Audre Lord is an African American author and poet who wrote about the difficulties in communication between people. Her words have power and relevance for anyone who cares to hear them. Audre saw silence as a form of violence and as someone identifying as Black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet stated: ‘my silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.’
The transformation of silence into action is something everyone in Barking & Dagenham should be concerned with. Too many are silent. Too many of us are sleeping whilst standing up. The communities with the biggest struggles are the quietest. They get gaslighted.
I think the first job of a community worker is to listen, actively listen to the torrent of frozen words and experiences people keep inside of them. The resident whose heating and water hasn’t worked for months, the carer who cannot afford family prescriptions, the council officer who feels powerless to help others because of the fear that comes from above, the partial truths of politicians and their soundbites. Listening to the violence that silences.
Call and response
In different forms of music there is call and response, from spirituals, blues, gospel, and today’s pop – less so now but still crops up. There’s a phrase or cue and then you join in. Back and forth. We feel connected. Less alone. We improvise – the communication like a dance takes twists and turns.
Listening is not a static act. Listening, communication and action are all happening at the same time. Even when we are silent. Maybe there is no such thing as silence, only violence that shuts down minds and hearts. Your silence will not protect you.
If all a community worker does is actively and deeply listen that would be something precious and rare. But it would not be enough.
To listen well is a caring and loving act. But love without power is a sentimental and dangerous thing. Another form of gaslighting. Here’s where the top end of the voluntary sector cops out. If it bothered to listen in the first place. Our job is not to cultivate victimhood; it is to support and take collective action.
The Scottish hip hop writer Loki describes a special circle of hell for professionals in the charity and public sector who go out on ‘poverty safari’. People whose job depends on the existence of poverty and other people’s problems, who have an investment in maintaining and administering but never seem to fundamentally change anything.
When does listening to other people’s silences not become parasitic?
Many of the poorest in our communities are living with unrecognised trauma, hardly able to process what has been done to us, much less what we might do about it. Silence like a cancer grows.
Where are the silences in your lives? What silencing violence is being visited on you?
What is it that makes you so angry you have to act? You probably know who will block you, but do you know who has your back and are you willing to reach out to them so you can act together?
For me, it is simple. Really simple. Anyone can do this. We listen, we act. Repeat. We do this together. End of.