By Adam Beyer
Sitting on a bus in Uganda, Pearce Godwin PPS’08 felt the urge to write. He had been following the political news from his home state of North Carolina and felt troubled by what he saw as increasingly vitriolic political rhetoric.
Those bus writings eventually became an op-ed titled “It’s Time to Listen” that ran in newspapers across the country.
“I just had a real sense of frustration with how inane it is that we aren’t able to listen to and consider other people, that we immediately jump to demagoguery because others see the world differently,” said Godwin.
That op-ed and a series that followed spurred him to found the Listen First Project. The organization hosts events across the country—in community centers, campuses and conferences—that promote dialogue and genuine conversations across boundaries. It also has chapters on nearly 20 college campuses.
“I had no idea that those midnight reflections on a bus in Africa would potentially dictate the course of my life and career,” he said.
The Sanford School of Public Policy played an important role in Godwin’s development, he said. Although he was not sure he wanted to study public policy when he first got to Duke, he quickly fell in love with it. Incidentally, it was also in a public policy course that he met his wife.
At Sanford, he saw constructive dialogue modeled.
“At Duke and in the public policy classes I had been very fortunate to partake in very lively, respectful and civil conversation and have professors who, regardless of their own political backgrounds, did a masterful job of maintaining objectivity and encouraging vibrant debates,” Godwin said.
Two of his favorite professors were Bruce Jentleson—who is the faculty sponsor for the Duke chapter of the Listen First Project—and Evan Charney.
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The Listen First Project sent representatives to the conventions of both political parties in 2016 and launched a “Listen First, Vote Second” campaign for election season.
Godwin interned for and eventually secured a job on the staff of N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole. However, he started only a few months before the 2008 elections and Dole was defeated in her bid for re-election. He soon transitioned to working at a political data firm that focused on micro-targeting. Micro-targeting helps campaigns tailor their messages to voters based on their individual interests.
He noted that his public policy coursework in statistics helped as they did research, conducted surveys and constructed models about voters across the country.
After working there for four years, he and his wife spent several months in Uganda volunteering for a Christian relief organization before returning to live and work in the Triangle. He found a job working at a marketing agency in Raleigh that wanted to do political polling work.
“I’ve always had this dual interest in politics and business with an overarching passion for communications and strategic analysis, so that can fit lots of things,” he said.
For a while, the Listen First Project was just a “Pearce in his pajamas” operation as he worked to get it off the ground. With the help of several public policy student interns, Duke was one of the first chapters started. Reaching college students is key to fostering a new generation of listening leaders, Godwin explained.
Godwin said that the LFP effort started to gain steam about a year ago as he connected with partner organizations, sent representatives to the conventions of both political parties and launched a “Listen First, Vote Second” campaign for election season.
There are two main components to LFP. The organization’s “Listen First Pledge” has been signed onto by thousands of people, Godwin said. “I will fully listen to and consider another's views before sharing my own. I will prioritize respect and understanding in conversation. And I will encourage others to do the same,” it reads. Second, the “Listen First Conversation” provides structure to holding a respectful dialogue.
Now, Godwin is an MBA student at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School’s weekend executive program. Among his classmates he has found a well of support for the project’s efforts.
It became clear to him that he had enough support both through his peer group and across the country to focus his attention full-time on LFP, which he was ultimately compelled to do by the tragic clash in Charlottesville, Va.
In April, Godwin will be hosting Listen First in Charlottesville, a weekend of conversations in the city at the center of national attention after white supremacist demonstrations in 2017. The event will feature the black surgeon who operated on the white police officers shot in Dallas, a former white supremacist, as well as numerous other speakers from a diverse array of backgrounds. The weekend, which will be nationally televised, is designed to both support healing in Charlottesville and inspire the rest of the country.
Godwin also developed a Listen First Coalition of more than 50 organizations coast to coast doing similar work. With that group and others such as Boston Public Libraries, he is leading the first National Week of Conversation April 20-28 with the Listen First message and pledge at its core. The Charlottesville event and National Week of Conversation are major steps toward Godwin's dream—a Listen First movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time.
“I’m part of something much bigger than myself,” he said. “In conversations—and the relationships they build—is hope for revitalizing America."