Listening to the City: Engagement, Exploration + Intervention through Sound

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Conference addresses how sound can be used to create community change

Listening to the City

On May 20 I attended a conference, “Listening to the City: Engagement, Exploration + Intervention through Sound,” hosted by the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), LA Listens, and the Design Studio for Social Intervention. The convening was designed for activists, artists, residents, researchers, students, teachers, and community practitioners with an interest in sound as a creative mode of inquiry, a tool for democratic engagement, and a means for social change.

Through hands-on workshops, performances, panel discussions, field trips, and other types of interactive sessions, presenters from as close by as Bostonand as far away as Zambia demonstrated how sound can better prepare us to understand, empathize, and engage with the complexities of our urban environments.

As an audio artist who creates city soundscapes and radio dramas highlighting aspects of women’s empowerment in the Twentieth Century, I was awed at the opportunity to participate in this event and connect with others doing related work.

The opening panel, entitled “Listening for Community Change,” was a fascinating overview of the field of soundwalks and their potential for understanding communities and promoting social justice. According to Wikipedia, “a soundwalk  is a walk with a focus on listening to the environment.”

Panelists included:

Moderator Wendy Hsu of LA Listens asked panelists to share something about their work, including an “Aha moment.” All said that they learned how much could be learned by just listening and not immediately responding or trying to make meaning.  Kenneth Bailey described his experiences as an artist-in-resident in Israel, talking with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Muka Kamala talked about the radio programs created by youth about topics of importance to them and the power of bringing mothers together to listen to and discuss the programs. Jennifer Stoever shared the realizations experienced by her students when they share their experiences of creating soundscapes in different neighborhoods and learn that others in class experience the same neighborhood differently depending on gender or race.  

Shaw Pong Liu shared work from her 2016 City of Boston Artist-in-Residence project, Code Listen, which  prototyped ways that music could support healing and dialogue around gun violence, racism, and police practices, in collaboration with the Boston Police Department, local musicians, teen artists (including incarcerated youth) and family members surviving homicide.

Attending this conference was a moving and mind-expanding experience that will have a great impact on my work with sound and social justice.