. And they do not think they are supporting white supremacy.

No, the occupation I am referring to is led by members of the dialogue and deliberation community. This occupation was a weekend of programming and follow-up brought by outsiders promoting a brand — Listen First — and the personality of the brand’s founder. This weekend offense, which might have passed with little effect, was instead compounded by online, public attacks that this founder made against members of the Charlottesville community who critiqued the “Listen First” model. They were called “self-described radical activists” who promoted “dishonest, hate-filled, vitriol.” They were chastised by the Listen First founder for not joining in the conversation, as though Listen First is entitled to their presence by his invitation.

I know the people who spoke out against Listen First. I know them as parents of children in public schools and heads of parent-teacher organizations, pastors of local churches, business owners and employees, UVA faculty, teachers, lawyers, and students. I know them as human beings.

Listen First’s offensive has brought real pain to these community members. These are the people working to lay bare the history and current scope of white supremacy and racial oppression — to heal the actual divisions that exist here. Many of these community members are my friends, my colleagues, and people who generously and repeatedly help me learn much of what I need to learn, and who have helped me unlearn much of what I was mis-taught growing up white and male. They are people who I have joined for many years in efforts to make our community a more just, more equitable, more caring place.

We would rather be doing that work. Instead, like them, I am having to use my time and energies addressing the challenges posed by outsiders who brought, as one observer noted, the “ready made product” called Listen First into our community. This effort purports to support “…continued healing and reconciliation in Charlottesville” and “to inspire America toward mending our frayed social fabric by bridging divides with conversations that prioritize understanding.”

Yet it has done anything but that. The founder of “Listen First” instead has repeatedly attacked in writing the very people in this community doing most of the hard work of racial justice and equity. He has attacked the people who dared question why, in a community that has had centuries of egregious racial harm, we should prioritize understanding over justice and equity.

This especially pains me because I am affiliated with that same dialogue and deliberation community that embraces Listen First. Although I prefer to describe my work as collaborative change and conflict transformation, I do employ dialogue and deliberation in my work. Listen First is one among a number of efforts bringing too-simple models of dialogue and deliberation to Charlottesville and other communities confronting their racial histories and legacies of harm. This uncritical adoption of a dialogue and deliberation lens has made it much harder for those of us in the community promoting authentic dialogue. By “authentic” I mean dialogue that seeks to surface conflict, to confront real injustices and enduring harm, to do collective truth seeking, to change narratives that inherently value some people over others because of their color or national origin or religion or gender identity or other harmful hierarchies of human value — to do this all not because dialogue is an inherent good, but in order to bring more powerful and more effective collective understanding and commitment to overturning those hierarchies.

The dialogue and deliberation community, like most communities and institutions in this nation, has our own work to do to understand and counter our culture of white supremacy, including our white savior complex. But there are those in the dialogue and deliberation community whose work I respect who would never enter a community the way that “Listen First” has done.

When they enter a community they do not bring a ready-made product to impose on that community; they look to the community to define what process or processes will work for them.

When they enter a community with an intention of helping those who are harmed, they do not combat criticism. They embrace it — seek it out — to really listen first, and listen always, to those most directly impacted by the harm and directly engaged in the struggle to improve and heal.

They would never write an article headlined “Lies, Intimidation Used to Keep Charlottesville Divided — Yet Hope Remains,” referring specifically to people who found their presence unhelpful. And they would not by that headline argue, an argument embedded within the very premise of Listen First, that somehow Charlottesville is divided by an inability to listen rather than by a system of white supremacy and its enduring legacy of racial disparities, as well as by leadership that has emboldened white ethno-nationalism and that has brought forth virulent public anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist taunting, threats, and violence into our community.

They would never publicly chastise a local high school student leader who has been bravely standing up for racial justice.

They would not publicly try to use the participation of some local community members as a cover for their mistakes. They would know that hospitality to outsiders who say they want to help is not the same as uncritical endorsement of their product.

They would realize that anonymity is not something that is adopted out of desire but is a necessity for people whose lives have been endangered by their activism.

They would know that Listen First, in short, did not live up to its name.

I know that publishing this will generate criticism that I will not have time to respond to. Some critiques may come from people whose work I respect, and I welcome those. But some undoubtedly will also come from people who will not have taken the time to learn about the Charlottesville community, or who have not taken the trouble to read from an enormous literature about race and equity and white supremacy, or who will claim that I don’t understand dialogue and deliberation, or who think that good intentions should immunize them from criticism.

But I also know that speaking up is one way that I can make use of my many privileges and my role as part of the dialogue and deliberation community. And, in this case, it is one way that I can try to repair the harm done by that community to the people of the community that I live in.

Frank Dukes has served as a mediator in transformative projects in the coalfields, in tobacco farming communities, and many other spaces. He is the author of several works on conflict and collaboration. He served as a member of Charlottesville’s Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. He is a recipient of the John T. Casteen III Diversity-Equity- Inclusion Leadership Award at the University of Virginia and the Sharon M. Pickett Award for Environmental Conflict Resolution, International Association for Conflict Resolution.