The art of listening

OTTAWA_PARLHILL2_MAR2015Last week, I received an email from one of the young reporters in our journalism program at Centennial College. The message proved a bit alarming. We had sent this young man, in his 20s, and one of his female classmates – both senior students in our program – to a national forum in Ottawa. The message said that the conference organizers were preventing our two reporters from gaining access to many of the forum proceedings.

“Apparently media people are not allowed into the meetings,” our reporter told me in his message. “We hope to get into workshops. Wish us luck.”

Despite a gentle appeal to the organizers of the event to change the rules for these young media representatives, it appeared they weren’t prepared to listen.

This struck me as a strange contradiction. The forum to which (we thought) we had negotiated passes for our student reporters was sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization of college and university students from across the country. The conference was entitled “Consent Culture: A Forum to End Sexual Violence on Campus.” In other words, our student reporters were being barred from covering one of the most explosive issues at North American post-secondary institutions of the last decade – sexism, assault and bullying of young women on campus.

Put another way, the CFS was muzzling some of its most valuable participants at the conference – fellow students skilled at interviewing fairly, reporting accurately and offering content from which readers could make informed decisions.

I’ve often found myself in these kinds of situations. Give people situated at the top of an agency, a corporate office, a security enforcement group, or a bureaucracy, and the power of authority goes straight to their heads. I’ve seen it happen in broadcast stations where managers ran roughshod over on-air people. I’ve watched such authority completely undermine the aspirations of a government civil service. And I’ve witnessed all the good that a charity tries to generate undone by its volunteer chiefs. Anyway, I could see the good that this CFS conference might be hoping to achieve, suddenly threatened by the do-gooders at the top. That’s when I gave our student reporters a bit of what I hoped was helpful advice.

“Reporters generally operate on the basis that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” I said. “And when you’re seeking information, do more listening than talking.”

And listening turned out to be the operative word in their coverage of the conference too. On the first day of the conference, the young reporters interviewed the keynote speaker for the event. Staceyann Chin, author of “The Other Side of Paradise,” addressed the conference on the issue of finding the “voice of consent culture.” In recent days, incidents such as the Dalhousie University dentistry students allegedly blogging about forcing sex on their classmates and the Oklahoma University frat students apparently recruiting on the basis that they’re “proudly racist,” have been horribly offensive. Chin encouraged the student delegates at the forum to be visible.

“We have to try to use this (conference) to put some pressure on people to actually start making change,” she told our student reporters.

But it turned out that when our student reporters did the real listening around the corridors of the conference, they found an even better story. They discovered along with a culture that allows (and sometimes encourages) male students at colleges and universities to ignore fellow-students’ rights, that the greater problem might be the post-secondary school administrations. Our reporters found a Dalhousie student, who said she had advocated for anonymous reporting of sexual assault at her school (so that others wouldn’t be unnecessarily victimized), but that the institution had ignored the idea.

Another student delegate from University of King’s College said that any policy about consent culture on Canada’s post-secondary campuses had to be “student driven.” I remember back in the 1970s at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (before it was a university), pushing for the same sorts of objectives and finding the greatest resistance not from the student body necessarily, but more often from the RPI administrators. And in those days, any push back from administration was generally equated to fascism. But remember it was the nature of politics then.

Our student reporters attended all the closing speeches at the Forum to End Sexual Violence on Campus as well. They learned another important point about forums with specific agendas: There’s always the problem of preaching to the converted. Of the 101 delegates who attended the conference on stopping violence against women, most were women. According to our reporters, a First Nations elder pointed this out in his remarks on the last day.

“Next time,” the elder said to the men in the room, “bring a lot more of your friends. It’s time that men get more serious about all (this). It’s not only a mission for women.”

Clearly, there’s a great deal more listening to be done.

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