Engage In Listening Projects To Facilitate Effective Long Term Social Change

A community listening project can help organizers and communities work together to solve the problems that actually exist in the community of interest. The worst archetype of a community organizer is a, usually, white male who goes into communities with a set plan and blunders forward without stopping to look around and find out what the community actually needs.

When entering a community with the intention of organizing and creating something the first step should be to find out what problems there are in the community, and what solutions the community wants. The idea of a listening project was pioneered by Fran Peavey, an author and Oakland-based organizer who died in 2010. She wrote a “Strategic Questioning Manual” in the 90’s. It taught readers who want to undertake a listening project how to format their line of questioning.

Community listening projects can help analyze and meet the needs of a community and help guide a campaign. The website Listening Project explains the various ways that they can help organizers and communities.

According to Listening Project, the exercise helps… “““

  • Identify key community problems, issues and priorities
  • Include often unheard or unheeded voices
  • Build empathy, understanding and common ground among people with different or conflicting views.
  • Generate creative solutions
  • Develop new community leaders Forms uncommon coalitions and alliances
  • Create long-term capacity for collaborative community action that incorporates the concerns and needs of the community ”””.

Proper Questions For A  Listening Project

Peavey called strategic questioning a “tool of rebellion” in the introduction to her manual. She defines it as, “asking the questions that will make a difference.” To form a strategic question Peavey gives the reader several guidelines which we will briefly summarize here.

Her first guideline is that these questions should create motion. They encourage the responder to consider how to improve or change their situation. It should not let them consider that their situation should stay the same. In its basic form, she wrote, it is a question that asks, “How can we move?” If you were interviewing a person affected by lead exposure in Flint, Michigan you might ask, “What do you imagine would improve in your community if clean water was abundant?”

The second guideline is to ask questions that create options. For our lead-afflicted from Flint we might ask, “How do you think the people of Flint should respond to this crisis?”

The third guideline pushes for questions that dig deeper and search for more nuanced details. These questions can help create more accurate understandings of the problem and more robust responses. The people of Flint, for instance, might benefit from a question that uncovers the deeper links that facilitated their connection to a polluted water source: Was it just their local officials? Or did businessmen and State-level elected officials have a hand in the decision?

The fourth and fifth guidelines are to avoid “Why” questions, and simple “yes” or “no” questions. Avoid “Why?” questions because they force the responder to defend an existing decision. This makes them resistant to change. Yes/No questions stunt creative thought and stop the responder from delving deeply into subjects.  

The sixth guideline is to ask questions that empower the interviewee. This means asking about the potential for action. An example for those in Flint would be, “What would you like to do to get clean water again?”

The final guideline is to ask unaskable questions. This means asking about ideas that challenge the values of the interviewee. In an article Peavey wrote for “In Context” magazine, she gave three examples of this type of question, “For example, for the politician: What do you like about the other party’s platform? For the workaholic: What do you do for joy? For the tree activist: How should we make building materials?”

Knowing little about the Flint Community and the values they hold, I would not be able to guess what would be an unaskable question to them. If they held the value that their local government is evil or irresponsible you might ask them, “How can Flint’s government help solve this problem?” An unaskable question makes the interviewee consider the perspectives of outside, or even opposition, groups.

The Undertaking

A listening project is a time-intensive process. It requires a training from a certified instructor, a significant number of volunteer hours, and financial resources. According to the Listening Project website, planning, conducting interviews, and an initial follow-up organizing session for a project can take ”approximately a year or more.” This projection is for a healthy organization of six to twelve volunteers working about five hours a week and a coordinator, or two, working about ten hours.

If you and your organization are considering undertaking one in order to improve the projects running in your community then be prepared for a significant undertaking. However, consider the benefits of a project for your community. Strategic questions are designed partially to learn, but also to encourage the interviewee to engage in social change initiatives. It is possible to finish a listening project with more active members, not just ideas, by simply talking to people in the community.


The list below is for those of you who want to know more about how to ask strategic questions. It gives a sequence of questioning which allows the questioner to build a base of information, and then develop on it, or “dig deeper”.


The Strategic Questioning Process For A Listening Project

The First Level: Describing the Issue or Problem

  1. Focus Questions gather information that is already known. When you look at the river, what do you see that concerns you?
  2. Observation Questions What do you see? What do you read about this situation? What information do you need to gather about this situation?
  3. Analysis Questions (Thinking Questions) What is the relationship of … to …? What are the main economic, political, cultural, and social structures that affect this situation?
  4. Feeling Questions How has this situation affected your body? Your feelings? How has it affected feelings about your family, community, the world?

The Second Level: Strategic Questions….Digging Deeper

Now we start asking questions that increase the motion. The mind takes off, creating new information, synthesizing, moving from what is known to the realm of what could be.

  1. Visioning Questions are concerned with identifying one’s ideals, values, and dreams. How would you like it to be? What is the meaning of this situation in your life?
  2. Change Questions address how to get to a more ideal situation. How might changes you would like to see come about? Name as many ways as possible. What are changes you have seen or read about? Here you are trying to find the person’s change view, which will greatly impact their strategies for change.
  3. Considering All the Alternatives. What are all the possible ways you could accomplish these changes? How could you reach that goal? What are other ways? What would it take for you to do …?
  4. Consider The Consequences How would your first alternative affect the others in the context? What would be the effect on the environment? What political effect would you anticipate from each alternative?
  5. Consider the Obstacles What would need to change in order for alternative “a” to be done? What keeps you from doing …? Decisions become clear around this point. Are you getting a sense of what you want to do? What is in the way of clarity?
  6. Personal Inventory and Support Questions What support do you need to do …? What support would you need to work for this change?
  7. Personal Action Questions Who do you need to talk to about your vision? How can you get others together to work on this?

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