Listening to the spaces in between


S. Mona Sinha


Recently I was at a roundtable meeting at a prestigious philanthropic institution, in which potential solutions to climate change were being discussed. Everyone was talking about the problems; repeating the same old lines and the same old figures. Suddenly, a voice spoke up. ‘What if we could find solutions that allow us to live the best life we’ve ever lived?’

There was a silence as every head in the room turned to look at the speaker: a young woman – the lone representative of a global Indigenous community that comprises only five per cent of the world’s population but stewards more than 80 per cent of its biodiversity – who had, with a single question, shifted the entire conversation.

Here was someone with lived experience of what we were discussing; someone who not only understood the problems, but whose stake in the solutions was greater than any other. And she had suggested something radical: what if our future could be better than our past?

That moment – a single microcosm in which structural and institutional power relations were briefly upended – illustrated an uncomfortable truth: the very people who are best placed to find creative solutions are those who are getting most consistently and routinely ignored.

More than 100 years ago, French composer Claude Debussy wrote that ‘the music is not in the notes, but in the spaces between them.’ These beautiful words are still relevant today, and I am reminded of them often – whether it is during discussions with funders about climate solutions, or while witnessing world leaders battling for attention on the global stage.

We’re all so busy talking that no one is actually listening. And all too often, it is those who are disproportionately harmed by inequality – women, non-binary people, disabled people, those from racialized and Indigenous communities – whose voices are most marginalized. To solve the world’s most pressing problems, we must cultivate a practice of radical listening.

Radical listening is not passive; it’s not inaction. It is intentionally setting aside what we believe we know, in order that we might learn from others with different experiences and perspectives. To practice radical listening is to acknowledge and accept that those in the closest proximity to problems are often the ones who are best placed to solve them.

Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the drive towards global gender equality, which over the past 30 years has been powered primarily by the women, girls, and activists of all genders on whose lives the impact of inequality has historically been most profound.

If we are to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030, it is those who live with the daily consequences of gender discrimination to whom we must first listen; and it is they who must determine the policies and legal frameworks we use to eradicate violence, to eliminate exploitation, and to end practices that inhibit the autonomy and agency of all women and gender minorities.

But they cannot do it alone. We need organizations like Equality Now to provide the connective tissue between these ‘solution seekers’ and those with political influence, so that each of them has an equal opportunity to contribute their unique expertise and resources.

Of course, while it is impossible to talk about resources without acknowledging the crucial and pivotal role in any progressive social movement that is played by money, it is often easy to forget in the world of philanthropic investment that funding is just one part of the solution.

It is imperative that we move towards a trust-based model of philanthropy, in which funders acknowledge the need to share both resources and agency with experts by experience, and that the end result of such meaningful collaboration is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether as leaders, as policy-makers, or as donors, we each need to ask ourselves: what are the issues we care about most deeply, and who has the most experience of living with the impact of those issues? For it is they who should be setting the agenda.

I am happy to say that the words of the woman who spoke up at that roundtable were both heard and heeded – her contribution changed the direction of the conversation. She was in the company of many people who were willing to listen, and so to share their power.

Listening can be a radical act because it involves learning to trust each other, and as we all know, wherever there is trust, there is risk. But I believe that it is a risk worth taking. Because to listen – to cultivate trust – is to redistribute power: and that is how we change the world.

S. Mona Sinha is an award-winning global gender equality advocate and the Global Executive Director of Equality Now.

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