By: Martha Ball
Through the microphone feedback of a phone call, and the slight delay in sound indicative of a loss in internet strength, a woman named Amber, sighs at the weight of the question, “What is the source of your strength?” Then, without hesitation, and without question, says “My kids… and my family,” before telling her emotional story of loss, strength, struggles, and resilience.
What is your source of strength?
In what ways are you struggling?
Where have you seen solidarity in your community?
These three questions were posed to the pilot participants in The Listening Project: Stories of Resilience in West Virginia; a project that set out to do just that: listen. The initial four “listeners” sought to redefine what it meant to listen. It was not a passive way of hearing, but an active one: to listen was to understand. The goal was to document and share through podcasts the stories, the wisdom, and the lives of West Virginians who needed to be heard.
The Listening Project began as a product of the partnership between the WVU Center for Resilient Communities and Our Future WV, a West Virginia-based nonprofit organization providing resources to people to “build local power to upend the oppressive systems around them” according to their website. The foundational, mutual goal of the CRC and Our Future is to ensure people in West Virginia and Appalachia have the tools to live happy, healthy, just, and resilient lives.
However, as the project developed, it became clear that the product of the partnership moved beyond just institutional collaboration between organizations. What blossomed was the relationship between four women who have uniquely bonded over this passion project. Amy Jo Hutchison, Jennifer Wells, Valentina Muraleedharan, and Emily Tingler, the project’s co-creators and pilot project story-gatherers, have created a methodology for storytelling, a community of storytellers, and a community amongst themselves.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was at a standstill. Or was it? When businesses and stores, restaurants and schools were closing down, and people began working from home, there was also a major grassroots push to meet people where they are, and support them in meeting their needs. People wanted to know how they could take care of other people in their community. They reached out over social media, through Facebook, and tried to find the informal ways of providing support.
However, people were struggling, and a lot of organizers were puzzled about what to do, or how to approach the people who were hurting during that time. In the world of West Virginia organizing, there began to be conversations, of about 12-15 people where they discussed how best to encourage people to stay safe while helping one another.
As the weeks went by the group became smaller, and smaller, until the 4 women who remained were the ones whose energy and passion were still invested in the project.
Amy Jo Hutchison is the Northern Regional Organizer for Our Future WV, whose work towards economic justice is closely tied to advocating legislation and issues for single moms including child care and SNAP. Her own experience as a single mother guides her to help West Virginians “turn our pain into promise,” as Hutchison says.
Jennifer Wells is the former Executive Director of Our Future WV, and is now doing “work that is completely filling [her] soul,” she said. Currently Wells is an organizer for Community Change Action. There, she takes her own life experience as a native New Orleanian displaced by Hurricane Katrina and as a Black woman to organize Black power in the coastal southern states. However, her passion for West Virginia as the place where she and her family found a home following the Katrina disaster is palpable in hearing her talk.
Valentina Muraleedharan is a second-year PhD student in Geography at WVU, where she works at the Center for Resilient Communities as a graduate student. Her approach incorporates her beliefs as a Baha’i to ask of herself and her community, “How do we overcome our differences in a profound way to come together, to gather around them, to honor them and recognize one another’s dignity - truly see one another as noble beings?”, she said.
Emily Tingler is also a graduate student working at the Center for Resilient Communities whose work focuses on food and knowledge building and sharing. A native West Virginian from Parkersburg, she associates her work with a sense of responsibility; to give back to the state and the people who raised her, who educated her, and of whom she loves passionately.
As the team became clear, so did their idea, “just listen” Muraleedharan said.
We’re All Ears
The pilot program of the Listening Project features the stories of participants handpicked by Hutchison, Wells, Muraleedharan, and Tingler. These participants’ stories are those who Wells notes were underrepresented in the media and in West Virginia’s cultural narratives. “I never heard their stories being told on the news, you don’t hear their stories being highlighted in literature, and you just don’t see them and yet here they are,” she said The Listening Project was a way for these 4 women to organize a little closer to home, and at times, a lot closer.
In fact, one valuable participant was Wells’ next door neighbor, Ms. Coleman. A woman whose experience is valued in her community, “whose words and pearls of wisdom are meaningful to me all the time,” said Wells, “but they might be meaningful to quite a few people, and yet there was no vehicle to get her story out there or put her words and her wisdom out there. This was the perfect time.”
The Listening Project helped Wells to realize that the leaders who have powerful stories to share are sometimes the people that you already know. “Like here’s my neighbor, great leader, and yet I did not engage her in some of the work I was doing at Our Future, and how silly of me was that? And like also let me reflect on the fact that I should be organizing closer to home and looking for leaders close to home. I was always out there looking for the next leader when she’s right across the street,” said Wells. Though a valuable lesson for her future in organizing, not all Listening Project participants were as close to home as Wells’ neighbor.
Other participants were total strangers, who were those leaders reaching out over social media during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, searching for ways to help. “I didn’t even know these women,” said Hutchison. And yet, the project created a space to hear their stories, and for them to be told without shame, guilt, or fear of judgement. Speaking of one participant in particular Hutchison said, “...it was good for her to be able to share that in a space where she wasn’t embarrassed and she wasn’t being judged.” Wells echoed this sentiment, that telling one’s story is difficult, especially when society has told you that your experience is something you should be ashamed of and is not valued
This space of acceptance and safety for the storytellers extends beyond the moment they are interviewed and their stories are recorded. “We want to create community,” said Tingler, “now that we are in community together… we’ll remain so.” This project was not meant to be transactional, in that the Listening Project collects people’s stories and leaves to never connect with them again. Quite the contrary. Participants and interviewers are very much in contact today. This is a “longitudinal effort” Tingler said.
“I think because we had conversations with people that we felt inspired by and we felt close to in some way, it allowed us to build very authentic relationships, or try to build authentic and genuine relationships,” said Muraleedharan.
Though there are many listening projects out there, none operate quite like the one spearheaded by these incredible women. According to Tingler, organizers and listeners don't always put themselves in the shoes of those whose stories they are recording. That is what makes this Listening Project so unique. “You’re just listening and hoping to share peoples’ stories, unedited stories. Even if they didn’t quite answer your question, it doesn’t matter. They told the story that they felt was on their heart or on the top of their mind,” she said.
Despite the inability to generalize, there were some commonalities between the stories witnessed by our story-gatherers. Tingler believes that one of the most important aspects of this project is the ability to learn how people conceptualize “solidarity”, and how they realize it “on the ground in West Virginia.” Tingler points out that if you were to ask many of the participants, they would say “I don’t see solidarity at all,” and then continue to tell an incredible story of an everyday act of solidarity within their community. “They are absolutely beautiful acts of solidarity; they just don’t see it as such,” she said.
One such story was told by a participant named Taylor, a busy mother of 2 children whohid in the bathroom from her family in her commitment to find time to share her story. “You know, I worked at Walmart, and when they say you see everything at Walmart? By God, you do. I mean, some woman tried to steal a bunch of baby food so that way she could be able to feed her kid. On top of the other stuff that she had bought, she couldn't afford the extra baby foo I told my boss, ‘Just take it out of my paycheck.’” Taylor said. “I'd rather see your baby's being fed than her starving, and then being taken away because she couldn't afford to buy food.”
Other participants draw strength from similar places. According to Muraleedharan, many, like participant Amber mentioned at the opening of this story, found strength in their family members, specifically their children. Several others gained strength from their religious beliefs, citing faith in God or other spiritual traditions, reflected Muraleedharan. She also said that another common point came as a result of the social and political context at the time of the interviews. The summer of 2020 was teeming with racial justice protests following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Many of the Listening Project’s participants reflected on the Black Lives Matter movement, regardless of their involvement or not, said Muraleedharan.
She continued, that though “there were many different things that folks were experiencing, they all connected somehow. It was from food insecurity, to healthcare, to racial justice, to mental health, to economic inequality. There were all of these certain themes that maybe came up more to the surface in certain stories but were all connected through each one’s experience.”
Going forward, Muraleedharan said that there are plans to hold a workshop to train future listeners about what it means to tell a story and how to share the tools they've learned and capacity they've built to truly listen. Tingler notes that “we’re hoping too that some of the participants who did share their stories will then become people who ask their friends these same, or similar questions and are able to partake as listeners as well.”
As for our pilot project listeners, these four women, though their careers and their lives may take them away from the project, they are each committed to their Listening Project creation. Yet, it has always been an imperative part of their work that the Listening Project become self-sufficient without their constant involvement. Tingler noted that “I think the project itself will remain, but I think it’s our job, us four as the co-creators, to ensure that it remains by training new interviewers by building a solid foundation that can sustain itself without us being on it every single day.”
End Meeting for All
As the zoom meeting began to wrap up, and we all realized that it had gotten dark outside, the tone shifted from one of reporting to me as an outsider to the project, to one of deep appreciation and gratitude between the co-creators, as they shared how it affected them as organizers.
“For me it’s been really special. I feel like I tell Jennifer and Amy Jo as much as I can, I hope that they know that I am so honored to be able to have been a part of this with these two incredible women organizers. I’m constantly sort of pinching myself because I personally feel very connected to them. Over the summer, through our meetings, through our reflections on the Listening Project, we developed our own relationships,” Muraleedharan said,. “There was something about our connection that allowed us to move in other directions with one another. That was special to me, and it still is, and so I think that no matter how long each of us is in this project, that I hope we are still connected in those ways because it was very personal for me.”
Tingler echoed, “I think it’s important to note that Valentina and I do feel very privileged and excited to be in community with Amy Jo and Jennifer. I think it’s kind of wild how it became us four, but I’m deeply appreciative of everything that I’ve learned just listening to Amy Jo and Jennifer talk.”
On that evening in early November, it was my turn to listen, even as Wells had to hop off to join another work zoom, as Tingler’s internet strength wavered, and Hutchison escaped the noise of her daughter babysitting in the background. As everyone on the call became emotional, (including myself), Hutchison unmuted herself, and got the last powerful words of our discussion. What she said truly shows the importance of the Listening Project and how impactful this project was for the storytellers and for the four co-creators..
“I know that this project helped to breathe life and strength into folks who feel as if they don’t have a lot of that a lot of the time. And so, that was beautiful and successful and this is going to be one of those projects that when I’m older, or when I retire, that I know I’m going to look on fondly and think, “Oh my God, I was a part of that?,”’ she said.
For the participants, it has also been a “springboard” for them, as they wade into the networks of economic justice advocacy with Hutchison. “It helps them instill just a sense of pride, courage, and it helps them touch on another strength,” she said.
In a final reflection on the story-gatherers themselves, including her zoom call with participant Taylor, Hutchison concluded that,
“Here is this woman, who has so much going on around her, she’s dealing with 2 toddlers, she’s trying to get her husband ready for work, and yet this meant enough to Taylor that she took that risk and she made sure she chopped a section of her time and her energy out to be able to tell her truth which is…. I think that’s the heart of this.”
By listening to Hutchison speak, I realized that the true purpose of this project was to teach the world about its own discomfort in what it really is to be oppressed and marginalized. Everyone involved in this project has had their eyes opened to their own privilege, struggle, and sources of resilience. I was a listener for about 90 minutes, and that is all that it took for me to be grounded and recentered in my own experience, similar to Hutchison who said, “I ask people to give that part of themselves all the time and to make sure that I reciprocate that energy and that sacrifice, that my sacrifice is just as large as the sacrifice that I’m asking people.”
In these extraordinary times in which we live, as we all try to work, study, and survive during a global pandemic, I remind myself of one sentence that Hutchison said at least once a day. Her simple, yet powerful words for this moment in time, told over zoom and in reflecting on such a successful and impactful Listening Project were, “Maybe we’re not doing as badly as we think we are.”
Please visit the Listening Project: Stories of Resilience in West Virginia website, where you will be able to listen to each of the stories told in the pilot phase of the project, including my interview with the four co-creators, as well as register to tell your own story.
No matter who you are, or the life that you have led, this project promises to listen, as you answer the questions:
What is your source of strength?
In what ways are you struggling?
Where have you seen solidarity in your community?