How Can Listening Transform An Entire Community?

How Can Listening Transform An Entire Community?

9:43am Jun 05, 2015
Rev. Jeffrey Brown speaking about how listening helped reduce the homicide rate in Boston.
Rev. Jeffrey Brown speaking about how listening helped reduce the homicide rate in Boston.
Bret Hartman / Courtesy of TED

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Act Of Listening

About Rev. Jeffrey Brown's Talk

During the late '80s, Rev. Jeffrey Brown was watching his neighborhood become overrun with drugs and violence. He decided to listen to the young people in the community — not preach to them — in order to bring about change.

About Rev. Jeffrey Brown

Rev. Jeffrey Brown is a Baptist minister and president of RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace), a national organization that seeks to reduce gang violence by building partnerships among faith-based organizations, city governments and law enforcement agencies. He is one of the co-founders of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, a faith-based group that was an integral part of the "Boston Miracle," a process by which the city experienced a significant decline in violent crime in the '90s. It inspired similar projects across the country. Rev. Brown consults nationwide on community mobilization and combating youth violence.

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So up to this point, we've been mainly hearing about how listening is an act of discovering, but what about when it's mainly an act of empathy? What happens when we listen to people that are rarely, if ever, heard?

So this story begins back in the mid-1980s. Jeffrey Brown was a young minister and his first congregation was at the Union Baptist Church near Boston. And while the church was a pretty peaceful place, what was going on just outside its walls was anything but. It's a story he told on the TED stage.


JEFFREY BROWN: In my city and in the entire metro area and in most metro areas in the United States, the homicide rate started to rise precipitously. It got to the point where it started to change the character of the city. You could go to any housing project, for example, like the one that was down the street from my church, and you'd walk in and it would be like a ghost town because the parents wouldn't allow their kids to come out and play, even in the summertime because of the violence. And so I started to preach the crime, the violence in the community, and I started to look at the programming in my church and I started to build programs that would catch the at-risk youth, you know, those who are on the fence to the violence. But I preached and I built these programs and I thought maybe if my colleagues did the same that it would make a difference. But the violence just careened out of control, and I didn't know what to do. And then something happened that changed everything for me. It was a kid by the name of Jesse McKie, walking home with his friend Rigoberto Carrion to the housing project down the street from my church. They met up with a group of youth who were from a gang in Dorchester and they were killed. But as Jesse was running from the scene mortally wounded, he was running in the direction of my church, and he died some 100, 150 yards away. If he would've gotten to the church, it wouldn't have made a difference because the lights were out, nobody was home, and I took that as a sign.

RAZ: You took that as a sign that - I guess that you had to change the way you were - you were going about this.

BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, a paradox started to emerge inside of me. And the paradox was this - if I've really wanted the community that I was preaching for, that I had to redefine my own sense of community and reach out and embrace these young people that I had cut out. And that meant that rather than trying to draw young people who are at-risk to violence into the confines of the church, that I needed to reach out and embrace these young men who were committing the acts of violence, so it was the drug dealers and the gangbangers and those who were out there on the street.


BROWN: So I started to walk the streets at night, late at night. And there was a small cadre of us who came to the realization that we had to come out of the four walls of our sanctuary and meet the youth where they were and not try to figure out how to bring them in. So we decided to walk together, and we would get together in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city on a Friday night and on a Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. and we'd walk till 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. I imagine we were quite the anomaly when we first started walking. I mean, you know, we weren't drug dealers. We weren't drug customers. We weren't the police. Some of us would have collars on. It was probably a really odd thing. But they started speaking to us after a while. And as we were talking with them, a number of myths were dispelled about them with us. And one of the biggest myths was that these kids were cold and heartless and uncharacteristically bold in their violence. What we found out was the exact opposite. Most of the young people who are out there on the streets are just trying to make it on the streets. And we also found out that some of the most intelligent and creative, magnificent and wise people that we've ever met were on the street, engaged in a struggle. And as a result of that, we said to them, how do you see this church? How do you see this institution helping this situation?

I mean, we would ask them, you know, we don't know our own neighborhoods after 9:00 p.m. at night, but you do. Talk to us, you know, tell us what we're not seeing. And then, admittedly, we did something that is (laughter) difficult for preachers sometimes, which is to listen and not preach.

RAZ: What came out of that, from listening to those people, was a citywide program that led to a 79 percent drop in homicides over the next decade. It became known as the Boston Miracle. It's since been replicated in dozens of cities around the country. And basically, the program made people like Jeffrey Brown mediators in their communities. They worked with other leaders in the neighborhood and with prosecutors and probation officers to reach out to gang members. They'd offer them more support in schools, maybe access to jobs. The police were focused more on supporting the program and less on arresting people.

BROWN: So when you have the police, probation officers, community leaders, faith leaders, the youth out on the streets able to be in dialogue with one another and build relationships with each other, you know, I think we were able to actually, you know, make a huge difference.


BROWN: The Boston Miracle was about bringing people together. But there is this political ploy to try to pit police brutality and police misconduct against black-on-black violence, but it's a fiction. When you think about decades of failed housing policies and poor educational structures, when you think about persistent unemployment and underemployment in a community, when you think about poor health care and then you throw drugs into the mix and duffle bags full of guns, little wonder that you would see this culture of violence emerge. And then the response that comes from the state is more cops and more suppression of hotspots. It's all connected. And one of the wonderful things that we've been able to do is to be able to show that the solution is not more cops, but the solution is mining the assets there in the community.


RAZ: When you - when you preach and you are delivering a sermon, it is more or less a one-way stream of information. I mean, you get feedback from the congregation, but it's more or less...

BROWN: Don't forget I'm in the black church now. You know, we get a lot of feedback.

RAZ: Right, but it's a - the information is coming from you to the congregation. And you point this out that, you know, preachers normally - they're not normally listening.

BROWN: Yeah.

RAZ: But I wonder what you have learned about listening. Has your sort of perspective on listening changed?

BROWN: Yes, it has. By listening to the young people, I discovered that I didn't have all the answers. But in the dialogue that occurs, you find that there is a magnetism, where you come together in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts, if you will.

RAZ: Yeah.

BROWN: And by listening, you find yourselves drawn into this greater presence where you can find answers that may not be audible answers, but it's something that you feel in your spirit.


RAZ: Reverend Jeffrey Brown, he's the president of RECAP. It's a group that works around the country to help reduce gang violence. You can see his full talk at the Our show today, "The Act Of Listening." I'm Guy Raz and this is the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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