Layton E. Williams
Mar 22 · 5 min read

My journey to Hearken looks less like a straight line than a crazy straw.

I didn’t even mean to be a journalist. I’ve been a writer since I learned to hold a crayon, but the poetry and fiction kind — the dark eyeliner, drapey shawl, stormy evening kind. I love the way words can create a new world, how a good story can speak the kind of deep truth that sparks a fire of recognition in the soul.

After college, I became an Americorps volunteer, teaching middle and high school students from lower-income immigrant communities in Texas whose life experiences looked wildly different from my own. And all the while I dreamed about being a television writer in L.A. and filled out film school applications. But I didn’t go to film school. I went to seminary instead.

When the nonprofit I’d been working for as a teacher lost its funding and shut down, I found myself suddenly — and maybe for the first time in my life — invested more in real people’s stories that were going untold than I was in spinning tales of my own. My students and their stories were being erased, overlooked, and ignored at a terrible cost. My newly ignited passion for real people’s stories drew me to ministry, to a life of leadership in the faith that had taught me that we are called to care for one another because we — and our individual stories — are all bound up together in the same universal story.

Officiating my first same-sex wedding as a queer ordained minister.

In seminary, I came out as bisexual, and discovered that the stories of people like me — LGBTQ Christians — were yet another kind of story going largely unheard. And so, in between classes and papers and the struggle to be ordained and then my first few years working as a pastor at a church in Chicago, I wrote. I wrote as I had my entire life, except this time I was writing my story and the stories of other queer people yearning to find place in the church. This work connected me to a larger world of faith and justice writers, who used their words to tell people’s stories in ways that would motivate empathy and connection, and compel people toward social change for a better world.

I moved to D.C. with the intention of being an activist, to do that story-connecting work through advocacy and public policy change. But instead I found a job as an audience engagement editor at a Christian social justice publication for whom I’d previously written. Suddenly I wasn’t just a writer and a pastor. Entirely unexpectedly, I had also become a journalist.

When Sojourners hired me, I told them it mattered that they’d chosen to hire a writer and pastor for the job. Those parts of myself meant that I approached the task of engaging our audience believing that caring for people and their voices was my utmost responsibility. I saw our audience as a community to be tended to and as a gift — a garden of stories with the power to create justice and connection for a better world.

Working to help all people’s stories be heard as a clergy-activist (JP Keenan/Sojourners)

A month after I started, the 2016 presidential election made the divisions between us glaringly evident. I spent the next two and a half years, both professionally and in my own life, trying to help people hear one another across the immense breaches that divided us — to remember that we’re all human. I even moved back to the South to do that work in person in the particular ways that the home of my childhood needed it.

I first encountered Hearken at a conference several years ago, and I knew immediately that I had stumbled upon a kindred spirit. Hearken hinges on the crucial belief that people’s stories matter, that they have power, that they can heal and transform. It’s founded on the understanding that journalism isn’t just about conveying information through a report of facts. Good, meaningful journalism is also about seeking out and listening — deeply listening — to the stories within a community and then helping tell those stories in a way that connects people and serves the community as a whole.

The first example of Hearken’s work I heard about was at The Texas Tribune, which used Hearken after Hurricane Harvey to find out what their audience needed in the wake of the storm and then geared their coverage to help connect people with those resources. Similarly, the Panama City News Herald used Hearken to ride out Hurricane Michael from beginning to end alongside its readers — even as their newsroom faced significant destruction from the storm and their own reporters were forced to take cover. Meanwhile, in Rochester, New York, the Democrat & Chronicle acknowledged the insightful, provocative question of one of its longtime critics to confront the stark realities of racial discrimination within their local school system.

My first day as a journalist.

Hearken works with newsrooms to help them recognize their audiences not just as consumers of information but as partners in the work of meaningful storytelling with the power to effect profound change. Hearken teaches newsrooms and journalists how to listen deeply and then to come alongside audiences to turn that listening into powerful, healing, even transformative work.

When I had the chance to join Hearken’s team, I didn’t hesitate. This isn’t the job I ever imagined having, or the path I thought my life would take, but at its heart, it is the kind of work I’ve always dreamed of doing. It may have taken a crazy-straw journey to bring me to Hearken, but what binds us together is the same thing that first compelled me to put crayon to paper a lifetime ago: the deep abiding knowledge that a good story — well-heard and well-told — can speak a deep truth that sparks a fire of recognition in the soul, and that words, wielded with such intention, can even create a new and better world.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Layton E. Williams

Written by

Engagement Strategist and Industry Education Lead at Hearken. Writer and pastor elsewhere.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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