By Jeff Feng, Duke junior

“Are you listening?” We may have been passing time in the car by playing a game, but the question remains embedded in the narrative of these past two weeks. As we’ve worked on this environmental justice community research project, we’ve been contextualizing what it means to be here and to understand the legacy of slavery that institutionalized a racial hierarchy that persists to this day.

Last week we attended a conference at Alabama State University (ASU) that exemplified the wholly indignant state of the situation in Lowndes County. One of the panelists, Charles Mauldin, participated in the Selma to Montgomery March that would become documented in our history as Bloody Sunday. Although he made the choice to be on the front lines and planted his actions in grassroots activism, he was doing more than that—he was politicizing his personal experiences.

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL

“Place of Revolution and Reconciliation”. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL

This is a way to hopefully influence people and help them understand the challenges that people of color face. It also certainly has distinct power in raising the consciousness of other people of color and white people. But implicit in his story telling, there’s an ask that we listen closely and critically. We need to listen because he should be able to relay his personal story for his own sake and because it comments on the structural issues in today’s society. Although the Civil Rights Movement brought about change, we haven’t been listening to what hasn’t changed and the fact that activists today clamor about the same issues: voting rights, police brutality, the list goes on. As Charles Mauldin vividly juxtaposed the scope of the racial terror that he faced as a teenager in Lowndes County with the challenges of today’s age, my mind and heart adjusted to the beat of empathy. But he was doing more than helping those in the audience comprehend the oppression that he faced—there was a call for us to coalesce and plan actions informed by our listening. Empathy is not enough.

As we wrap up our experiences in the field both surveying and filming Lowndes County residents’ about their access to water and sewer infrastructure, examining if we actually listened in a space with such high stakes is integral. I stepped into participants’ homes— the epitome of personal space and a physical and symbolic scaffolding of one’s identity in the community. Although I had done background research in order to understand how a history of racism in this area has manifested itself through the prevalence of raw sewage, I still was not equipped with a complete grasp of cultural competency. I was an outsider who wasn’t familiar with how community members interacted with each other and all the social cues. And as a student who is still learning about these issues and the ways in which we engage in community-based research, I could easily obfuscate participants’ personal narratives that became political the moment I stepped inside.

Fortunately, Adelaide* and Amelia* were by our side. As community members with high social capital they have taken a powerful stance to create spaces for others to first make their personal experiences political, but moreover—for the purposes of our project—they could be quantified. Without their assistance, there’s no question that we wouldn’t have been able to navigate the depths of this work.

This is a model that I think is predicated on listening and perhaps evincing the legacy of white supremacy in a quantitative manner. But this model yields the question of why and how predominantly white institutions such as Duke are coming into these communities—are we prepared to listen? Are we prepared to act ethically? Did we spend enough time thinking about these questions beforehand? I suppose that part of listening entails the continual processing of personal and political experiences—sometimes they happen to be one and the same.

*Pseudonyms