What If Listening Could Change the World?

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Nicole Le Roux is co-founder of I Am Somebody!, a youth-led NGO in Cape Town, South Africa that uses storytelling to build diverse communities committed to supporting the development of young leaders. She is one of 20 young social entrepreneurs recently honored by IYF as 2012 Laureate Global Fellows.

I think every person has at least one family or personal silence, something that is just not spoken about. My silence is racism. I’m a 26-year-old white woman from South Africa and my family was directly and indirectly involved in upholding the system of dehumanization, segregation, and violence my people coined apartheid.

I have long been afraid that if I break the silence around my family’s experience I will hurt the people I love most. But what if our stories could change the world? What if the answer to the problems we face—the answer to violence, HIV/AIDS, poverty, war—was as simple as encouraging others to speak their truth, listening deeply to better understand, and finding our own truth in that understanding?

I came to know the power of listening when I spent three weeks with my grandfather five years ago. I blamed him for being racist, a view I had confirmed when I found out he was a high court judge during apartheid. Right before visiting him, a friend of mine challenged me to listen to my grandfather, rather than argue. Although my grandfather said many things that I deeply disagreed with, and although I doubted my choice many times, I simply asked more questions and tried to listen harder.

During those many days of listening I found something I didn’t expect to find, I found love. I saw my grandfather as if for the first time—his soft comforting hands, the smile wrinkles around his eyes, the way he contemplated everything. I saw his fear of not being loved and how it upheld his worldview because it made it harder for him to be wrong, to be vulnerable, and to connect with other people. Every idea I had about him being different from me was shattered when I listened to his stories because I couldn’t blame him for what I also embodied. Fear had driven my own denial of how I had internalized racism and embodied my privilege. I realized that I have to confront that fear and the only way to do so is by breaking the silence.

My grandfather taught me that the cost of our fears is great. Fear maintains the status quo, drives crowd mentality, stifles creativity, upholds war, increases class disparity, and enables gender inequality that perpetuates the spread of HIV/AIDS. Fear defends privilege and silences the underprivileged. My grandfather also taught me that we are not our fear. Through seeing him, I realized that we are more beautiful, vast, complex, and valuable than we could ever dream.

Several years after this experience, I co-founded I Am Somebody!, an organization that seeks to build a reconciled South Africa whose people have learned from and transformed their history.  We use storytelling and youth development to build resilient, reconciled, and integrated communities. Through several interconnected long-term programs, we create the space for diverse young people, their families, mentors, and friends to confront their challenges, to speak their stories, and to be witnessed.

Through telling stories about the challenges they face, participants in our programs and members of our community are able to see themselves more clearly and support one another. They do this across cultures and classes and the lines of division apartheid created based on skin color.

One example is a female participant in our Young Adult Rites of Passage Program, who dropped out of school to become a caregiver in her family while she was still a child herself. Many of her internal and external challenges stem from inequalities created by apartheid. She says that sharing her story has been like looking into a mirror and seeing herself and her situation from new angles. The reflection in that mirror has helped her to make important life changes and take ownership of her future.

Another one of our participants had been engaged in programs in other organizations but never felt safe enough to speak. For months in our program, he also avoided sharing openly but then something changed. He drew a picture of abuse and chose to tell his story. As he did so, he allowed himself to cry. Through that moment of speaking he began to confront his fear and to build the relationships he wanted in his life.

Individuals confronting their fears together can build reconciled communities. I am grateful to my grandfather for sharing himself with me and for teaching me about the beautiful and hard parts of myself. By listening deeply to others we can find more than compassion for them, we can find the gifts within our own silences. And if we then choose to speak, we can change the world.

apartheid racism youth voices