Niobe Way Through the Prism
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
When we lived in Oberlin Ohio in the mid 1970s, my father, who was a professor of Classics, volunteered at a home for troubled boys that was located on the outskirts of town. He always wanted me and my siblings to know how to chop wood for the wood burning stove that we had in the living room, and thought the boys he worked with from "Green Acres" also needed to learn how to chop wood. He used to have a group of 4 or 5 teenage boys come over to our house every saturday afternoon to learn how to chop wood on our front porch. I remember being ten years old and sitting on the stoop watching these tough guys with a lot of attitude on their faces get lectured by my father on how to swing an axe. While most of the towns folk were terrified of these boys, my father saw them as his own children who needed to know how to chop wood. The trust that my father showed the boys and that they showed him in return by properly learning how to chop wood was a powerful example of human connection.
What are you working on right now?
At the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (pach.org), a think and do tank at NYU that draws from the science of human connection to address our global crisis of connection, we are currently training people in our method of transformative interviewing. The training is part of our Listening Project that we have been conducting in middle schools across NYC and universities around the world for the past five years. We define listening as asking questions that disrupt the stereotypes we hold of one another. The goal of transformative interviewing is to understand how others see themselves rather than how we stereotype them to be. Our evaluation research indicates that our training significantly increases empathy, connection, listening skills, and a sense of a common humanity among those being trained. I’m also working with a group of Builders, as part of the Einhorn Collaborative, on a national campaign to underscore the importance of social connection, along with wearing a mask and staying physically distant.
What values guide your work?
One is a deep belief in our common humanity. By that I mean a deep belief in the fact that we share an enormous amount in our fundamentals such as in our desires, fears, and hopes. When we conducted a "We are human" campaign with police officers and community members from across the state of California, we asked everyone what they wanted most and feared most in their lives. Most people responded similarly. They wanted love and to remain close to their loved ones and they feared most the loss of loved ones and of loneliness. These responses underscore that we are social and emotional animals. Yet we live in a culture that privileges the self over relationships, or the me over the we, and cognition over emotion and perpetuates dehumanizing stereotypes of each other. Thus it is a culture that is out of sync with our nature. This clash between our culture and our nature leads to our crisis of connection. The second value that guides me is that we can learn from anyone about topics that are important to us. I go through life interviewing everybody – from very young children to much older people to people who are highly educated as well as people with very little education. I’ve learned everything I know through these interviews, especially my interviews with children and teenagers from all walks of life. The Listening Project encourages us to learn from each other regardless of age, education, or social status.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
My children are my deepest joy. I feel so fortunate to eat dinner every night with my brilliant, courageous and deeply caring teenage daughter (my 20 year old son is at U.C. Berkeley doing his junior year online). I’m hopeful about so many things right now. Working with people, as with do everyday, with common values on shared problems gives me both joy and hope for the future. Watching all the activism going on in the Black lives matter and Me too movements gives me great hope for the future as well. I also get great joy from taking long walks along the Hudson river on the westside and listening to Audible books. Right now, I’m listening to Jill Lepore’s These Truths, a fantastic history book, read by the author.
What's one piece of inspiration you would like to share with our audience?
This morning I woke up thinking about a fifth-grade boy who came through a signing line at a bookstore in North Carolina.
I signed his copy of Despereaux and he said, “My teacher said fifth grade is the year of asking questions.”
"Really?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. He took out a notebook. "Every day we’re supposed to ask someone different a good question and listen really good and then write down the answer when they’re done talking."
"Oh," I said, "I get it. I’m someone different. Okay, what’s your question?"
"My question is how do you get all that hope into your stories?”
"That’s not a good question,” I said. "That’s a great question. Let me think. Um. I guess that writing the story is an act of hope, and so even when I don’t feel hopeful, writing the story can lead me to hope. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah,” he said. He looked me in the eye. "It’s kind of a long answer. But I can write it all out. Thanks."
He picked up his copy of Despereaux, and walked away—writing in his notebook.
This was years ago.
Why did I wake up this morning and think of this child? Maybe because this is a time to start asking good questions, a time to write down the answers, a time to listen to each other really well.
I’m going to get myself a little spiral bound notebook.
I’m going to listen and hope.
Let’s listen and hope together.