Do You Have the Courage to Listen?

Two friends, one Muslim and one Jewish, share their experiences with learning to understand each other.
January 18, 2023
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Listening is more difficult than it sounds. As individuals and as communities, we’re usually bad at it. We skim news stories for headlines or highlights, or we rant on social media and over meals. We dismiss the cries of pain from our marginalized siblings. We form hasty judgments about people who don’t match our expected standards of behavior.

Here in Los Angeles, hate violence and incidents increased by 23% in 2021, especially targeting Black, Asian, Jewish and trans folks. As identity-based hatred continues to burn in communities across the U.S., leading to violence and grief, it feels easier to turn inward, to keep to our respective tribes. And then, when we actually want to make meaningful change to repair the harm of racism, anti-Black hate speech and violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric or any of the other awful realities that tear at our social fabric, we find ourselves filled with passion and drive but lacking the allies and connections that we need to put it to use.

For each of the writers of this piece, a Black Muslim man and a Japanese-American Jewish woman, identity is key. In 2010, we participated in a professional fellowship program run by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. The fellowship trains a group of Muslim and Jewish leaders from LA to strengthen their listening, facilitation and storytelling skills over a nine-month program.

Sometimes it’s as simple as telling the other person what you heard and asking if you got it right. Once people feel heard, it gives them the capacity to hear you as well. “Did I get it right?” leaves space to be corrected; the speaker can feel that they’ve been truly heard the way they want to be—a rare gift we can offer each other. NewGround’s methodology doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff; instead, they dive into the most tangled and painful parts of our lives, as well as the most beautiful and joyful parts, that drive our decisions and actions.

Beyond the skills of listening and facilitation, NewGround focuses on the power of relationships to effect change. The program trained us to think about our circles of influence, the networks we move in and how we can bring those together in powerful ways. As we work together, our differences may bring us into conflict with the very people we need to work alongside. Conflict is inevitable, but being stuck is a choice.

We got to know each other deeply during the fellowship, learning the texture and complexity of our experiences and stories. We learned how to slow down our conversations, to understand why we responded with powerful emotions to trigger words, and how to lean on the relationships and trust we had built before reacting or making assumptions. We felt transformed, learning so much through both inter- and intra-faith dialogue and relationship building.

We’ve maintained those relationships in the years since. We hit the streets to drive voter engagement. Maya showed up and brought her community to support I.L.M. Foundation’s Humanitarian Day, a project that brings a host of organizations together to serve LA’s unhoused residents. Both of our faith traditions emphasize social responsibility, through the Jewish value of tikkun olam and the Muslim teaching in Surah 49:13. We use our power to help build peace, one small step at a time.

Umar says that NewGround’s model of dialogue is like open-heart surgery for communities: profoundly vulnerable, sometimes necessary to save a life, and an essential step on the long road to healing. When we have conversations that cut so deeply to the core of who we are, it can be so hard that we want to walk away from the table. Polarization is a vicious cycle: The more we argue, the further apart we drift and the more we find things to argue about. And as we’ve been so painfully reminded, again and again, as polarization festers it can escalate into physical violence. But berating each other doesn’t fix anything. Cutting through polarization requires compassion.

After the first year of the COVID pandemic, the rising cry for justice for Black Americans made it clear that we needed this kind of intervention. NewGround created the Courage Accelerator program, inviting a select number of alumni from their fellowship program to deepen our skills and focus our dialogue on confronting racism in our own religious communities. Both of us were eager to participate.

It was exactly what we needed. Talking about individual and institutional racism is really hard. Each of us has a different window of experience. For some, like Umar, that experience was direct and raw. For others, like Maya, it was indirect but very close to home. We dove into stories, because stories are more powerful than statistics when it comes to driving change. By exercising our empathy, we moved from listening into action, opening space for these incredibly challenging conversations in our communities.

At one point when we were talking about intervening in conversations on racism and bias, Umar commented that we are “holy infiltrators.” We shouldn’t sit on our training, waiting for change to happen. We can make it happen, one small step at a time. Story by story, surgery by surgery, conversation by conversation. It’s slow, and it’s often painful. But it’s a crucial step on the long road to healing. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.” We hope you’ll take a moment today to think about conversations that require your courage, and will consider what voices need your ears, your hands, your heart.

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