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Lessons on Listening and Research from La Casa Roja

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Since its inception, I have had the great good fortune to be associated with La Casa Roja, and I have learned many, many lessons from attending meetings with the Navajo leaders and youth who make up the group. Here’s how they describe La Casa Roja:

La Casa Roja is a non-profit organization founded by Bread Loaf Teacher Network Members Carissa Brownotter, Rex Lee Jim, and Ceci Lewis. The purpose of La Casa Roja Youth Advocacy Team is to promote healthy, sustainable solutions to problems that indigenous youth face. Founded in 2014, La Casa Roja has its roots in Navajo country, its heritage, traditions, culture, values, songs, prayers, and stories, which informs its work with other partners like the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, Andover Bread Loaf, and the Navajo Community Health Outreach. Recognizing that youth are the answer to the current problems that plague the world, La Casa Roja is invested in providing leadership opportunities for indigenous youth globally.

I have known Rex Lee Jim, former Vice President of the Navajo Nation and a distinguished poet, playwright, and activist, for decades. His wisdom, intelligence, and insight run deep, as does his faith in and commitment to youth leadership.

It’s from Rex and Navajo young people that I have learned how to be a better listener, as I’ve sat in a roundhouse observing how Rex attends to others, how he more than leans in, how he radiates receptiveness and encouragement. And how he is so very quiet, silent, waiting for words and actions to be fully absorbed and comprehended before speaking. I’ve learned to recognize and to appreciate the rhythms of conversation in such a setting, and to listen and learn.

Recently, I had the chance to join a La Casa Roja discussion on research (via Zoom of course). A grant is supporting a project for young people to gather stories from their elders about how they have managed in hard times (such as the current pandemic), and they were discussing how they would go about carrying out this work. At the beginning of the session, they were talking about “interviews” as the method they would use to gather the stories. But as the discussion progressed, the word didn’t seem to fit well with their goals or with their interpersonal relationships. Indeed, “interview” is a word associated with white Western ways of gathering data: it just didn’t fit well with what these young researchers wanted to do, or to know. Rex Lee Jim had been listening intently, as he always does, to this discussion. After a long pause, he began to speak about Navajo ways of storytelling and story sharing, about Navajo ways of showing that you are paying close attention, and that you understand and empathize. And more. Much more.

It’s not always easy to listen on Zoom—the little Hollywood Squares boxes, with their varying backgrounds, can be distracting, and sound quality is often not good. But none of that mattered on this Zoom meeting: everyone there was laser focused on what we were learning about how to carry out culturally appropriate and respectful research. As the discussion continued and the youth began to describe situations in which they might carry out this research project, they decided that “conversations” captured what they wanted and needed to do much better than “interviews.”

I said very little during this two-hour session and was reminded once again not to imagine that students who sit silently in my classes are somehow not engaged or participating—because I was participating to the hilt! I was hanging on every word and thinking hard about how limiting, how restrictive, traditional Western “research methods” can be.

This two-hour discussion left me with much food for thought about listening, and about ways of interrogating the biases inherent in the methods I bring to any research task. It also left me looking forward to my next opportunity to learn La Casa Roja lessons, which I will certainly continue to pass on.

Please stay safe.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1868612 by Pexels, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.