by: Gabby Depalo, participant in My Witness
It is not easy to listen to another human being recount the story of the time urine was thrown in their face, but then again, it shouldn’t be. The moment hearing a story like that becomes easy is the moment we have stopped understanding, the moment we have stopped empathizing. If it is not physically difficult to listen to someone else’s trauma, then we are not truly listening. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. In fact, there is nothing more imperative to the evolution of human society than listening to each other’s stories. It is in listening to our fellow human beings that real change is put into motion. And without these changes, without progress…I don’t even want to imagine where we’d be.
I recently had the privilege and honor of listening to one of these stories, and I have never been more convinced that listening is fundamental to societal progress. But first, a little background:
In the second semester of my senior year of high school, I felt my preparedness for the “real world” was falling a little short. I had just started my first job, but still didn’t quite understand taxes, and as graduation approached, the word itself almost triggered inside my mind a picture of approaching headlights on a dark road that I was chained to. The only thing I was sure of is that I wanted to make the earth a better place for every being (human, animal, and plant alike) that inhabited it. It’s the life purpose I’ve attached myself to for as long as I can remember, though I didn’t ever really know what that meant for my life, career, relationships, etc. The truth of the matter is, I suffer from a severe anxiety disorder that until recently, I’d accepted would dictate every aspect of my life. But there comes a day when you realize that what you have to do is too big to allow yourself to automatically place roadblocks at every mile marker you come across. One of these days for me was when I heard about One Voice Nashville and MetroArts’s collaboration project, My Witness, which would connect high school students and local veterans of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in an interview that would be edited into a podcast. As someone who’s been a self-proclaimed equal rights activist since age ten, I was not going to let the anxiety that even asking for an application caused me take away my chance to speak to someone that helped to make the world a little more free, a little more equal. No, this was too big for that. Not this time, I chanted in a whisper as I forced my legs to move little by little towards the desk in the counseling office that held the My Witness applications. I practiced the question, “Can I have an application please?” the way an actor rehearses his lines for a play. I changed up the syllables I put the biggest stress on each time, attempting to find a combination that the counselors who’d had known me and my activist tendencies for almost four years couldn’t possibly say no to. As my shaky fingers clasped around the packet of papers and I stuttered out “thank you” paired with an embarrassed smile, I don’t know if I’d ever been prouder of myself. I had told my anxiety to take a hike, and it seemed like even it knew this was not the time for it to rear its ugly head.
It had occurred to me that maybe that was the reason I had been called to participate in this project, and it wouldn’t have been a bad reason–reminders that I am capable of overcoming my anxiety disorder are always welcome—but what I really needed a reminder of is why I cared enough about the Civil Rights Movement to interview a foot soldier, even if that meant putting myself in an extremely uncomfortable situation, even if it meant facing my anxiety head-on. In a non-obvious way, I’ve always known that treating people as living, feeling histories was a significant force of inspiration and a driving catalyst for change. It’s the only way I would have felt so called to speak to whichever inspirational human being I would be paired with that I was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen. The desire to spread understanding and peace is something that was placed inside my heart by any and every higher power of nature that anyone could possibly believe in. It is my driving force and it has proven itself to be stronger than any fears I have been cursed with. It is my deepest blessing and my greatest responsibility. All that is to say: I did not take this opportunity lightly, nor did I see it as a random occurrence. It was a clarion call.
I was paired with Mr. Vencen Horsley, who, when he was no older than I am today, participated in many civil rights demonstrations. It was a reminder to me that if Mr. Horsley could have allowed himself to be harassed and beaten without violent reaction than I could find the Civil Rights Room in Nashville’s Public Library downtown, somewhere I’d never been before, uncharted territory for me, without having an anxiety attack. The location of the interview was powerful for me. Knowing that I would be interviewing a real civil rights activist right above Church Street, where so many significant demonstrations occurred, made the experience even more poignant.
I fear driving, so I took the city bus downtown. I listened to “Imagine” by John Lennon on the way there. It reminded me of why I wanted to be exactly where I was in that moment. It reminded me that peace is possible if we are willing to work towards it together. There was a woman on the bus who was crying, and I mean sobbing, and I desperately wanted to ask her why, to comfort her, to learn her story. I still regret that I didn’t.
When I arrived to the library, I saw Mr. Horsley sitting on a bench. Intimidation didn’t allow me to approach him at that time. Eventually, when I heard Mary Margaret Randall of One Voice Nashville greet him, I was able to walk towards him and shake his hand. There was a short introduction between me and Mr. Horsley and then the three of us walked up the beautiful staircase in the library together. I remember these moments in detail because my heart was pounding in my chest and my hands were shaking. I was beginning to get scared. I’m still not sure why, but I assume that it was a combination of social anxiety, anticipation, and all out reverence for the life of the man I was about to interview. He deserved to share his story, though I know he had done it before, and I was responsible for doing this interview justice.
I asked some generic questions that had been written for me and then a few that I came up with on the spot as curiosity took over—“How old were you when you first became aware of racism?” “What did your parents think of your involvement in demonstrations?” “Tell me about the first time you were arrested.” And then, I asked the questions I had prepared in advance–“Many people in my generation feel like they don’t have a real say in the world around them. What would you say to them?” “What are your thoughts on modern day racism?” “There will always be people fighting for causes they believe in. What advice would you give to people who wish to participate in non-violent protest?” Sitting here, I don’t quite remember his answers to all of these questions, but I do remember two words that I used while explaining that last question to him that he picked up on and added to his answer. I remember I said something along the lines of, “Participants of the Civil Rights Movement demonstrated with such integrity and such purpose. In future movements, we need to recreate that. That’s why the movement was as effective as it was.” Mr. Horsley liked these words: purpose and integrity. He said that people in the demonstrations he participated in would ask each other, “Why are you doing this?” and if they didn’t have a clear answer they were sent home. Mr. Horsley made it clear that being a rebel without a cause is useless. Purpose is the key word. Know what you are fighting for. That’s how you withstand a beating without fighting back, he told me. That’s how you just stand there when someone throws hot urine in your face just because of who you are and what you believe in.
I put some thought into that question immediately following my interview with Mr. Horsley, and what I came up with is this: If you don’t know history, you don’t know whether you should repeat it or avoid it. If we can acknowledge what was done well in the Civil Rights Movement, we can recreate those aspects in future activism efforts. But the only way to truly know what was effective is to ask the people who were actually there. To ask the people who had clear answers to the question, “Why are you doing this?” The sad fact here is that our opportunity to do so is fading fast. One day, not too far off in the future, there will be no one left who remembers the Civil Rights Movement, no one left who remembers the Women’s Liberation Movement, no one left who remembers the Stonewall Riots. We must listen to these people’s stories so we can honor their legacies when they are no longer here.
When you understand a person, you are more likely to care about the things that affect his or her life. When someone has a gay loved one, they are exponentially more likely to be passionate about gay rights issues. If you surround yourself with diverse religious practices, you will probably become more comfortable with strangers participating in diverse practices. Family members of breast cancer survivors are more likely to participate in races that benefit that particular cause. Many tribal teachings have become important to me in recent years, and protecting these cultures and traditions and cultivating respect for Native Americans in hindsight of what native peoples have gone through at the hands of ignorance and fear is one of my passions now. Although I have always been passionate about civil rights issues, interviewing Vencen Horsley has reinvigorated my dedication to the cause. I even care more about animal rights issues now because I have looked into my own rescued dog’s terrified eyes. This cycle continues through generations because when we listen and empathize with others, our conversations alter the way we see each other, and what we learn about our fellow man teaches us and then reiterates this fundamental “Capital T” Truth: We are all human—we are all connected—we are one.
This is why programs like One Voice Nashville are so important. If you have the chance to hear someone share their story with you, even if you suffer from anxiety, even if listening to someone’s story is upsetting to you, even if you have to go to a place you’ve never been before, do it. The challenges these things present to you are nothing compared the consequences we will face as humans if we stop sharing our stories with each other, and if we stop listening to those stories. One story at a time, one seed at a time, grows into a single tree that can be watered and nurtured. If we all nurture one tree, we can grow millions, billions, of trees that will repopulate our forests of understanding. You often hear people speaking about the national deficit. What I want to hear people speaking about is the empathy deficit. If we can’t empathize enough with one another to have a civilized conversation about the diversity of our belief systems, if we keep treating war as if it is easier than peace, if we don’t sit down and for once, just for once, listen to one another, there won’t be anyone left to worry about the national deficit. You have to water the root of a tree, not its leaves, for it to grow. You have to address a problem at its roots, treat a disease, not its symptoms, for it to truly be cured. We must listen to one another, and then with time, patience, and love, we will see our trees begin to flourish.