Listening to and through “Need”: Sound Studies and Civic Engagement
This April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0”–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.
Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues. In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently square and the displacement of their lives within it. For me, the idea was electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via the ReSounding Binghamton project and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project. Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my own efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge. Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?
In the forum we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffe‘s newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” Artist Luz Maria Sanchez will give us privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, “detritus.2: The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico.” We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelin, who will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening. Today we begin with longtime SO! community member and writer, Christie Zwahlen, Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens. If you decide that a community is in need, can you still hear what they have to say?
Community engagement is an important piece of Sound Studies 2.0, the latest iteration of the field that moves beyond discovering and justifying sound as an object of study and toward a politics and praxis of intervention. New knowledge about sound and listening can both be produced through and actively inform community-based work. Likewise, sound studies can inform the theory and practice of community engagement in meaningful ways.
Listening plays a critical role in the field of community engagement, insofar as our work is undertaken in response to community-articulated needs. Though needs can be expressed through various modes, listening to residents and community partners remains crucially important to our work as practitioners. As has been reiterated countless times, the strength of relationships is what drives and sustains community-based work and enables collaborative endeavors. Yet, as important as listening is to this work, it is rarely, if ever, discussed in sonic terms. We know that listening both produces and perpetuates power inequity, yet have neglected to examine how listening mediates our understanding (or lack thereof) of community needs.
Thus, as Jennifer Stoever’s recent Sounding Out! post argues for the importance of a civically engaged sound studies, I am also arguing for the importance of a sonically informed community engagement praxis, one that demands self-reflexivity about our own listening practices as we attempt to identify community needs. What does “need” sound like? To whom? How has the state of being “in need” been sonically constructed by dominant modes of listening and the sonic color-line? How can we, as Community Engagement practitioners, guard against the compulsion to hear needs articulated in the absence of their verbal expression? In other words. what do we hear–or not hear–when we listen through the power-laden filter of “neediness”?
Like Sound Studies, Community Engagement is considered a relatively new field. Often equated to a movement within higher education, it has built steam on the strength of its learning outcomes for students engaged in Service-Learning and other high impact learning experiences. Furthermore, many higher education institutions explicitly prioritize working with their communities towards positive public outcomes in their mission statements, positioning outcomes for community residents as equally important to student learning.
Both research and practice have taught us that community engagement is most effective when based on community-articulated needs. Projects should address genuine needs as voiced by the community. As Barbara Jacoby writes in Service-Learning in Higher Education, “an effective [service-learning] program allows for those with needs to define those needs” (42). This central tenet of community engagement praxis issues a power check on community-campus partnerships and attempts to shield community members from the sometimes arrogance of University “experts” who falsely believe in their ability to speak on behalf of Others, re-enacting the very processes of silencing and oppression this work seeks to eliminate. Community voices are often stifled in unequal research or “service” encounters and are also often mis-heard by what Stoever calls the listening ear, which hears non-normative speech as an indication of need. Furthermore,the idea that need can be self-identified implicitly speaks to the recognition that visual markers of social difference affect our opinions and perceptions of others–particularly when those Others are from marginalized communities. Because of this, the voices of community residents are often figured as the gateway to “pure” knowledge about community needs.
While the concept of “voicing” needs in community-engaged work is broader than its sonic meaning (e.g. referring to the collection of data via surveys, needs assessments, other written communications, etc.), meeting face-to-face and speaking with community residents is still considered a best and necessary practice in the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The material “touch” manifested through the vocalic body connects us in ways that email, needs assessments, and other forms of digital communication cannot compete. Of constant concern to community engagement practitioners is how we can better respond to community-articulated needs and how best to inform ourselves of their existence. Missing from the discussion, however, is an interrogation of how listening shapes the way we hear needs articulated. What does someone in need sound like, or rather, what has our culture determined what someone in need sounds like? Are we hearing needs articulated where they do not exist? As much as the field of Community Engagement prioritizes listening in its praxis, the process itself is not understood as a material one. If we are basing our work on the voiced needs of community residents, how can we do this well without investigating our own listening practices or acknowledging at the most basic level that listening is a social process, not just a physiological one? Delving more deeply into these questions can help us to develop a sonically-informed community engagement praxis, one which takes into account our own biased ears as we engage with community members.
To think through the damage that mis-hearing need can do, I want to examine the case study of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was a key witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial in July, 2013. Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whom Zimmerman stalked and shot to death as Martin walked home from the corner store to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida. Many commentators placed blame for Zimmerman’s acquittal on Jeantel’s voice and use of African American Vernacular English, which were denigrated and dissected by courtroom officials, the media, and the Twittersphere. When the trial was over, a self-dubbed “village” of mentors descended on Jeantel, determined to provide her with a plethora of services that she, in fact, resisted. Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article “For Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, a ‘village’ of mentors trying to keep her on track,” details Rachel Jeantel’s “transformation” after the George Zimmerman trial. A prime example of the way certain voices and bodies are figured as expressing need without ever saying a word, this “village” of mentors inferred from Jeantel’s voice a great longing for help.
As courtroom officials and many in the social media cosmos painted a sonic image of Jeantel as untrustworthy and unintelligible, Karen Andre–an African American lawyer and old friend of Jeantel’s lawyer Roderick Vereen–was thinking about what she could do to help the young woman she heard and saw on the stand. Taking the lead in Jeantel’s cultural makeover, Vereen is referred to as the “village elder.” Since the case ended, he has made Jeantel his project, despite, as Thompson reports, their expectations “differing wildly.”
As Karen Andre watched Jeantel’s testimony on television, she contacted Vereen directly to offer herself up as a mentor, because “simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.” But it was not only Jeantel’s appearance (which was itself highly criticized) that motivated Andre to contact Vereen. Regina Bradley uses the term “sonic ratchetness” to describe Jeantel’s testimony and its reception as “an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.” It was this sonic ratchetness which signaled to Andre that Jeantel needed assistance–assistance becoming the “respectable” black woman to which she undoubtedly aspired. Though many spoke out in defense of Jeantel, the degree to which negative portrayals of her were accepted as fact further evidence the pervasiveness of the sonic color-line in guiding our response to black vocalics–as deficient, non-normative and indicative of need. In essence, through her speech, Jeantel has been characterized and interpreted by many (including members of the black professional class) as a charity case.
On Jeantel’s “progress” thus far, Vereen remarks, “her word choice was terrible [during the trial]. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly. Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” As a black professional operating daily within the cultural norms of the U.S. court system, Vereen hears Jeantel’s use of African American vernacular as objectionable. By emphasizing her improved proficiency with white heteronormative discourse and increased “openness” as major accomplishments vis a vis her “progress,” Vereen highlights Jeantel’s manner of speech as both a determinant of need and a barrier to her functioning within the normal parameters of American social life. Vereen “helps” Jeantel by disciplining her speech to conform with normative white speaking and listening practices.
When asked about the public commentary surrounding her and her testimony, Jeantel says she “had to laugh it off.” Suddenly interrupted by Rose Reeder, another village mentor, who urges, “No. Be Honest,” Jeantel concedes that she was angry about being judged. Reeder’s censuring here evidences the ways in which Jeantel is silenced by the “assistance” being provided her. Interrupting Jeantel in this manner forces her to disclose personal information, at the risk of seeming like a liar. In capitulating to her mentor, Jeantel gives up a very basic right of expression. In effect, Jeantel’s improved “openness” to adults (thanks, village!) functions to silence and distort her authentic voice.
“I think the thing that moved me most,” says Tom Joyner, another of Jeantel’s mentors and host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.” Ironically, Joyner who has offered to pay for Jeantel’s tuition at any historically black college of her choosing, is not listening well either. As the Washington Post piece also highlights, Jeantel and her Creole-speaking mother were rarely (if ever) consulted as to what types of aid were actually needed or desired (if any). Instead, Joyner and the village interpreted Jeantel’s voice alone as adequate evidence of need sans investigation.
What Joyner and others hear and what Jeantel is actually asking for continue to be incongruous. Jeantel would like to pursue a career in fashion. Joyner’s foundation refuses to pay. Vereen’s prescription is for Jeantel to attend Florida Memorial, a small historically black university in Southern Florida. As to whether the “village teachings” actually worked, Vereen condescendingly avows, “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.”
The manner in which Jeantel has been forcibly coerced to abandon her “sonic ratchetness” (at least in public), provides an important warning to those of us engaged in work which advances the “public good.” It should lead us to question whose good we are enacting and how our ideas about the public good are informed by what we hear and mis-hear.
As is often the case in community-based work, it is fruitful to return to Kretzmann and McKnight’s asset-based community development (ABCD) model in thinking through an ethical course of action. The ABCD model focuses its attention on a community’s assets instead of its needs or deficiencies, empowering even the least empowered members of a community to use what skills and talents they possess to work towards changes they desire. Viewing alternative modes of articulation as an asset (vs. an indicator of inherent need) may prove useful in staying attentive to our listening practices as they relate to marginalized communities. Though denigrated as improper speech, culturally specific modes of articulation convey meaning in their distance from the norm. These modes of articulation are complex in their practical and historical constitutions. Both in what is said and not said, we must acknowledge that our listening ears fabricate meaning beyond the verbal, and that sonic constructions of Otherness can distort and inform how we hear needs articulated.
Featured Image: MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Kim Williams talks with a student while painting a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released) 110519-N-NY820-275
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
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