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Combatting Injustice: Why Listening to the Most Vulnerable Can Lead Us to a Better “New Normal”

Britt Lake — Chief Executive Officer, Feedback Labs
Megan Campbell — Director of Learning and Strategy, Feedback Labs
Veronica Olazabal — Former Managing Director, Measurement, Evaluation & Organizational Performance, The Rockefeller Foundation

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, PACE Center for Girls, a Feedback Labs partner, had to quickly find innovative ways to engage with the population they serve. When lockdown orders came into effect across the U.S., the girls and young women that PACE serves said they were worried about losing connections to their peers and friends in the program. In response, PACE launched a weekly online game called zip, zip hello, which incorporates video chats to allow the girls, who are located across Florida, to talk to each other. During lockdown, PACE staff couldn’t be physically present to observe firsthand the new realities of the girls they serve, but they could listen to the girls’ concerns and thoughts via the online game, and by responding to what they heard, they were able to design new, more effective ways to confront the isolating effects of Covid-19.

The global pandemic has laid bare and worsened inequities and vulnerabilities that have always existed in our social systems. Now is the time to transform the systems that are failing communities – because if we don’t, society at large will follow its urge to return to “normal.” And “normal” is a place of want and oppression for too many people as the recent protests in the U.S. show. “Normal” is no longer acceptable.

Listening must become our new obsession in the social sector as we navigate the effects of the pandemic. Needs are changing rapidly. Social systems are faltering. Frustrations are rising. Old assumptions about what people want and how to help them no longer hold. We often can’t physically be on the frontlines to see what’s happening firsthand, but the voices of the people we serve can guide us as we navigate new territory.

Listening can help the social sector create a better new normal. To transform failing systems, we need stronger relationships with the people we work with: funders, non-profit partners, and the people who we aim to serve.  

These relationships must be cultivated so that everyone can share their perspectives, ideas, and knowledge candidly and without hesitation. Listening – deep, responsive listening – creates trusting relationships grounded in mutual respect. Listening, done well, is key to the work we have ahead of us.

Advice from The Rockefeller Foundation grantees and partners Fund for Shared Insight, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Feedback Labs are helpful resources to guide listening for individual organizations or programs during the pandemic. Here are three  propositions for how the social sector can listen  better:

  1. Listening must happen across systems, not just within individual programs or organizations. Individual programs can absolutely help identify and address systemic weaknesses, but when listening is carried out exclusively to improve specific services, we’re likely to miss important parts of the larger picture.  Listening to understand the whole system means asking the bigger questions about what people want to make their lives better, listening for emergent issues, and sharing what’s heard across organizations.
  2. The social sector needs to listen to people who are the least heard. To fix systems that are failing people, we need to have our ears open to new ideas, especially from people closest to the issues we’re trying to solve. The voices of people who are not currently being served by non-profit partners are often overlooked, and identifying these people and listening to them are essential to transform systems.
  3. Listening in the social sector should be guided by one North Star – responsiveness. As nonprofits and funders, we need to listen with the intention to act on what we hear. Otherwise, we risk reinforcing the current power imbalances between funders, non-profits, and the people we serve. Our listening should be grounded in a single-minded focus on responsiveness to the people we serve and an intention to strengthen mutual trust and respect.

With this in mind, Feedback Labs has worked with funders, nonprofits, and feedback experts to create a framework to guide listening practices and priorities during the Covid-19 crisis.

Right now there is a unique opportunity to confront systemic injustice head-on. To do this effectively, we must prioritize listening to those we seek to serve and responding to their ideas and concerns so that the “new normal” is more just and equitable.

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Cover photo: Mapenzi Nonό and Mulowayi Iyaye Nonό, co-founders of La Conde Project in San Juan, Puerto Rico, describe their community’s vision for regeneration in the face of government repression. La Conde Project is a partner of Feedback Labs.