Min­is­ters and cit­i­zens walk­ing to­gether

The Aurora (Labrador City) - - EDITORIAL - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH YEO­MAN

A few years ago, I went for a very long walk. It was 30 be­low and the frozen land­scape of Ni­tassi­nan was spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful. That walk changed my life.

Trekking on snow­shoes, pulling my be­long­ings on a to­bog­gan be­hind me and learn­ing from my Innu com­pan­ions gave me a glimpse into an­other way of life. It helped me un­der­stand why they were will­ing to go to prison to pro­tect their land dur­ing the 1980s protests against North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (NATO) low-level fly­ing train­ing, and what the land and the an­i­mals mean to them to­day.

I rarely eat meat but it helped me see why hunt­ing and fish­ing mat­ter so much. Walk­ing with some­one and see­ing the world through their eyes can change the way you think. If enough of us do it, it can help re­new democ­racy in New­found­land and Labrador.

We don’t lis­ten to each other enough. Most tra­di­tional ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing in po­lit­i­cal con­texts are ei­ther ad­ver­sar­ial or “preach­ing to the choir.” De­bates, town halls, trav­el­ling road shows, and so­cial me­dia fo­rums all have their place, but none of them make room for what cul­tural the­o­rist Gay­a­tri Spi­vak called “the mind­chang­ing one-on-one re­spon­si­ble con­tact” that can give us in­sight into the world of peo­ple who think dif­fer­ently from us.

The sim­ple act of go­ing for a walk with some­one can do that. (I use the word “walk” to mean mov­ing around at a hu­man pace, whether on foot or with a wheelchair or other mo­bil­ity aids. Dis­abil­ity ac­tivist Su­naura Tay­lor uses the word this way, as­sert­ing, “I al­ways tell peo­ple I’m go­ing for a walk. I use that word.”)

There are many fa­mous walks in his­tory. Ma­hatma Gandhi’s pil­grim­age to protest an un­fair tax was a cat­a­lyst for the move­ment that led to In­dian in­de­pen­dence. The civil rights move­ment was built by peo­ple walk­ing to­gether and talk­ing to each other about things that mat­tered. We also have our own his­toric walks here in New­found­land and Labrador.

When Joey Small­wood trudged across the is­land to or­ga­nize rail­way work­ers, he talked to peo­ple and learned from them.

More re­cently, Gemma Hickey fol­lowed the same 900-kilo­me­tre route to sup­port vic­tims of abuse. Though it was a run, not a walk, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope began in St. John’s, and he, too, met and talked to peo­ple along the way. El­iz­a­beth Pe­nashue’s an­nual walk in Labrador (the one I joined) ed­u­cates peo­ple about the nat­u­ral world and tra­di­tional Innu val­ues. These are dra­matic ex­am­ples but even an hour of re­ally lis­ten­ing and see­ing a per­son’s world while walk­ing with them can make a dif­fer­ence.

How would this work? First of all, it doesn’t have to cost any­thing. Govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives and cit­i­zens would sim­ply com­mit to an hour-long walk once a week with some­one from a dif­fer­ent back­ground, per­spec­tive, or po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion. For ex­am­ple, a Bri­tish re­search group in­ter­ested in in­clud­ing dis­abled peo­ple’s voices in dis­cus­sions of sustainability paired peo­ple who self-iden­ti­fied as dis­abled or as sustainability prac­ti­tion­ers. Each pair of co-re­searchers took two walks to­gether with each part­ner choos­ing one of the routes. The re­search find­ings were made avail­able to plan­ning agen­cies and pol­icy-mak­ers.

The walks I’m propos­ing could use this for­mat. Peo­ple could be matched at ran­dom or re­quest a part­ner rep­re­sent­ing a spe­cific group or in­ter­est. Most matches would be in the par­tic­i­pants’ home re­gion, but if some­one was trav­el­ling they could ask to meet some­one at their des­ti­na­tion.

A lit­tle imag­i­na­tion sug­gests places to walk: along some­one’s daily route to work or school, at the mall, on a hik­ing trail, a high­way, or a city street in win­ter.

To en­sure fair­ness of ac­cess, peo­ple re­quest­ing a walk with a min­is­ter would be se­lected at ran­dom in a su­per­vised process and jour­nal­ists or re­searchers could join some of the walks. It’s a big com­mit­ment, but it of­fers big re­wards too: a chance to learn new things, to gain in­sight, to be truly lis­tened to, and to get an hour of ex­er­cise at least once a week. The pub­lic act of walk­ing would also pro­mote sustainability and ac­tive liv­ing.

Par­tic­i­pants would be of­fered strate­gies for lis­ten­ing — not as easy as it seems, but there’s plenty of in­sight and ad­vice avail­able. Start by Googling “how to lis­ten” and “ac­tive lis­ten­ing” for prac­ti­cal ad­vice and then ex­plore more deeply by read­ing re­search and the­ory about lis­ten­ing. We know that ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing can be taught, and its value and mean­ing have been ex­am­ined in depth, in fields rang­ing from phi­los­o­phy to me­dia stud­ies.

Most po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion fo­cuses on win­ning, but my pro­posal is about learn­ing from each other. An Amer­i­can friend has al­ways voted Repub­li­can. I have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. I’m not sure how she feels about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the U.S. but I’ve been think­ing about her a lot lately. She’s a good per­son. Once she said to me, “I think we need to talk to each other more than we do.” Let’s talk.


El­iz­a­beth Yeo­man

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