Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

The power of centering voices and engaging in dialogue

Storytelling is as old as the sun and has its place in religions, cultures, conflicts. Narratives, we know, are a way of learning about other people’s perspectives. And I would venture to say that its appeal is why we consume as many movies, television shows and books as we do.

I’ve been thinking about the power of stories lately.

Of giving the platform to voices which ought to be heard, ought to be centered. The concepts of centering voices and of listening to others’ lived experiences strikes a chord with me. This is why I am currently involved with putting together a panel for non-white Jews to share their stories. And why I think more people ought to know about today’s annual Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran which first took place in 2014. (Mizrahi activist Hen Mazzig shares his useful resources for learning more.) Everywhere we turn, there is so much that we can learn and understand if we just listen to those who have their own stories to tell.

Part of the reason I started blogging weekly over three years ago was because I believe I understand a number of perspectives given some of my own life experiences, but I am also not arrogant enough to presume what it is like to walk in others’ shoes. And that’s why I want to be present for the platforms that others use to share their stories, share their experiences.

When I first heard the word center be used as a verb in relation to people, it was like a light bulb went off. It is not enough to hear about bias or learn about cultures I am not familiar with; we have to ensure that we hear those stories from the mouths of those who own them. Too often it is the white voice as a savior and not the perspective of the person whose life has changed. What if The Blind Side or Green Book or The Red Sea Diving Resort had been told through the eyes of the Black quarterback, the Black jazz pianist or any of the Ethiopian Jewish refugees being airlifted? (Disclaimer I didn’t see the latter two.) Would audiences have understood the experiences of the characters differently? I would venture to guess yes. I’d also suggest that when you watch anything, think about the perspectives you are seeing and how the story might’ve been told differently had another character been made the protagonist.

I believe this is why it is important that panels about, for instance, combatting racism not be full of white people, or dismantling antisemitism not be full of non-Jewish and/or anti-Israel speakers. Who knows best about what a woman goes through than a woman? Who can share what it is like to be Black in America other than someone who is? Who identifies what being Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Sikh or anything else during Christmas season in the South is like than someone who has experienced it? (I’d also add that attention needs to also be paid to the organizers behind the panel, the writers behind the movie, as well as to the boards/staff/senior management of the organizations or studios behind them as well.)

It is vital that we hear other people’s stories and accept them as presented. Listening is an art. It requires lowering defenses and trying to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Not everything you hear from someone who has been hurt by white people, Christians, men, etc. means every white person, Christian or man is personally at fault. But it does mean that enough people of any given category have collectively caused pain and that collectively we have a responsibility to make things right.

We start by listening. Hearing. Accepting. Becoming aware of our own behavior and modifying it. Paying attention to what others say and do and speaking up to help them see the hurt they may be causing.

It is also important to understand that any one person’s story is simply that, one person’s story. It should not be understood as representing all stories. This holds true whether we are listening to a panel discussion or watching something on a streaming service. I wrote about this once; what Esty experienced in Unorthodox is not what every Hasidic woman, let along every Satmar woman, experiences. Remind yourself, this is one person’s story. Not everyman’s. Do not draw generalizations or judge swaths of people you do not know.

And as I have also pointed out numerous times in the past (for example, in this well-linked piece about empathy), not only is one person’s story not everyone’s, neither is one facet of a person, which we may see in a story, his or her only defining characteristic. I always go back to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous TEDTalk, The danger of a single story, in which she makes the important point that, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

So, we need to center voices, we need to listen and not get defensive, we need to not draw generalizations or judge. What else do we need to do?

Engage in dialogue.

This step takes us from spectator to active participant and change maker. And the only way to move past any impasse is to step forward.

This weekend, I finally read Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, which I’ve written about before (please do see why). Before I offer my review, I want to first finish reading through the book’s website. Why? Because this is where author Yossi Klein Halevi published not only additional letters he received, but also his thoughtful responses. This is dialogue in action. This is what we need. My admiration for the author aside, the reason I bring this up is because I believe the book itself as well as the model it presents has the power to change conversations in real life. While one of Klein Halevi’s purposes was to offer an explanation of why Jews belong in Israel to Palestinians so they could hear what they have not heard before and another purpose was to invite responses back, the reason for all of this was because of his recognition that only by hearing and acknowledging each other’s stories, can the two sides then figure out how to work towards a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side. I do not know when it will be published in Hebrew, but am full of hope that it will spark a national movement where the focus is on working towards a solution.

I believe that dialogue has that power. And for dialogues to be productive, it is vital that we listen to the voices of people who own their stories.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom and MIL to three Mizrahi sons and a DIL in their 20s splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, relentlessly Facebooking, enjoying the arts and trying to bring a wider perspective to the topics she covers while blogging.
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