Macon Roving Listeners shares voice through listening

There is an art to listening, and that is the art practiced by the Macon Roving Listeners.

A common struggle experienced by neighborhoods in the midst of change – “gentrification,” if you want to use the word fraught with controversy and negative connotations, but also neighborhoods simply in some state of transition – is that the existing residents often feel that they don’t have a voice, that they have no say in what is happening in their very own communities.

The Macon Roving Listeners are there for just that purpose: to listen. To ask questions. To show people that their opinions matter. And, beyond just listening, also act as agents of change.

DeArmon Harges is the original “Roving Listener,” based out of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. His idea was to “make the invisible visible,” to discover and share in the dreams, passions, and gifts of fellow citizens simply through listening. His work is based in the practice of Asset-Based Community Development, a movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development and joins neighbors with institutions for social change and community building.

The Macon chapter of the Roving Listeners was started five years ago by Centenary Community Ministries with the same mission: to find out what people’s gifts are through listening, to hear about what people want to see happen in their communities and also give them a voice.

The Listeners are a mix of youth and adults who go out as a team to knock on doors and interview people in the neighborhood, asking them basic questions about who they are, where they’re from, how long they have lived there, what they like about Macon, and what they want to see changed. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities is a partner of Macon Roving Listeners, and the Listeners are also a mix of folks with and without developmental disabilities.

Deonna Belcher is a Roving Connector who acts as a facilitator to connect the people that the Listeners interview. She explains that she and the other Roving Connectors take the information collected by the Listeners and compile it, then get to work connecting neighbors based on their needs, skills, interests, and commonalities. For example, two neighbors might hail originally from the same city on the other side of the country and not even know it, or one person might need something built that another person has the skill set to make.

“We provide an avenue for them to connect,” says Belcher. “Listening to their stories is just the beginning of it. It’s a mapping process to discover what’s right in a community versus what’s wrong in the community. By discovering their assets it provides us an opportunity to connect and empower them.”

Macon Roving Listeners are supported by the Knight Foundation and are also partnered with Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village, a neighborhood revitalization effort led by the Macon Arts Alliance in partnership with the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, neighborhood residents, and community stakeholders. The goal of this project is to develop approximately four square blocks of the historic Fort Hawkins Neighborhood in East Macon into an arts village in order to address blight and foster economic opportunity in Macon’s oldest neighborhood. This effort is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant of over $134,000.

“They’re taking the blight out of our neighborhood by purchasing abandoned homes to have artists in residency, and turning the old community center into an arts center,” Belcher says. “They’re repurposing this neighborhood and wanted to go in and find out what the neighbors thought about this and try to get to know them and their gifts, so as the changes happened they were informed and able to speak on the changes in their neighborhood.”

Ultimately they would like to pair neighborhood residents with visiting social practice artists. The first artist will move in early 2016.

This summer, the Listeners made an effort to speak to everyone they could in the Mill Hill neighborhood. They interviewed 60 neighbors in total, from “all walks of life,” and afterwards had a community dinner so everyone they interviewed could come out and get to know their neighbors. (They do this for each neighborhood they work in.)

They took all of the information they collected from the recorded interviews to the Urban Development Authority, establishing who is new in the neighborhood, who is established, how many vacant houses there are, and the changes people want to see in their neighborhood. Some people want to help the homeless; some want to help the elderly; some are worried about crime, about blight, about transit; some want more activities for children.

“Some people don’t realize what is in their own backyard,” Belcher says. “We find out how passionate they are about where they live and what they want to see happen. Some people have no idea that they’re allowed to have a voice.”