By Rachel Fraade

FullSizeRenderI’ve spent more hours than I can count this summer sitting in coffee shops, in offices, in living rooms, simply listening. With my phone recording every interview, my notes need not be meticulous. Occasionally I chime in with a question or comment, but mostly I sit silent. I have listened to people who were intimately acquainted with historical events that I’ve only read about, such as Freedom Summer and the Greensboro Massacre. I have learned of theologies, movements, and communities that tie together faith and activism in entirely new ways. I have added new books to my reading list, developed a deeper understanding of North Carolina’s rich history, and met an extraordinary cast of characters.

There have been days where I cram too many interviews together in an attempt to accommodate everyone’s schedule. I did 13 interviews in 3 days in Asheville and surrounding towns, attempting to make the most of my limited nights of housing. I have eaten countless lunches in the car, driven faster than I should on a number of occasions, and drank a lot of coffee. Especially on such days, I walk a thin line between treating interviews as necessary pieces of data and reducing deeply human experiences into lines on a spreadsheet. Last week, an interviewee asked me how many people I had spoken with for my research. I answered, and in our ensuing conversation she pointed out that the very act of counting interviews was an act of objectification. By tallying up each audio recording, treating them as discrete entities to be counted and analyzed – which they must be, if I am to write a thesis based on my research – I inherently identify the people that I interview with this data set.

So much of my summer was shaped by human interactions, one on one, that can’t be filed away on an Excel spreadsheet or transcribed. I have been exposed to profound personal pain, from sharing a lament the day after the Charleston Massacre to witnessing years-old mourning. I’ll be sitting in a coffee shop, notebook at the ready and phone recording, when the person I’m sitting with says something that is so extraordinary – whether in its insight, its tragedy, or its historical significance – that the entire atmosphere changes for me. Our interaction transforms from a meeting, an interview, one piece of a busy day, into something far more meaningful.

At moments like these, the nature of fieldwork is most apparent to me. I forget that my phone is recording the exchange, forget that I may have another interview coming up soon. I forget about the coffee sitting in front of me, ice cubes melting as I keep my eyes on the person across the table. My official research is not about these moments; though highly qualitative, it relies upon the tangible. I cannot analyze the most stimulating exchanges of my fieldwork. I cannot study the moments when, driving along a scenic route on the way home, I am so overwhelmed by the physical beauty of this state that I forget how many cups of coffee I’ve needed just to get through the day. I cannot quantify the moment I walked out of an interview with a Jewish activist, rushed into the car toward my next interview, and immediately called my father to ask that he ship my Shabbat candlesticks to Durham. Something about that interview struck a chord deep within me, one that made me realize the necessity of rooting my own faith organizing in tradition as well as values. I am coming away from this summer with concrete research, interviews to be transcribed and analyzed, the work that will create my senior thesis. But to say that’s all I came away with doesn’t even begin to do this summer justice.

This may be a common viewpoint for those leaving far-off countries and new environments, but it seems less frequent for those doing research close to home. At the beginning of the summer, I found myself slightly envious of my friends en route to new locales. I love Durham, and am endlessly fascinated by its rich history. I am academically and personally passionate about my research topic, and can think of no other subject I would rather explore for a year. Yet there was still a piece of me that wanted nothing more than to get in a car or hop on a plane and see somewhere entirely new.  But as I’ve discovered, there is a beauty and richness in delving further into places you already know. I am entering the school year with a far deeper – and still entirely incomplete – understanding of what North Carolina looks like. I have a deeper sense of rootedness within this state. I no longer feel like I am just passing through. That, in and of itself, is worth a great deal to me.

It is cliché to say that listening is an act of love, but there is a fair amount of truth in that statement – inherently, that we listen to uplift the stories and experiences of others. This is an inversion of the idea that listening provides something to the silent one – knowledge, inspiration, insight. We listen to a famous politician because we want to drink in their experience and advice, but we listen to our friends because they need us. We listen to ensure that others feel validated, needed, a part of society’s fabric. We listen because we live in a world where money and power, but not people, scream above all else. This is ultimately why I chose to conduct fieldwork rather than surveys, why my original goal of 50 interviews has climbed to 75 and is still increasing. To be asked for your story, your opinion, is a powerful thing. To share that story is to affirm that you matter, to proudly own that you deserve to take up space in the world. It is a chance to present yourself on your own terms, rather than those the world thrusts upon you.

Somewhere in between these two forms of listening lies my summer. I have listened for myself, to understand how I see myself as an activist of faith living in – and loving, and struggling with – North Carolina. I have listened because there is a wealth of knowledge and experience in these stories, and I selfishly want to hear it firsthand. I have also listened because the history we read is one of big money and white men, one of huge institutions and sweeping trends. To uplift the stories and words of activists, to internalize and share a different state heritage than Confederate hate symbols, is an act of dissent. In some cases, it has been a productive and meaningful space to share stories that would otherwise go unspoken. In others, I am interviewing published authors and experienced interviewees; their stories are out in the world already, but perhaps still developing and spreading. I am always the beneficiary of this wisdom, and my sense of self and state has expanded drastically over the summer because of it. I do not yet know what my finished product will look like – May is a long way off – but I know that I have some extraordinary research to work with. No matter what the coming nine months look like, I am grateful to have spent this summer listening.

 

 

 

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