Over the coming weeks and months I have invited key professionals to write a piece on my blog about ideas on how we can combat the Gangs and Serious Youth Violence issue in the UK. Our first guest blogger is Selina Stone who looks at the importance of listening to the voice of the perpetrator to help us develop strategies in combating the gangs and serious youth violence issue.
Listen, Understand, Respond: A Foundation for tackling Serious Youth Violence by Selina Stone
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey
In the area of Serious Youth Violence there are many voices to be heard; the newsreader relaying the media story, the police condemning the crime, the victim’s family demanding justice. There is a place given to every voice, except the voice of the one who has committed the crime. In general, we do not recognise the importance of listening when it comes to those who commit acts of violence. Why should we care what they have to say? Because the key to an effective response can be found in the act of listening; not to reply, but to understand.
So what do I mean by ‘listening’ and why is it so essential?
The temptation for any person who wants to create change is to begin with ideas of what needs to be done. This tendency exists because we assume we already understand what the problem is. We have various means of informing our understanding; we can read statistics on the current picture, we can depend on our own lived experience or the reflections of those who have gone before us. All of these sources of understanding take us away from the reality that regardless prior knowledge, nothing is more important than the stories of those whose lives we want to see transformed.
‘Listening is the process through which speech and information is retrieved by an individual before proceeding to storage.‘
As a community organiser at the Centre for Theology and Community, I depend on 121 meetings to drive the social justice issues we choose to tackle at the grassroots. Before we consider setting an agenda or strategy we begin by listening to the stories of the people who live and work around us. The listening campaign uncovers shared concerns or issues, helps us to clarify a clear objective and to identify leaders. Rather than exerting political power over communities, grassroots organising seeks to develop relational power with people. It is through listening that we uncover what makes people angry, what their self-interest is and who the leaders are who can make change happen.
So how does this relate to youth violence?
Each young person has a story that explains why they think or feel the way they do and how they have ended up where they are in life. The process of storytelling allows them firstly to recognise themselves. A person is able to acknowledge their life journey with its defining moments and influential relationships in order to understand how they have become who they are. The sense of identity and self-understanding this brings causes each of us to have the confidence to imagine the kind of future we want for ourselves.
When we help a young person tell their story and we choose to listen, we give them the respect and dignity due to all human beings. It is an act of humility on our part to listen, acknowledging that in that time and place, what the other person has to say is more important than what we want to communicate.
“(Some young people may have) difficulties understanding and expressing emotions, or (display) challenging behaviour as a means to communicate feelings.”
Aside from the stories of individuals, we must also become experts at listening to the collective story being told by the young generation, including those engaged in violence and crime. Nonverbal communication is as essential to informing our understanding as verbal communication. Young people communicate individually through their choices of dress, their facial expressions and their life choices. Collectively, they communicate through their common interests, trends of behaviour and attitudes which become defining aspects of their generation. Before we seek to address social trends and impacts of serious youth violence, we must be willing to listen to the individual and collective stories of young people. Only through this act of humility will be equipped to reply effectively to young people and to wider society.
So what we can do?
This ‘listening to understand’ needs to take place in our families, in our friendship groups, in our faith communities and in wider society.
How well do we understand the young people in our homes and families? How much time do we spend time listening to those who attend our churches, youth clubs or mosques? How well do we understand the young people we are friends with? Do we take time to listen to young people in prisons or detention centres? Do we know the young people in our neighbourhoods?
Through a regular commitment to 121 conversations we can discover the stories of these young people and work with them to redefine their lives with a brighter future. Violence does not have to be the final voice in the lives of our youth.
Selina Stone is a church based community organiser working to develop the capacity of churches to work on issues of justice in their communities. Her PhD research is looking at the significance of justice in Pentecostal understandings of salvation and mission. Selina currently works for The Centre for Theology and Community
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