by Page Walker Buck
Below is an excerpt from Page Walker Buck’s convocation speech, delivered at Bryn Mawr College’s 2008 convocation ceremony. Page spoke as a representative of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, where she completed her master’s and doctoral work. Page began her speech by acknowledging graduates’ friends and family members in the audience, including her grandmother.
My kids are incredibly lucky to have a great-grandmother in their lives for all of the obvious reasons, but even more so, because she is the daughter of a Bryn Mawr alumna. My great-grandmother graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1902 with a double major in history and political science!
What I would give to have known her and asked her what it was like to be a college-educated woman from Bryn Mawr during the Progressive Era. What I would give to have been able to listen to her stories. However, had we crossed paths when I was younger, I wonder whether I really would have listened to her, whether I would have honestly known how to. I say this because listening is not something that we are taught to do in this society. It is not something that we value. We tend to think that listening automatically happens when you’re not talking. If you’re quiet, then you must be listening. The most we teach about listening when you’re young is that you need to sit still and wait your turn. As an adult, it’s even worse—we don’t even pretend to be listening. We have all of these talk shows now where the guests actually sit there shaking their heads and smirking while their counterparts are talking. You know, I expect some eye-rolling from my 11-year-old, but when obvious disregard for other perspectives becomes the standard form of engagement on national television, I get worried.
Listening is a difficult skill that takes time to develop. And it is also an art. As social workers, we are taught to actively engage with the people we are with. Sometimes they are talking, other times they are not—but we are always listening because we know that to understand someone’s life story, to really understand how they came to embody their beliefs and values, we need to listen to them. This is especially true for the most vulnerable members of our society, those whose stories are so rarely heard—and when they are, they are deemed invalid.
Too often we stop listening when we hear things that we disagree with or don’t understand. We can’t seem to tolerate difference across so many different issues—how we live, where we pray, and whom we love. And this is a pretty scary thing because there is a lot of difference in this world —even among those of us gathered here today. If the best we can do is to turn our ears off every time we hear something we don’t like or understand, we are in serious trouble.
We formed this democracy specifically to account for difference; that’s the basis of a representative system. And yet somehow, we have come to believe that our differences are a liability, that they are what is wrong with our society today. In large part, I think this has happened because we live vastly different lives in this country and often do not have the opportunity to understand the basis for our differences.
I am not here to suggest that I have mastered the skill of listening. But I am here to tell you that I am committed to joining a growing number of social activists who believe that if we are to be truly engaged in the pursuit of social justice, we must first find a way to nurture our collective listening skills.
So I’d like you to consider the following. Change often happens incrementally, although sometimes in radical ways. And today, I hope that you will join me in taking a radical stance on listening. I’m hoping that you’ll start by inviting someone you know to tell you a story about their life—something about themselves that you never knew or that they have never shared. Listen to their story as if you were running a marathon—with all of your energy and might. Take in the sadness and joy; revel in the success and experience the pain.
And I hope that you will consider recording your stories through StoryCorps. If you haven’t heard of it, StoryCorps is a non-profit, national oral history project dedicated to creating social change through the art of listening. With recording booths all over the United States, you can make a reservation and invite someone to sit and tell you their story, a copy of which is archived in the Library of Congress.
By inviting someone to tell you a story about his or her life, you would be not only honoring and celebrating this person, but also preserving a piece of his or her life history that might otherwise go unrecorded—like that of my great-grandmother. But perhaps more importantly, you would be joining something much larger. If we understand listening to be a true act of love (and I do), and if we believe that we can build on the momentum that StoryCorps has started, we have a chance to be a part of tangible social change. So many times I have heard students ask what they can do to make a difference when we seem to be facing such daunting social issues. So I’m here to suggest that this is something that we can do together.
StoryCorps invites us to interview someone we know as a way to bring attention to the love that rests within us individually and collectively. And I hope you will. But I am asking you to take this one step further and to make the time to listen to someone whom you don’t know, whose life story may otherwise never be heard, much less celebrated. And then do it again. Because, in the end, we know that a just society is a natural consequence of appreciation for our shared humanity.
Page Walker Buck M.S.S. ’04, Ph.D. ’08 is an assistant professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania in the department of graduate social work. She teaches courses in oppression and liberation, social work practice with groups, and human behavior in the social environment. Her current research focuses on the psychosocial implications of brain injury.