Listening matters. Accountability and action matter, too

30 June 2021
Rachel Unkovic

by Rachel Unkovic

NGO Coordination Advisor for InterAction

Listening sessions. Open door offices. Safe spaces for brave statements.

These are ubiquitous in INGO staff internal communications plans in 2021. These concepts originated with grassroots activists fighting for inclusion and can describe powerful events that promote equity. At other times, these words have been co-opted by people with entrenched power to maintain their positions with performative acts.

“Leaders can say they’ve created a safe space. What does that mean if no one feels safe to speak up in it? Leaders can say their office has an open door. What does that mean if staff doesn’t walk through it?

These questions ran through my mind last week at the CHS Alliance virtual Global Gathering: “Living our values: Care, culture and power in aid organizations.” The virtual session—which welcomed over 300 people in 56 countries—engaged participants in discussion about self- and staff-care—and, fundamentally, power. Of equal value to the presentations were the conversations they prompted.

Listening sessions proliferate in organizations these days, but, as participants at the Global Gathering pointed out, it is not enough to hold a listening session. Leaders also must listen. Leaders must pay attention. And then, leaders must act.

Listening sessions can create transformative change for the better. And for the worse—they can harm. Imagine telling a personal, traumatic story—continually—and seeing no changes come from it. While my white, middle-class, Western privilege shields me from a lot, the death of my only child taught me what it can mean to be “listened” to without seeing transformational change result in functional systems. I try to imagine how much more crushing this could feel to someone with less power and privilege than I.

A CHS Alliance Global Gathering session.

Having a listening session can be a critical step. It will never replace providing staff with the resources they need to survive under the legacy of colonialism. In one Global Gathering session I was in, a woman who self-identified as “local” staff said she was tired of being asked by Western folks in H.Q. offices “How are you?” while simultaneously, in their systems, salaries, and benefits, they indicated that she was of a different caste than they. This dissonance is stark. Does it stem from INGO leadership attempting empathy while not recognizing power differentials? Or are INGO leadership implicated in perpetuating the challenges some staff face? Does it matter, when the result is the same? When power-sharing processes are co-opted and depoliticized, when they lose their teeth, they damage.

To speak honestly: I don’t believe that the leaders of the aid world are confused about the challenges we face as a sector. Despite our best attempts at dye jobs, our ugly colonial roots shine through. True camaraderie is important, but we don’t need performative spaces. Our sector needs to make material, tangible changes.

Care cannot exist without accountability,” someone wrote on a virtual whiteboard at the Global Gathering. Instead of leaders who co-opt the language of the oppressed, we need leaders—and we need to be leaders—who insert new phrases into their/our vocabulary:

  • “I don’t know, but I will work to find out.”
  • “I see how my actions contributed to this situation. I will work to make this better.”
  • “I made a mistake. This is how we’re modifying the system to make this mistake less likely to reoccur. Does this new system work for you?”
  • “I need help. Can you teach me?”

If leaders institute equitable, human-centered systems that help free up the energy many of our colleagues expend by simply existing within oppressive power structures, our colleagues will have more energy to co-create in unison, both within organizations and across them. The changes we need to steward in this sector are immense—and we need all hands on deck. As Hope Chigudu said in the conference’s closing session, “You cannot claim you are working for a just society if you are not paying attention to the wellbeing of your people.”

See more on CHS Alliance’s work to cultivate compassionate aid cultures.