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In Gratitude: A Conversation with SNCC Veterans

May 5, 2020

In this contribution to our Gratitude Journal, Lou Brown reflects on “The Struggle Continues: A Dialogue with SNCC Veterans,” a program at the Forum from September 2016. The discussion featured Maria Varela, Charles Cobb, and Judy Richardson in an exploration of the enduring lessons of their SNCC experiences.

By Margaret (Lou) Brown

The Struggle Continues: A Dialogue with SNCC Veterans, September 29, 2016. Presented in partnership with the SNCC Digital Gateway Project and co-sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University Libraries, and the Forum for Scholars and Publics.

"I have one request: when you ask a question, please share something that resonated with you that someone from the panel has said today.

Because they don’t live in Durham — they come here, we talk for an hour, and they have no idea whether or not you heard anything that they said. Which, obviously, you all did! I know that. But I think it would be nice for them to hear it too.”

With these words, moderator John Gartrell opened his invitation for audience questions after a soul-lifting hour of discussion among three veterans of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Share how something resonated with you.

In less anxious times, when people were still gathering in seminar rooms and lecture halls at universities throughout the country, program organizers frequently held forth with commentary on social media about how best to moderate and participate in a panel Q&A session. Often those discussions would descend into a list of grievances about audience bad behavior, including the ever-unpopular, self-focused “comment couched as a question.” Moderators were encouraged to tell audience members that “questions begin with H or W, not I.” While based in legitimate frustrations at having programs derailed by unproductive audience engagement, this negative guidance, leading more often with “don’t” than with “do,” seemed to miss an opportunity to create a more positive space for interaction. John Gartrell chose a different approach.

To ask, “How did it resonate with you?” is to welcome the personal reflection and to acknowledge the fact that each person brings their own expertise, experience, and emotions into the room.

With his invitation, Gartrell showed respect for the creative potential of the audience. Not mere recipients of the substantial wisdom shared by the panelists, audience members were encouraged to start their first sentence with “I.” To ask, “How did it resonate with you?” is to welcome the personal reflection and to acknowledge the fact that each person brings their own expertise, experience, and emotions into the room. Instead of suppressing or ignoring that reality, our moderator gave it space to be articulated.

Let our guests know you heard them.

It sounds so simple, but that basic acknowledgement often gets lost in our haste to ask for more analysis from panelists or to add additional insights of our own. Gartrell asked us to go beyond the usual “thank you for your presentation” with which most of us might preface a question and instead to say something of substance — to name a moment, a phrasing, a story, a fact, an interaction, an emotion that struck us and to give that back to the panelists as evidence that we were listening, that their work on our behalf had not been wasted. It was important to hold audience members accountable in that affirmative way, to remind us that we had a responsibility to attend to the needs of our panelists.

Because we have a video of this program, I thought, in the spirit of Gartrell’s request, that I should watch and listen to this conversation again. I’m so glad I did. I encourage everyone to settle in for an hour and do the same. What resonates with me today is the importance of listening in community-based work, of being part of the community before undertaking to act on the community’s behalf. And I appreciate how John Gartrell extended that spirit of community-building, of acknowledging the work, in his moderation.

What resonates with you?

Lou Brown

MARGARET (LOU) BROWN has worked for the last twenty years in interdisciplinary program development and community engagement. She holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, where she also taught and developed education and outreach programs in Anthropology, American Culture Studies, Social Thought and Analysis, and the Center for New Institutional Social Sciences. She is a Senior Research Scholar and the Director of Programs at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke.