Listen, Learn, Love – Live as One

I have always been inspired by the lyrics of Imagine written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but this line is particularly relevant today.

Nothing to kill or die for… Imagine all the people living life in peace

Even though we live in a world accelerated by information and technology, it has been nearly 50 years since they penned their song and we are seemingly no closer to peace than we were then, people still encapsulated in their particular beliefs.

Twenty years ago, I went through the experience of mind shifting, a change of focus and perception.

Sisters, Oregon

A group of movers and shakers in my picturesque town wanted a community center and I was their righteous leader, with a capital R. Faced with a deadline for special block grant funding, bypassing community input, we presented our concept to city council. Emotionally charged citizens, whose voices had not been heard during our process, packed the chamber, giving long impassioned opinions, some for, but mostly against. The council voted. It was a tie. The mayor cast the tie breaking vote against it.

I was devastated. How could they not agree with our beautiful vision? We meant so well. Every molecule of spirit drained out of my body. I resolved that I would NEVER do anything for this unappreciative community again.


Mike, a representative from the US Forest Service called me the next day to have coffee. The last thing I wanted was to face anyone after my abysmal public failure. He cajoled me into meeting at a discreet café. Demoralized to my toenails, Mike reviewed all my missteps. Sigh. He pointed out that we had not identified what the community really needed or wanted first. He followed up by mentioning there were a few “spotted owl” dollars available to hire a facilitator to determine the community’s priorities. And, by the way, would I like to go to a Sustainable Communities Workshop in Montana? Stephen Ambrose would be there to talk up his new book about Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage. Gripped with interest, having written an ecological thesis on this famous duo in college, I said, “Yes”.

Sustainable Communities Workshop

Fast forward to Kalispell, Montana. The workshop began with a blessing from a Native American chief in full regalia. I listened with rapt attention to his words translated into English, illuminating the concept of thinking ahead seven generations (about 140 years) when making decisions. The molecules in my body were showing signs of life. Then I was sent to breakout sessions on the steps of community advocacy:

  1. Clarify the vision for the change you want
  2. Begin by defining and articulating the problem. “Without change, fill in the blank will not happen”.

  3. Start Now
  4. Who is the community?  Is it local? Is it global? Research. If others are already working on your problem, consider joining them. Look for fresh open-minded thinking. If that isn’t happening, put together an alternative plan. There’s grant money for good ideas. Just Do It.

  5. Build a Strong Coalition
  6. Find others who understand the benefits of change. Government officials may hope you go away. But when you show up with a petition with X,000 signatures it will show broad support. Just stay with it. Real change is not easy.

  7. Be Firm and Polite
  8. Think about how to use language effectively to connect with stakeholders. Define acceptable boundaries of communication. Refrain from inflammatory remarks, eye rolling and agitated body language.

  9. Be Patient and Open Minded
  10. Community advocacy is not easy. It does not happen overnight. Listening to different perspectives can be uncomfortable, particularly in the beginning. But it does work.

  11. Find Successful Examples
  12. It takes researching similar solutions that were effective in other situations or places to make change. Think outside the box.

  13. Implement.
  14. It’s exciting to come up with a plan but another to implement. Stakeholders need to be held accountable to do their part to make changes.

In one of the breakout sessions, I was sitting by the chairman of a community action team from Canada. He had suffered a divorce during the process, advising me to run if asked to lead a CAT. There were several divorces on his team because partners/spouses were not kept informed of the compromises that were negotiated during the process and ultimately felt betrayed.

Before our flight out, I thanked Mike for the wonderful experience. He informed me that it was “no free lunch” that if asked to lead a community action team, I was expected to do so. I was stunned. All I could think of were all the divorces.

Back in Sisters, Oregon

In my absence, a facilitator had been hired to interview more than 100 people representing differing perspectives that he described as being so vitriolic that it made Selma, Alabama in the 60s look rational.

After arriving back, I found myself in a conference room, facing 21 selected finalists, all men, with their polarized opinions. Really. 100 interviews and not one other woman? In describing the community advocacy process, I made clear there would be no divorces on my watch. The facilitator spelled out the rules of order which included suspending judgement and being polite while listening to other opinions.

Mind Shifting

We began. Over a span of 18 months, we were given equal time to share our viewpoints. It was difficult at first, but we all listened politely and came to understand opposing perspectives more. I still remember having my first “ah ha” moment, recognizing one of the most opinionated members had a thread of validity. My mind cracked open. Entrenched beliefs started dissolving. I learned that others too, had convincing points. Eventually, we reached a place of mutual understanding and hammered out a community development plan. We encouraged input from several city halls and local coffee chats, resulting in adjustments. Civic groups supported it. City Council supported it. The US Forest Service provided initial financial support. We created a non-profit (with women on the board) ultimately attracting many millions of dollars of support. And, yes, we developed camaraderie and respect for one another along with a peaceful community.

My lesson

It is possible to reach across a great divide to greater understanding by suspending judgement and having calm, respectful communication. Do not allow any one line of thought to become your only line of thought because there many pieces to the puzzle. Listen. Open your mind. When you allow room for new pieces, then you grow. When you put a fence around your mind, and limit what you are going to learn, limit what is right or not right, then you limit yourself. Look wisely to acquire within the many facets that learning offers.

Listen, Learn, Love – Live as One