Lisa Sullivan knows how to listen. The founder and president of LISTEN Inc., an organization devoted to developing youth leadership, Sullivan learned at an early age to understand the world she is in and what was expected of her. She beams with pride and admiration as she recalls how her folks instilled a deep-seated work ethic within her.
"On my 15th birthday my mother took me down to [a local store] and told the manager, ‘This is my daughter and she needs a job!'" She fondly remembers the positive reinforcement she received from members of her Washington, D.C. community, including strangers. "I was waiting at a bus stop and an older lady asked me about myself, and as we were parting company she said, ‘Now you remember to go to church, you hear?' and I said, ‘Yes, ma'am!'"
Sullivan, a soft-featured black woman with a short salt-and-pepper afro, flashing eyes, and an easy smile, gets visibly excited when she speaks of her passion: lifting up the young. "This generation is bombarded with information without the capability of analyzing it. In such a confusing society, you must have a knowledge base; otherwise it is like being a computer with no anti-virus software running-any virus can come along and take hold."
LISTEN (an acronym for Local Initiative Support, Training, and Education Network) is Sullivan's vision to bridge the knowledge gap for urban youth and to help them build the capabilities to successfully navigate society's turbulent waters. According to Sullivan, "Urban youth must be organized to formulate their own questions, to define their own problems, to find their own solutions, and create their own institutions."
To that end, LISTEN takes several approaches to develop leadership and strengthen social capital among the urban youth of the hip-hop nation. It locates talented local youth leaders in Washington, D.C., and around the world; researches and disseminates information on local youth culture, policy issues, and trends affecting urban youth; and trains youth workers in professional development, urban youth development, nonprofit management, group facilitation, and public life skills. LISTEN also convenes young leaders, activists, youth workers, youth organizers, artists, academics, policy analysts, journalists, and social entrepreneurs of color and connects urban youth with opportunities, fellowships, training, and employment.
An honors graduate of Clark Atlanta University with a master's degree from Yale, Sullivan has served with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Children's Defense Fund (where she founded the Black Student Leadership Network). Sullivan acknowledges without a trace of boastfulness that she could pretty much pick and choose any organization in her fields of expertise. "LISTEN is very much an expression of my faith," said Sullivan. "I could probably have worked for the national organizations (Urban League, NAACP, etc.) but I was compelled to start something new. A synthesis of the old and the young and my faith gives me the courage and confidence to push off from the comfort, security, and the status."
Sullivan chose Ella Josephine Baker as the model for her approach for LISTEN and her work in general. Baker was the legendary organizer whose efforts for the NAACP throughout the South in the 1940s were instrumental in paving the way for much of the civil rights activity of the 1950s and 1960s. Baker's trailblazing efforts and contacts laid the foundation for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which formed in 1960.
Sullivan cites Baker's impact especially on her understanding of grassroots democracy and decentralized leadership. She wrote, "For Ella Baker, the single most important goal of community organizing was to ensure the leadership development of poor people, women, and youth to participate in and contribute to local political activism by initiating projects and influencing strategy." Sullivan continued, "[The] undeveloped social capital and untapped leadership potential of the hip-hop nation can re-energize the post-modern freedom movement."
What is the hip-hop nation? Hip-hop culture is seen by some as the personification of the young people of the inner city. Urban youth are recognized by advertisers and fashion designers as the progenitors of the "ghetto cool" style that permeates pop culture. But while they may now be visible, to a great extent they are still inaudible. While there's faith in the marketability of hip-hop culture (especially its warts: violent, misogynistic, and homophobic images and lyrics and a glorification of crass consumerism), society as a whole has no faith in the youth within the hip-hop nation. That attitude is anathema to Sullivan.
"Having faith in young folks when sometimes they don't have faith in themselves is a powerful thing," she said. "A young man said to me recently, ‘You had faith in me when I didn't have faith in myself!' I want to give them strength to find their own faith because that is what happened for me."
Sullivan believes older adults saw the value in her and that their contribution to her upbringing was vital. Especially important was their faith. She said, "Your faith doesn't validate who you are, but folks tend to gravitate toward it-they are either scared of it or trying to relate to it. As I mature, I am now more open to talking to young people about faith because it is the source of meaning."
Instrumental in implementing Sullivan's action plan are staff members such as Ditra Edwards, director of training and youth development for LISTEN. Before coming to the organization she was senior program director for community programs at the YMCA of Greater Boston. She is very forthright and exudes earnestness; she too is on a mission. Her work over the last 10 years has focused on teens and young adults. She sees a connection between faith and activism. "To understand activism is to understand that it is not about you as an individual, it is about the character of a just society," Edwards said. "For us it is about helping people come to that space. A social movement must have a foundation, and for us it is faith. Faith gives strength for the long haul, because for us there are no immediate results."
Last year, in an effort to help other activists "find that space," LISTEN organized a global exchange program. A delegation of youth leaders from around the United States journeyed to South Africa in early 2000. Participants came from many diverse organizations-from the Central American Resource Center and Hermana a Hermana/Sister to Sister to the Center for the Study of Youth at the University of Pennsylvania.
LISTEN organized the experience because Sullivan knew a lot of the most talented, smart, and committed organizers were stuck ideologically and "trapped in anger and hatred," which Sullivan said is stoked by fear. "This generation of organizers has to shoulder the heavy weight of the successes of previous generations, and they are afraid they can't measure up," which often leaves people feeling overwhelmed. Then, said Sullivan, "We act from a place of victimization and anger and our righteous indignation prevents us from confronting our fears."
The delegation split into four groups in South Africa and traveled to different locations. The delegates stayed in the homes of individuals and visited nongovernmental organizations. They were struck by the spirituality and the grace exhibited by so many of the local organizers who were on the cutting edge of a new society-people who were literally building a new nation.
While in Pretoria, Ditra Edwards worked in a program for street children, but she stayed in the home of an affluent white South African. After working in the program, she would return to the host's home and wonder about the children who didn't know where they were going to sleep. "There was such a disconnect," she said. "It got to the point where I couldn't eat or sleep; all I could do was pray for those children. Coming back together with the group helped me give voice to that emotion."
A common discovery of the delegates was the lack of hatred and anger among the indigenous organizers and the people they served. Edwards said that this reality was so profoundly powerful that many of the delegates who had held the most anger came to a space where they wondered, "If these people could go through all of this [apartheid and the struggle that endures] and still find hope, what do I have to be angry about?"
Sean Joe, a postdoctoral research associate with Penn's Center for the Study of Youth Policy, stayed with a family in a wealthier "colored" (mixed race, in South African parlance) neighborhood. He witnessed the tremendous impact of American popular culture, especially hip-hop style, rap music, and the daytime soaps. He was peppered with many questions about the big houses and lavish living that are often displayed in American music videos and television.
These conversations with his host family also helped him understand the profound distinctions between the experiences and perceptions of the "blacks" and "coloreds" of the country. His host family felt that blacks were unable to effectively manage and lead the country, and things had been better under apartheid. Joe said he learned that "In order to have a successful social change movement you must also prepare the leadership for the phase that comes after the change has occurred-that is governance. In South Africa there was a successful social change [in representational power] but little change in the distribution of resources, health care, and education."
Joe also emphasized that the trip helped him clarify his roles within youth-led social movements in the United States. Other delegates echoed this, noting that the most valuable result was the new set of relationships forged among the delegates and with many of the South Africans they met.
Lisa Sullivan was surprised by how riveting the experience was for the delegates. It surpassed her hopes for how cathartic it would be for those involved.
Planning the global exchange program is seen by many who know her as evidence of her faith in action and her faith in the potential of young people. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that today's urban youth are "lost," Sullivan has great faith in these young people-"In spite of evidence that I shouldn't," she laughed. She knows that with faith, evidence changes.
Larry Bellinger is an assistant editor of Sojourners. For more information on LISTEN, visit www.lisn.org