Partnerships in Civic Engagement: The Power of Listening

Guest post by Kimmie Garner, M.S.W. | Assistant Director, Duke Service-Learning

I returned to the field of civic engagement when I began my position as Assistant Director of Duke Service-Learning in August 2018. I was a student organizer in service-learning during all four of my undergraduate years at UNC. Since graduating eight years ago, I have been engaged in facilitating and fostering community partnerships within university, nonprofit, and clinical settings across four distinct states. What has been abundantly clear in each context is the age-old tension between quantity and quality in the development of partnerships, especially given the ease with which we can connect via email. A high quantity of connections can be made seemingly in an instant. However, due to the volume of people involved in civic engagement endeavors, email can all too often become the primary means of knowing a partner, whether a colleague, faculty member, student, or local organization. We may spend hours a day composing and deciphering emails sent among our internal teams or our community partners. But does this mean we are truly “connected” in a quality way to one another and these stakeholders? Are we listening entirely to the nuances of individuals’ and groups’ visions and needs?

One way Duke Service-Learning has been seeking to address this tension and enhance the quality of campus and community partnerships is through dedicating the 2018-2019 academic year as “My Year of Listening.” Recognizing the significance of listening fully and wholeheartedly to our co-workers and community partners is critical, but how can we grow in our capacity to listen without judgment or the immediate formation of a response? How can we put these skills into practice as we seek to solidify and deepen relationships that support community-driven change and progress? One approach we have tried is carving out time in team meeting agendas for each person to speak for multiple minutes of uninterrupted time. We have also organized listening visits to local Durham community partners’ offices to learn how students enrolled in service-learning courses can best support the aspirations of an organization and its clients. With changes like these, we can incrementally and meaningfully foster opportunities to listen more completely to one another face-to-face.

While listening with our whole selves is something we develop over the course of a lifetime of reflection and practice, I’ve noticed through some intentional shifts that I am becoming more conscious of the power of speaking less and listening more. This has become especially important not only as I’ve settled into the Durham community, but also as I’ve begun teaching an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class two nights a week at my local literacy council this semester. One night after class, a family member of students enrolled in the course told me it would be helpful if I spoke more slowly, pausing between each word spoken. As a notoriously fast talker, I needed to hear and listen to this feedback! In much the same way, we can all take moments to pause during our days to listen to what our co-workers and community partners are saying beyond the confines of our inboxes, working towards depth over breadth in the formation and nurturing of sustainable, lasting partnerships.

Photo: Duke Service-Learning team on their listening visit with Partners for Youth Opportunity