Listen to HER


Few days go by without reading or hearing advice about how we should live our lives. You can throw a proverbial rock and hit someone with an opinion about what we should believe and how we should behave. Social media has made it even easier to give and get unsolicited advice and, just as often, recriminations. To whom should we listen? What information can inform and/or enhance our lives? Decades ago, a mentor in seminary shared an acronym to respond to this potential dilemma that I still apply today in my life’s work to advance social justice. The advice was simple. Listen to HER. This counsel may prove beneficial to readers here.

H stands for history. The past is full of examples and knowledge, both positive and negative, from which we can learn. Trials and triumphs alike can be instructive. The Holocaust, slavery in America, the genocide of the Moriori in New Zealand and the Tutsi in Rwanda, gendercide during periods of war and conquest, The Trail of Tears, the Tulsa race riot, as well as Jim and Juan Crow laws - are just a few historical examples of systematic oppression and disenfranchisement. However, the Red and Black Power Movements, Stonewall activists, and the Gray Panthers pushed to empower the marginalized. Other counter-narratives include: Mississippi domestic and philanthropist, Oseola McCarty; Oskar Schindler; Cesar Chavez; Grace Lee Boggs; Judy Wood; and, Bayard Rustin who all illustrate how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. And Freedom Summer martyrs James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner remind us that many have died in the pursuit of justice. A plethora of lesser-known episodes, groups, and individuals from the past challenge us to remember tragedies as well as instances when our best selves were evident and prevailed. Yet history is often framed by the powerful. And there are still historical events to be unearthed. However, the past provides evidence for guidance, retrospection, and action to do and be better. And to quote philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

E stands for experiences. In today's age of mansplaining, racesplaining, and “fill in the blank”-splaining, each of us has our own unique experiences from which to draw. Even if we understand and describe them in varied ways, they happen. They are real. They should be acknowledged. And we can learn from them. No one knows your experiences better than you. This is an endless source of knowledge and, if used properly, wisdom and guidance. I also believe that we are destined to repeat certain experiences until we learn and grow from them. Other people’s experiences are also invaluable. Listening to the experiences of others can help avoid that slippery slope of “my pain is greater than yours.” Even if we haven’t walked in their shoes, an empathetic ear can build genuine relationships and provide insights to navigate life’s quagmires and challenges. Equally important, sharing our stories gives us voice and can empower us to move forward in positive ways. In this way, acknowledging and honoring our experiences and those of others can build community and reduce divisiveness.

R stands for research. This third source of information and potential knowledge and wisdom may be unexpected, but is crucial. Research helps minimize the tendency to assume that our experience is the experience. It can foster objectivity as we learn about other people. Moreover, research can reduce the tendency to use our own standards to evaluate other people, as we are exposed to diverse values, beliefs, cultures, and traditions. Sound scholarship documents trends and patterns across time, groups, and settings. For example, work by W.E.B. DuBois, Patricia Hill Collins, Joe Feagin, and Donna Haraway illumined issues of oppression and resistance that inform my attitudes and actions about equity, diversity, and inclusion. The more I read, the more I learn, question, and grow. When used prudently, research can open our eyes to facets of the human experience that we might miss otherwise. However, we must consider who is performing the research and be comfortable questioning results, especially unsubstantiated anecdotes and theories that seem logical, but fly in the face of multiple, replicated studies by diverse scholars. Equally important, scholarship can inform policies, community action, and how we live our daily lives. But this means that more research must be shared outside the ivory tower in a way that is relevant to the broader society.

Times may change, but to me, there is nothing new under the sun. Taken together, history, experiences, and research can be transformative, as society, people, and we each unfold in new and exciting ways. So many years ago, I was challenged to Listen to HER. Doing so has enhanced multiple facets of my life. May it do the same for you.

Sandra Barnes