Photo: Listen, Listen, Act

Weaving “Don’t Arrive with the Answer” and “Listen, Listen, Act”

Posted on May 20, 2024 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
Prior to my Fellowship with The Patterson Foundation (TPF), I co-founded a K-12 youth leadership development and action organization called Tulsa Changemakers. Our first initiative was Listen, Listen, Act, a semester-long, 25-session after-school and in-school program. It now annually empowers hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students, primarily from Tulsa Public and Union Public Schools, to make meaningful change in their schools and communities.

We called the program and curriculum Listen, Listen, Act because it takes the Changemakers through a project-based and experiential learning process that challenges students to listen to themselves, listen to their community, and develop the skills to take measurable action in response to the listening. Listen, Listen, Act is rooted in an asset-based and youth-driven approach to community impact that leverages the unique perspectives of the students, mobilizes them to conduct listening campaigns to identify community strengths and challenges, and supports them in working collaboratively to drive real change.

Key to Listen, Listen, Act is an aphorism we refer to frequently at TPF: “don’t arrive with the answer.” When working on a challenge, it’s imperative not to show up to a community, project, or meeting already certain about the solution. While it’s important to honor your own experience and be prepared, it’s more crucial to show up curious and allow the contributions of others to inform the process for a stronger outcome. This is most critical when you’re an outsider or newcomer to a community.

The origin story of Tulsa Changemakers is that my co-founder and I, in our first year of Teach For America (TFA) in 2015, were struck by the juxtaposition that our students, as insiders, were well positioned to address challenges in their communities, yet we, as outsiders and newcomers to Tulsa, were the ones being invested in to make a difference. We recognized that our students, not us, knew the answers. They needed to be heard. Our role became creating spaces to help mobilize the young people to lead – to help them listen to themselves, listen to others, and take action.

Even though the students are community insiders, it was still pivotal that we designed the curriculum to go beyond listening to self. Indeed, no one person or group of people can represent the interests of an entire community. It was key that they, too, didn’t arrive with the answer.

One of my favorite examples of this is from the Fall 2018 Changemakers at Nathan Hale High School. After listening to themselves, the students identified school safety as their topic. They initially thought they’d focus on physical safety but, after surveying the student body, they discovered that most students felt physically safe at school. Instead, students didn’t always feel emotionally safe, specifically because there was opportunity to better affirm their cultural identities at school. In response, the Changemakers brought together over 100 students for a Cultural Diversity Night, with culturally relevant food (donated from local restaurants), performances, and dancing. Afterward, they raised $500 to do it again.

I love this story because had the students stopped at listening to themselves, they would have executed a project not as relevant to their peers. Instead, they chose not to arrive with the answer, listened to others, and meaningfully impacted the feeling of emotional safety at their high school.

As I’ve entered a new community here on the Suncoast, I’ve tried to keep Listen, Listen, Act and “don’t arrive with the answer” front of mind. How can these lessons show up in your work and life?

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