The small breakfast table enforced a crowded intimacy for which I was not prepared. On banquet-quality silver service—a profusion of toasts and rolls, jams and jellies, hot and cold meats, eggs, cereals, juices and coffee were arrayed before us. Sitting a mere thirty-six inches from me, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel began to eat.
We were breakfasting, by ourselves, in the palatial penthouse of a luxurious Florida beachfront hotel Wiesel was there to present the keynote speech at a global healthcare conference on public-private partnerships. As Founder and CEO of the host organization, my job was to profile the audience and its expectations. The year, 2001.
Of course, I knew Wiesel would speak about whatever he wanted. He would speak about what he always spoke about: the oppressed, the abandoned, the persecuted; about Soviet Jews, Nicaraguan Indians, Cambodians and Kurds; about genocide then and now. The Nobel Prize Committee called him a ‘messenger to mankind’.
Wiesel’s face was recognizably gaunt; drooping; skeletal. Every wrinkle an etched map of his experience. In a World War II concentration camp, he watched his father die, slowly and in agony, from malnutrition and dysentery. He projected a mournful, contemplative, intense affect—as if all humanity was seated in one person, in one chair.
As we nibbled at the mountains of food, and I explained the purpose and history of the conference, I missed spotting some conspicuous conversational cues. In my nervousness, I failed to appreciate that Wiesel only craved a bit of quiet time to collect his thoughts. I was talking, not listening—not paying attention.
The meeting, scheduled a full year in advance, was convening in the subdued wake of a tragedy. Two months earlier, on September 11th, 3,000 innocents were murdered inside New York City’s collapsing World Trade Center. Searching for a conversational connection, I remarked that 29,000 children also died on September 11th. Indeed, 29,000 children die from preventable causes every day, year after year, and largely unnoticed by anyone other than a handful of humanitarian organizations. To reinforce my point, I compared this loss of life to 48 jumbo jets packed with young people crashing every day, killing all passengers. I prattled on about preventable, poverty-related deaths; about the paltry amount of American foreign aid; about obscene levels of US military spending.
Wiesel considered me, his gaze penetrating and unwavering, and then in a solemn, barely-audible voice he whispered, “You’re right, of course. Of course, you’re right. But you don’t criticize at a funeral.”
I stopped talking.
His words seized me. I can’t remember a time when I felt quite so small, so utterly irrelevant, so detached from who I wanted to be. In that split second, I grasped that flaunting my social conscience to make a favorable impression was tawdry and base; humiliating and self-disgracing. I don’t advise it.
Social entrepreneurship valorizes the listening skill because it’s so fundamental, so vital, to achieving social impact. It’s an indispensable tool – maybe the indispensable tool – of the social entrepreneur.
Listenership incites my moral imagination. Listening to unheard voices – sometimes even the quiet and pained voices deep inside ourselves – is the way that you and I identify injustice. Whatever your background, you and I start our social justice journey ignorant about someone’s oppression, lack of opportunity, muzzled free speech, misery or misfortune. Before we can problem-solve, we have to listen-solve.
Listenership is the prerequisite for community organizing, political mobilization, networking and wooing financial backers. Your ability to listen matters more than a great elevator pitch, a brilliant business plan or your visionary idea. To grow your social venture, listening is operationally the fastest and cheapest feedback loop.
Good listening begins the process of equalizing power. Listenership reverse-engineers the paternalistic instinct to export ‘First World’ solutions to ‘Third World’ communities. If we are truly listening to each other, we are – if not entirely equal – certainly less unequal. In a globalized world, that’s important.
Listening is also the industrial spying of social change. When I listen, I collect intelligence, facts, intuitions and perceptions—not only from the communities that I care about, but also about potential adversaries or allies. As I listen, I learn what I need to know: your civic interests, the size of your heart, your tactical vulnerabilities, the range of your intellectual curiosity, the way you approach problems. Yes, there’s an undeniable undercurrent of manipulative intent: to persuade you to support my social venture or cause.
Listenership is form of leadership. When I listen, I create space for others to step in and join the solution-creation process. The very act of listening confirms my leadership commitment to support a collective and participatory process. When I listen, the ‘entrepreneurial sparks’ fly, inventing and reinventing my ideas. While I’m listening, I’m sharpening the tools I need for my social justice career. Listening makes me better than I was yesterday.
Jonathan C. Lewis, author of The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur (from which this commentary is adapted), is a life-long social justice activist and social entrepreneur. He is the Founder of MCE Social Capital, an innovative social venture that leverages private capital to finance tiny business loans to deeply impoverished people, mostly women, in 33 countries in the developing world. He is also Founder and President of the Opportunity Collaboration, an annual strategic business retreat for 450 senior level anti-poverty leaders from around the globe. In addition, Jonathan is the co-founder of Copia Global, an Amazon-like consumer catalog serving the base of the economic pyramid in Kenya. Jonathan is a Trustee of the Swift Foundation and serves as a General Partner of Dev Equity, a social impact investment fund in Central America. #UnFinSocEnt @SocentClinic (Photos by Pixabay)