Becoming a better listener

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There are many reasons I am excited about the Native America Project.

First, I’m curious. Name a subject and I’ll likely follow up with a question.

I also like people, especially their stories, whether they are ragged, joyful, humble, or awash in enough drama to fuel a hit TV show.

NMID Executive Director Trip Jennings

The project, then, represents a learning opportunity.

But, honestly I hope this project makes me a better listener.

Like writers everywhere, I want to tell good stories. But that requires listening well.

As a journalist, I’m not sure I’ve always done that. When you write stories for a daily newspaper, or a news website, time constraints sometimes demand that you stuff complicated stories into simple boxes and move on to the next assignment. You do what pediatrician and poet William Carlos Williams called “Fly-by-night invasions or raids” – reporters who pop into a person’s life to sample the barest minimum of a complex life.

The Native America Project – as well as New Mexico In Depth in general – gives me the opportunity to try and break that habit and to spend time with real people. For too many years, I’ve written about state laws and government policies without focusing on the affected lives at the other end of a decision made in a state capital.

This project also affords me the chance to think – a lot. One of the books I picked up recently is Doing Documentary Work, a book by child psychiatrist Robert Coles. In it, Coles writes of the value of knowing your own story so it doesn’t deafen you to others’ tales. How difficult is it to listen well if you’re not aware of your own story – the assumptions one takes into situations that can get in the way of really hearing what another person is saying?

Over the years, I’ve become more aware of my own story thanks to all the people I’ve met and places I’ve lived. This project, however, promises to help me understand a part of the world I don’t know much about – and perhaps also learn more about myself.

After what I’ve written here, you probably want to know a little about me.

I am originally from Georgia, the son of two small-town people, though I’ve moved around a bit — California, Florida and Connecticut and, now, New Mexico.

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of the civil rights movement in the Deep South, images that still linger. Later, when I lived in Atlanta in the 1990s, one of my most stirring memories is of visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s home church. The wife of the civil right hero, Coretta Scott King, and several of their children were there. Seated next to them were Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, and several of her children.

Most days, I think I’m an optimist, but there are days when I have to wonder. I’ve seen some disturbing stuff in my career. A governor who went to federal prison for corruption. A 94-year-old woman murdered by anthrax. A mother who shot a man she thought molested her son during his court arraignment.

And, in California, gang warfare that cut short too many lives at too young an age.

It’s enough to make me question human goodness.

But, if I’m honest with myself, I have a resistant case of optimism. I can’t help myself. I want to believe the world can be a better place and that we each can make a difference.

Maybe that’s the most important reason I’m excited about the Native America Project — – through learning, through listening, through telling good stories, I hope we can get to know each other well enough to have a thoughtful conversation about the significant challenges and exciting opportunities that come with living in native communities around New Mexico.

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