Listen deeper with the Local Voices Network

The core goal is to understand one another better
Listen deeper with the Local Voices Network
Courtesy of the Local Voices Network

When the 2016 presidential election left pundits and pollsters stunned over how they could have been so off base about the concerns of rural America, they came looking for Kathy Cramer. The UW–Madison political science professor had written “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” after traversing the state for five and a half years listening in on conversations in places like diners and gas stations. Now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and national nonprofit Cortico hope to replicate and scale Cramer’s exercise so that we can all better understand each other. The Local Voices Network, or LVN, needs you — and in return, you glean the positive health benefits of listening deeply and feeling heard.

“When you have a 75-minute face-to-face conversation with four other people, it’s so different than posting something on Facebook or Twitter. You have time to tell your story, and you have time to listen to other people’s stories,” Cramer says. “The core goal of LVN is to help us understand one another better. And I think we do that so much more when we hear each other, as opposed to when we argue or say, ‘This is what I feel’ and put our stake in the ground.”

Because of Cramer, Madison is the first city in the nation to implement the full conversation network. There are now some up and running in Waupaca and Appleton, too. Cramer is helping develop Cortico’s LVN Madison through the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines in partnership with Madison Public Library. To ensure a wide range of diverse voices, volunteer conversation hosts — called Conversation Corps members — are trained to recruit within their communities and lead small-group listening sessions. Groups gather around the “digital hearth” — an MIT-developed recording and playback device—and answer questions together while listening to answers from prior relevant sessions. Some are general, such as, “What do you wish your elected officials knew about your life?” and “What are your concerns about your community?” Others cover more specific ground and are intended to elicit honest responses on issues such as police in schools or affordable housing. The lab then makes these recordings available in a searchable database for policymakers and media outlets. The database helps newspapers and other media outlets produce stories that more accurately reflect local voices of all perspectives, and participants walk away with a more nuanced view of their neighbors and a sense of having been heard.

“If you are tired of politics being about people shouting at each other and putting each other into boxes, if you are wanting to find a different way for us to do democracy, if you wish for a better way for us to communicate,” says Cramer, “give yourself the luxury of taking the time to listen to others, and be heard by others.”

To find a listening session near you, visit

Be a Better Listener

Learning to become a good listener is a lifelong journey. This politically divided time makes it even more challenging to listen and respect others’ opinions. These two organizations make listening part of the mission.

We Are Many — United Against Hate is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps people of all identities listen to each other and share stories. The organization, started by Muslim American businessman Masood Akhtar, was created to be a safe place for communities to learn from each other. The organization aims to fight bigotry and bring people of all backgrounds together. The group visits high schools, colleges and other community spaces to foster kinder and more inclusive environments.

“Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,” a documentary by Madison filmmakers Johnny and Marie Justice, also promotes listening by featuring five people from marginalized communities. The film tells stories of bias and speaks to audience members about what it is really like to be a marginalized person in America today.

The film aims to teach viewers how harmful stereotypes and bigotry can be. The couple created the film to spread awareness in Madison about diverse societies. The couple was recently given the position of entrepreneurs-in-residence for the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce where they will continue to inspire locals and encourage listening and understanding through storytelling and depicting the lives of people of color in Madison. –Dana Munro