Barbara Hamm Lee has refined her listening skills over many years as a producer of television and radio shows. She worked with Oprah Winfrey decades ago in Baltimore, and she currently hosts the popular WHRV (89.5 FM) public radio show, “Another View,” which looks at issues from an African-American perspective.
Over the decades, she has listened to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories and shared those narratives with the public. As she told Norfolk Academy students as part of Seminar 2018 in the school’s Year of Listening, when you listen completely, you don’t just listen with your ears. “You listen,” she said, “with everything.”
Yet, even someone who listens as part of her professional life can blunder. Mrs. Lee opened with an instructive story about a time when she failed to listen to her best friend, Wanda. Mrs. Lee described Wanda as someone who had her act together in every way—professional and family life, beautiful home, and a great sense of humor.
So when Wanda told Mrs. Lee during a phone call, “I am having a really tough time this Christmas,” Mrs. Lee admits that she just wasn’t listening. “I launched into a story about me,” she said. “I made it all about me.” When she finished, there was silence from Wanda, and then they ended the call. It was only a month later, during a second phone call, that Wanda spoke to Mrs. Lee about her lack of sensitivity, a challenge that shook her to the core.
If I can’t be there for my best friend when she is reaching out...it made me learn to listen,” she said. “You have to listen for underlying meaning. If I had been listening, I would have heard the tremor in her voice. I would have paid attention to silence; sometimes, silence says a whole lot.”
In another story, she revealed the dangers arising from society’s refusal to listen to words of wisdom. In 1968, when she was 11-years-old and living in Baltimore, the city erupted in chaos at the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Despite Dr. King’s message of nonviolent resistance as a way of fighting segregation, the black community turned to looting and burning down homes as a form of protest and dealing with overwhelming grief.
Mrs. Lee said her family was the second black family to integrate their neighborhood; she recalled nailing a black ribbon on the door of her home and tying another black ribbon to the antenna of her family’s car to prevent her family’s property from being vandalized, and hearing "the old people” say with regret, “Dr. King would not have wanted this.” She noted, “People were not listening to one another or to Dr. King’s message. That was the year my activism started.”
Nearly two decades later, when Mrs. Lee was working at the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, she had a shocking lesson in the persistence of racism in the city, when she was setting up an interview with the president of a neighborhood civic league.While on the phone with Mrs. Lee, the civic league president commented about the television crew, “I hope none of the people are black. I hate black people.” Despite that inauspicious start, Mrs. Lee went to the interview with the crew, several of whom were African-American. She recalled that the civic league president was so surprised and “taken with all of us,” that she promised to invite Mrs. Lee to her Christmas party—an invitation that, she wryly noted, never came.
Mrs. Lee has continued her activism and community involvement throughout her life. In recent years, she has served as Chair of the Board of Commissioners of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. She spoke to the students about the challenges of redeveloping 200 acres in the St. Paul area that includes 4,200 residents in three public housing communities: Tidewater Gardens, Calvert Square, and Young Terrace. Those neighborhoods are near Tidewater Park Elementary School, where the Norfolk Academy Literacy Fellows hold a weekly Writing Club for students.
The city of Norfolk has plans for what is called “mixed use” development—homes, apartments, commercial areas, schools, and parks. “It is going to take a lot of talking and a lot of listening to what is going on in St. Paul,” she said to the Upper School students. “I want you to listen, because what will happen will shape the City of Norfolk and the community that you live in.”