Beyond Listening to Hearing

Almost by definition, a genuinely diverse community will have friction points as it grows and changes. Those who work in social services have particular need for tools to manage these rough patches. Though Pamela Jefsen was a seasoned professional when she entered the American Leadership Forum, she credits the program with attuning her senses to the needs of people who stood in opposition to a project important to her:

I am executive director of an organization that develops apartment communities for people who are disabled and formerly homeless. We planned a project in a diverse, eclectic, urban neighborhood, and the neighbors were not happy. We told them that we would keep having community meetings until everyone’s questions had been answered.

In a typical meeting I was answering questions for two or three hours at a time. Some of the questions held anger and were not based on facts. Drawing on my ALF work, I was able to stay focused on the perspectives of the people I was talking to. I tried to put myself in the place of the people in the neighborhood—to understand their fears, their concern for their homes and families. I considered my reality—knowing our residents, knowing them as people—different from the reality of the neighbors who may only have knowledge of the negative stereotypes. Most of the neighbors did come around and, judging from feedback I received, felt heard even if they disagreed with me.

There was a couple at one meeting who had a three-year-old daughter named Holly. Holly’s father was clearly agitated by the idea of having formerly homeless and disabled people (particularly men) nearby. At one point he asked me, “Why do you think it is a good idea to bring these people who have been homeless and are addicted to drugs into a facility across the street when they may hurt our children?”

I started my answer with, “What you need to know is …” and instantly realized that those words would likely offend and further rile him up. So I stopped, took a deep breath, apologized, and started again with, “What I have learned as a result of my experience is …” Later on in the meeting the same man leaned forward, pushed his finger toward my face, and said, “If something happens to my Holly it will be all your fault and then what will you do?” I was able to hear his fear and stay calm rather than feel defensive. I simply said to him, “If my experience told me that our residents would be a danger to children, I would not be able to do this work.”

I don’t know how much of an impact our conversation had on this father. I did see him at another meeting, where he appeared calm rather than angry.

Pamela Jefsen is executive director of Supportive Housing Communities and McCreesh Place and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.