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* Federal grant grows Listening Tree Project
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Instructor Sarah Zale makes a point during a "theater of the oppressed" presentation by members of the LIstening Tree Project club. More photos

“If it can work there, it can work anywhere.”

That thought kept going through Sarah Zale’s head as she sat in the Bainbridge Island Library in 2006, hearing a Palestinian describe how choosing to just listen to the Israeli perspective without judgment, directly from an Israeli, was having a demonstrable calming effect on perhaps the world’s most intractable conflict.

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Listening Tree Project club members during the "theater of teh oppressed' skit.

Another Listening Tree branch

Students in the winter-quarter class co-taught by Sarah Zale and drama instructor are scheduled to present their skits on from10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 5, in the PUB Quiet Dining Room. The event is free and open to the public, but seating may be limited.

“Souliman al-Khatib was the first Palestinian to whom I ever really listened," said Zale. “He had served ten years in an Israeli prison for his role in the stabbing of two Israeli soldiers. When he was released, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of Palestinians and Jews who teach others how to find solutions to their problems with compassionate listening instead of violence.

What Zale, an English instructor at Shoreline Community College, found was the beginning of an answer to a problem she was identifying in her classes.

“I wanted students to take some ownership of their learning, I wanted them to play a role in directing it,” she said. “Telling them to do it wasn’t enough, I needed a way to draw them inside the learning, to do more than just plop in a seat, open the book and listen to me talk.”

The Bainbridge presentation made such an impression on Zale that she joined a Compassionate Listening Project delegation ( traveling to Israel and Palestine to put the concept into action. Zale took that experience, came home and began folding the skills into her English classes.

“It was a slow integration into the classroom,” Zale said. Her students were still writing papers, but now they were doing them on subjects gleaned from personal experiences with compassionate listening techniques applied outside the classroom. “I asked them to involve not only family members, but the old man sitting in his porch they see on the way to school; someone  they’d never talk to,” she said.

Still, Zale wanted more and she found it at Portland Community College.

“Portland has a program on Theatre of the Oppressed,” Zale said, referring to the theatrical form explored by Brazilian Augusto Boal that turns the audience into participants and focuses on subjects of social change. “So I had this idea, but could I really apply such a radical approach?”

Zale, who says she is still honing that approach, combines the tenets of compassionate listening with a framework of participatory theater and then applies it in the very traditional environment of an English 101 class.

It worked, but again Zale wanted more.

Building on the core of compassionate listening and interactive theater, Zale expanded the experience with components of social science, community service, multiculturalism and global awareness to create what she calls The Listening Tree Project.

Zale went looking for a fertile spot to plant her idea and found it at Shoreline Community College. “It’s so welcoming here,” she said.

Still, creating a new class can take time, so to keep momentum, Zale worked this fall with student government to create a student club, The Listening Tree Club. “Almost all of the members are my former English students or friends of former students,” Zale said.

On Nov. 29, the club showcased their work in the PUB Quiet Dining Room. The performance was open to anyone and drew perhaps 75 students, faculty and staff members.  The powerful and raw five-minute skit illustrated the prejudices and power differentials that are at play between Asian and international students of color with other students on campus and in life and drew resounding applause. The audience then replaced characters, introducing their own dialogue as a way to practice how to resolve the conflicts presented in the skit.

For winter quarter 2013, Zale is co-teaching an interdisciplinary course (IDS 102) with drama instructor Deb Jacoby to further develop her curriculum of combining writing and interactive theatre. It is called “Leading the Way: Social Justice Through Activism and Compassion.” Students may receive English 101 credit as one option.

Zale is taking The Listening Tree Project to the next step: an actual year-long class at Shoreline.

“I have approval to implement the project ,” she said. “It will be a three-quarter series starting in the fall of 2013 with the same students committed for an academic year.” 

To make the class work within the framework of Shoreline’s 90-credit, two-year Associate degrees, Zale is arranging for each of the three 5-credit classes to count toward the general education requirements of the degree. For example, one class would satisfy a Humanities credit requirement, another class fills a Social Sciences requirement she said.

In addition, Zale said students who complete all three quarters of The Listening Tree Project will receive a college-approved Leadership Trainer Certificate.

“The certificate is important,” Zale said. “More and more, employers are looking for something that says ‘Yes, I have these skills, I can be a leader in community building and conflict resolution and demonstrate active listening to multicultural perspectives.’”

To help fund The Listening Tree Project, Zale has just received curriculum development funds from the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Grant. 

Shoreline also received a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace to carry out a workshop this May that will include Listening Tree Project.  Shoreline is one of 76 colleges, universities and public libraries across 32 states to receive the USIP award. The institute was created by Congress to professionalize the field of international conflict management and peacebuilding, implement conflict management operations abroad and generate new tools for conflict management and prevention. In 2009, Zale was a Fellow to USIP.

The May workshop is co-sponsored by the Global Affairs Center of the International Education department and the Listening Tree Club.  Participants in the workshop will include students, staff and faculty from Shoreline and other colleges and universities, as well as community members. The event will explore human rights and international conflict using techniques of interactive theater and compassionate listening.

“In the words of Gene Knudsen Hoffman,” Zale said, “‘An enemy is a person whose story we have not yet heard.’”

The funding will also help The Listening Tree Project and other efforts related to the advancement of global awareness and competence and multicultural understanding.

“A mission of the project is to encourage individuals to increase their global awareness and compare and contrast cultural differences in order to respond artistically and think critically,” Zale said. Individuals come to demonstrate awareness and knowledge of the interdependence of nations concerning issues of peace and prosperity, and power and privilege, she said.
SCC/Jim Hills
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