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A mission to listen

Listen First Project logoOne of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s core values is teamwork, which creates an environment of collaboration, mutual support and genuine interest in each other’s success. That value extends beyond the classroom when students team up with classmates to start new ventures.

My classmates in the Weekend Executive MBA Program – a diverse, passionate and talented team of 45 students – are now part of my leadership team in Listen First Project.

My project – to restore civil discourse in America – began on an overnight bus ride between Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. My wife Chrissy – a PhD student in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health – and I had just completed a six-month fellowship in rural Uganda with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief and development organization.

I had spent the previous five years working in Washington, D.C. – in the U.S. Senate and as a national political consultant conducting voter market and messaging analysis for presidential and statewide campaigns. I left Washington and all its rancorous glory to gain a fresh perspective on life – and I did. I was so looking forward to returning home but was deeply troubled by news that my beloved North Carolina was embroiled in the same vitriol that I’d left behind in D.C.

With a rare opportunity to just sit and reflect on that bus ride, I jotted down my thoughts about the need to listen to each another, especially to those with whom we disagree. In what became the essay “It’s Time to Listen,” I shared my conviction that if we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation, we should not vilify our neighbors when they see the world differently. When I uploaded the essay to my blog from an internet café in Nairobi, I had no idea it would be printed in dozens of newspapers across America – from The News & Observer and The Daily Tar Heel to the Miami Herald and Oklahoman – and reach millions of readers. Encouraged and emboldened by the resonance of such a simple idea, I conceived of the Listen First Project to translate my words into action and make a tangible impact on American culture.

Listen First Project is making progress. My UNC Kenan-Flagler colleagues have rallied to the cause, and thousands of people have signed the Listen First Pledge to fully listen to and consider others’ views before sharing their own, prioritize respect and understanding in conversation, and encourage others to do the same.

What started as a small project has become a Listen First movement to restore civil discourse in America and around the world one conversation at a time. These conversations – from a roundtable of young voters in the Triangle to one among Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals watched by 20,000 on Facebook Live – all grounded in the Listen First Conversation Guidelines, have earned LFP significant national attention. I wrote about these Listen First Conversations for the Huffington Post while New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shared one of my columns in The Charlotte Observer. I also have hosted several Listen First Conversations on WCHL radio in Chapel Hill.

I founded the national Listen First Coalition of non-profit organizations and individual leaders committed to collaboratively promoting and practicing listening to improve relationships and public discourse. The Listen First message is regularly shared by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, Bridge Alliance and Harvard’s Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. We are launching college chapters around the country, including at Carolina.

It’s been incredibly humbling to have leaders and practitioners across the country reach out to discuss the Listen First movement and how we can work together to restore civil discourse in America. The national traction we’re gaining combined with the eager investment in the mission by my UNC Kenan-Flagler family frankly exceeds my wildest dreams and inspired me, following the Charlottesville tragedy, to quit my job and invest myself full time in Listen First.

Listen First Project is about much more than political discourse. It’s easy for us to point the finger at Washington, but our failure to listen is harming our relationships and culture in every area, including the family dinner table, neighborhood, classroom and business world.

Compromise isn’t always the answer. The point is not agreement, but gaining a new understanding and respect for alternative views and those who hold them, moving beyond slander and seeking common ground.


By Pearce Godwin (EMBA ‘18)