All ears

Herb Walters‘ brand of mild-mannered contrarianism began as he stared at a Selective Service form in 1970. Half a world away, U.S. soldiers were killing and being killed in a war that had brought a generation of young Americans into the streets and public spaces in protest.

Walters, who was draft age, saw the words “conscientious objector” on the form and knew he’d found a place to hang his beliefs. He checked the box, little suspecting the complex ways that simple gesture would change his life.

Today, Walters is director of Rural Southern Voice for Peace, a Burnsville-based nonprofit promoting conflict resolution and community empowerment worldwide. The organization’s tool of choice is something called the Listening Project, a scripted form of “active listening” in which volunteers ask questions without arguing or passing judgment, guiding participants to what Walters calls “a deeper level of understanding” where they can confront their own fears and, by gaining hold of them, transform them into positive political and social change.

The kindness of strangers

Among the indelible images forced into being by Hurricane Katrina was that of streams of New Orleans residents forced from their flooded neighborhoods onto highway overpasses, struggling on foot toward the Superdome or out of the stricken city beneath a burning September sun.

Amid the throngs seeking higher ground was a 21-year-old woman, a mother of two, pregnant and five weeks from term, with a doctor’s prescription for bed rest. From the physical and emotional strain of the exodus, her body rebelled and she went into labor. Bleeding and delirious from the pain of contractions, she stumbled forward.

Another woman in the mass of people, aware of the woman’s struggle, insisted that she lie down, even though the heat of the pavement well exceeded 100 degrees. The woman prayed over the stricken mother, and something like a miracle happened. Two men in a northbound car slowed to help, picked up the mother and her children, and drove them 50 miles to a hospital in Gonzalez, La. The woman lost her baby but, through a sympathetic hospital employee, managed to find care for her children and a quiet home where she could spend the weeks needed to recover from her trauma.

This woman’s story — of terror and loss, and of the kindness of strangers — is one of many now being collected by the Gulf Coast Listening Project, a volunteer effort to enshrine the human voices of the Katrina tragedy, the personal histories of economic disparity and racism that transformed a natural disaster into a vast metaphor of a troubled nation.

In the weeks following the storm, the world watched an otherworldly drama unfold. From the comfortable remove of the television screen, Americans asked themselves, “Is this my country?” Bureaucrats pointed fingers. Politicians and pundits swore we-will-never-let-this-happen-again. And amid the uproar, Herb Walters saw an opportunity.

To him, the injustices that turned Katrina into such an explosive event seemed a limitless subject. And since then, he has organized Listening Projects in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C.

Working through local churches and community groups, volunteers have been trained in how to interview hurricane victims. And by amplifying survivors’ stories and opinions, they hope to transform the storm’s tragic lessons into a force for positive change.

A polarizing effect

Walters’ youthful decision to walk a path of peace wasn’t taken lightly. His father was a veteran of three wars, beginning with World War II and ending with the very conflict his son was now rejecting. His mother, a German war bride who’d grown up under Nazism’s boot heel, perceived Americans as liberators — a people who could do no wrong.

Living with parents so supportive of the war hardened Walters’ opposition. But it also heightened his sensitivity to what he believed was often misguided antiwar activity.

“So much of the protest had a polarizing effect,” he says. “You’d have these protesters out there, and often the first thing they’d do was jump to the front of the march with a Viet Cong flag. How could they hope to change people’s minds like that?”

And though his decision to seek CO status alienated Walters from his father, he gleaned a deep lesson from what he saw as his father’s principled yet ultimately misguided beliefs.

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