By Soumya Gupta
The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 changed us. While we may be ready to move on, bearing witness for one another can teach us about ourselves, our resilience and our communities.
This is the premise of a year-long research project conducted by a team at the University of Washington.
Recently, the Center for Communication, Difference and Equity (CCDE) conducted a “radical listening” session on campus in which about 50 people gathered to listen to recorded interviews of UW campus members, including students, faculty and two doctors who were on the frontlines of managing the response to an illness that transformed the world.
“The point of these sessions is to make people understand the need for radical listening,” said Professor Timeka Tounsel, associate director of student development for the CCDE. “It’s for people to have conversations and share lived accounts of trauma and grief tied to racial reckoning.”
The CCDE research project involved 10 research assistants who analyzed 23 paired interviews of people across the three UW campuses. Ralina Joseph and Josh Griffin, who are the director and associate director of the CCDE, hosted the listening session on Nov. 7 at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. Griffin and Joseph have had a major role in the growth of the CCDE, and its mission to spread awareness on diversity and inclusion.
Organizers of the listening session focused on three themes that emerged from the interviews. At the recent event, they played clips from the interviews and then asked audience members to discuss what they heard. They also invited research participants to discuss what they had said in the recorded sessions.
UW Communication graduate students and researchers Julie Feng and Laura Irwin presented the first theme of the session: “I was hustling and also struggling.” In the recorded conversation, two doctors shared their perspectives on dealing with testing for COVID-19 when it was first discovered, and also talked about frantically trying to convey their concerns with medical authorities, and finding creative ways to provide testing within the community. At the event, this dialogue was paired with a conversation between two first-generation college students who were juggling parental pressures and financial responsibility for their families during the lockdown.
“Even though I was the youngest in my family, I had to take on the responsibility to pay for my education,” said Fani, one of the recorded participants. Her last name was not shared with the clip. “My sister and I were the breadwinners of the family.”
The second theme, “I’m a whole different person than I was,” was conveyed through conversations between two graduate students and two UW faculty members, navigating challenges of isolation during the pandemic, and witnessing and responding to student burnout.
“There were moments where I just had to sit down with myself, and all of a sudden, I also saw the entire country become aware of the issues of Black Americans,”said Lando Tsoya, a fourth-year Communication Ph.D. student.” I had the time to sit and introspect.”
The third theme explored through the recorded interviews was “Putting kindness in.” In these conversations, two deans and a mother-son pair discussed the challenge of juggling family and work. Joseph and Joy Williamson, dean of the UW Graduate School, were among key participants of these conversations. They discussed the numerous pressures they faced during the pandemic, both in their professional and personal lives, and William’s feelings of exhaustion addressing college meetings as the only Black dean, especially after the murder of George Floyd.
“Most people felt like they couldn’t be heard, because of their skin color,” Williamson said. “I had to navigate being a mom to Black children, and also witness no acknowledgment of the current situation during my meetings.”
The CCDE’s session left audiences with a strong understanding of the need for judgment-free listening during conversations, and the courage to speak out against discrimination.
“It’s essentially an opportunity for people to listen to these experiences, and have an internal monologue of how this impacts or resonates with them,” Griffin said. “To then be able to start those important conversations.”