December 11, 2013

An Invitation to Listen

by Stanley Stewart ’16

Stanley worked for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless this past summer as an iProv intern. This semester he has served as an Access Scholar with the College Advising Corps, working on individual and group SAT preparation, essay writing, and financial aid programming with Providence high school students.

It usually involves a stranger on a sidewalk or at a bus station. Though perhaps it might look like handing out a hot plate of food for a few hours during the holidays. No matter the scenario, most of us have particular ways we learn about and interact with homelessness. In most of instances, there are two things that remain consistent: there is a level of distance we keep (be that physical and/or more abstractly) and the encounters are brief. We hurriedly whisper “sorry, I don’t have any change” or serve with a silent smile, but we never linger for too long. We definitely don’t ask questions.

This past summer, I interned with Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH) through the Swearer Center for Public Service’s Impact Providence program. Out of all the personal and professional growth I experienced, what I won’t ever forget is how quickly my view of homelessness and “homeless people” changed once I was forced to break down the distance and silence that had previously marked my limited interactions.

One of the things that help facilitated my growth and understanding about homelessness the most wasn’t the statistics, the history of homelessness in the U.S., or even the articles like the one I’m writing today that that opened my eyes. It was listening to the stories of those who were currently or formerly homeless, told in their own words.

By leveraging a series of connections from a nonprofit I volunteered at during high school, I was able to spark a connection with StoryCorps, a national oral history initiative that aims to “provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.”

What started off as a hopeful and somewhat unrealistic goal during a summer internship manifested five months later into a collaboration between StoryCorps and RICH, resulting in two full days of recording here in Providence.

So much of our progress is limited by a lack of understanding, enabled by the distance we keep ourselves from these issues, the questions we don’t care to ask, and our failure to listen. These conversations play an integral role in helping to move the issue of homelessness forward and improve the lives of the residents in our state affected by it. At the heart of those affected by homelessness, as well as those working to end it here in Rhode Island, are the stories that move us.

A story is sometimes most powerful when it isn’t interpreted as a place for us to project our opinions, but rather as an invitation to listen. It is in this opportunity to listen and the willingness to share these stories that makes me grateful to be a part of this amazing collaboration, and what I hope will help push this movement forward.

My message is simple: take a second to linger a little longer, ask questions, and listen earnestly. You’d be surprised at what can become of it.

Read more about the StoryCorps visit to RICH in the Providence Journal and Rhode Island Public Radio.

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