During the communication sessions during our residency week at the Institute for Humane Education we do an activity called “Spectrum.” Participants find themselves on a linear spectrum of choices that they make in relation to animal protection, human rights/social justice, environmental preservation, and consumerism. After doing the spectrum four times around these separate issues areas, people begin to notice something: often, an individual will feel a wee bit righteous about their great choices in relation to “their issue,” but suddenly find themselves making less compassionate and less intentional choices around an issue that deeply concerns someone else, but with which they are not personally engaged.
When we do this activity we ask people where they stood on the spectrum a decade earlier, and more often than not the person was making less humane choices. When I ask why they moved along the spectrum, it’s never because someone was hostile or judgmental toward them. Usually, they learned something, read a book, saw a film, or were inspired by a friend, colleague, teacher or family member.
Initially, this activity can make people feel exposed and vulnerable, but in a safe learning community, this vulnerability usually dissipates and along with it any sense of judgmentalness. That’s when Joanne comes in. "Joanne" is my fictional neighbor, a composite of several people I know in rural Maine who live simply, largely out of necessity. On the consumerism scale, Joanne lives lightly. But for those members of our group who are especially concerned with animal protection, Joanne is on the other end of the spectrum. Her family hunts, fishes, and breeds dogs who live outside year round.
I let the group know I’m going to get Joanne, who has graciously agreed to come talk to them and answer their questions. Before I step out I tell them to try to learn from Joanne, to treat her respectfully, and to build a bridge where there might seem like a chasm of separation. When I come back in, dressed in different clothes, I am Joanne.
Our group is usually respectful, but Joanne can tell when questions are really just opportunities to teach her what’s good and bad, right and wrong. Some are genuinely curious about Joanne, her family, and her lifestyle, while others really just want to change her opinions. Joanne, like all of us, knows the difference, even with the most well chosen, friendly words.
Khalif Williams, our executive director at the Institute for Humane Education, watched the activity unfold and reminded us of something so very important. We need to leave our agendas behind for real communication and understanding to happen. We need to focus on the relationship we can forge with someone, not on teaching them what we know or trying to make them be like us. When true relationships develop, so does true learning and the possibility that we can all grow and change in positive ways.