VOICES: Reach out to someone you don’t understand and listen

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

I grew up in a blue-collar family in New York. College was a desire, but not a certainty. Luckily, I had a strong family and teachers who believed in me. I can still remember how I felt when my sixth-grade teacher told me I was “smart.”

I was an awkward tween being asked to read a story I wrote aloud to the class. Sheer dread. Writing was the easy part, but being asked to share it? Way out of my comfort zone.

Picture it: a chubby tween, in a training bra with this wild curly hair in a room full of girls who looked like “Marcia Brady.” I was doomed.

Somehow, I stumbled through. The following week when I received my paper back with a good grade, the shock must have shown on my face. After class my teacher called me over for a chat. Out poured all my anxiety and preteen angst. My story was lame; my delivery wasn’t polished; I could hear people snickering while I read.

My teacher was patient. She listened to me; she told me what she liked about my story and not to compare myself to others. That I was “smart.” As I consider this now, I realize the generosity of her act. By listening to me, she helped me find my voice.

I wish I could say I had an epiphany that day and the importance of listening was instantly learned. But no, like many of you I suppose I had to learn it the hard way.

Fast forward, there I was in my freshman-year college English course with a unit on Greek mythology and a big assignment that was carefully explained by the professor weeks before. The day before the assignment was due I was putting the last touches on the papier mâché three-dimensional Medusa head I made.

You know the story, right? The lady with the snakes coming out of her head. Anyway, my mother, as she looked at my artwork, commented: “How did the research go? Was the paper hard to write?”

Research? Paper? Tip: When you have an assignment that will take about 30 hours, don’t spent 28 of them making papier mâché snakes.

And even more recently, a neighborhood meeting where I was trying to explain a housing program and a citizen jumped up and said, “I don’t believe you!” I remember thinking, “Well, clearly he’s not listening!”

But in retrospect, it was I who had not listened close enough. These residents had no reason to trust me given everything that had happened in their past. If I wanted to earn their trust, I had to listen.

Listening is not just about helping you be better but also a real skill in understanding other people and where they are coming from.

You see, while many people speak, not everyone is heard; not every voice is recognized or appreciated. There is no greater poverty than poverty of the spirit. In short, not being “seen.”

Listening is an act of love; it’s bearing witness; It’s empathy in action.

Don’t waste today. Reach out to someone you don’t understand. Be brave. Listen.

Karen Demasi is the Vice President of Community Development for CityWide.

YWCA Women of Influence

On Thursday, March 10, YWCA Dayton honored eight women during its 2022 Women of Influence awards luncheon. To commemorate Womens History Month, Ideas & Voices partnered with the YWCA to share some of the speeches given at the event.

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