Imagine sitting around a conference table with seven other people from North Carolina who have different backgrounds and political viewpoints from you. Could you find common ground? Would you argue? Would you learn something?
This is exactly the situation in which Lee Griffin, UNC Greensboro biology research specialist, found herself during a weekend in the summer of 2023. Griffin was selected to be a part of a forum of eight North Carolinians as part of PBS’s The NC Listening Project. Not only would she be discussing controversial topics with her co-panelists, but the discussions would be filmed and aired for the public to see in a series that premieres on Thursday, January 4 at 8:30 P.M. on North Carolina PBS stations.
The Listening Project is the brainchild of PBS North Carolina’s CEO and General Manager David Crabtree.
“Americans are more divided than ever. PBS North Carolina wants to bring people together to talk through complex topics and learn from one another,” says Crabtree. “Even when we strongly disagree, we can be respectful of others and treat them with empathy. PBS North Carolina is committed to empowering all communities by offering opportunities where we can grow and better understand one another.”
Crabtree attends North Carolina Board of Governors meetings with UNCG professor and chair of UNC faculty assembly, Wade Maki. At one of those meetings, they struck up a conversation about The Listening Project and Crabtree asked Maki for recommendations for the show’s panel.
“David wanted to find real North Carolinians representing a range of experiences who were also unique individuals,” Maki said. “I immediately said ‘Oh, you’re looking for Lee Griffin.’”
Griffin was interviewed for the show by Simon Greer, a nationally known social change leader who has spoken publicly about the need for Americans to engage in deep listening, before meeting with Crabtree.
The selection interviews focused on Griffin’s background and informed her that the point of The NC Listening Project was to listen to differing viewpoints – not just argue your own point – and serve as an example for viewers who want to engage in better communication with others.
“I must have said the right things and held my mouth right,” Griffin recalls. “Because in literally eight minutes, Crabtree asked if I wanted to be part of the show.”
Hear ye, hear ye!
Other than agreeing to a shared commitment to listen to other North Carolinians with different beliefs and worldviews, Griffin arrived for filming without any idea what to expect.
“They put us up from Friday night to Sunday afternoon in a hotel on High Point University’s campus,” Griffin explained. “We didn’t know until we got there who else was picked for the panel or how many of us there would be.”
Upon arrival, Griffin and the other panelists participated in a few icebreakers to get to know each other. The group was comprised of adults of differing ages, genders, professions, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds with the common ground that they all reside in North Carolina.
Speaking from Experience
As they began filming segments the next morning, Griffin quickly gathered that she would be both the listener and the voice at the table that represented many groups.
“I was the only African American, and the only openly queer person on the panel,” she explained. “With 11 years in the military, I also spoke from that perspective, and I represented professionals in academia.”
The group discussed topics like gun control, book banning, and first amendment rights, and Griffin was pleasantly surprised at how well the panelists interacted.
“It was nowhere near as vicious as it might have been,” she recalled. “Although I don’t want to be the spokesperson for any of the marginalized groups that I’m a part of, I do believe that people need to hear what one of us has to say.”
Listening and Learning
Griffin made connections with other participants like a Haywood County firefighter from western North Carolina. “We thought at first that they had cast us to antagonize each other. But we had more in common than our appearances suggested. We got along great and still text each other.”
Other panelists shocked her with their candid statements. “I wasn’t exactly surprised that certain things were said, but I was surprised by who said them.”
In the end, Griffin was proud to be a part of a project that encourages listening. She hopes that people across North Carolina will tune in and learn from the series, which is set to air on Thursdays beginning January 4. Watch them all on pbsnc.org.
“I’m still that person who can get along with anybody as long as they try to get along with me,” Griffin said. “I know that there are people who are not going to agree with me, and that’s okay, but it’s important to figure out how to enjoy them as a person and come to a simple détente about your differences. As a University of North Carolina system employee and representative of UNC Greensboro, if I didn’t think I could advance the cause, I wouldn’t have done it.”
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Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photo and videos courtesy of PBS North Carolina.