Attentive Communities; Communities that listen to their lonely people



There is a crisis in listening around loneliness and lonely youth that cannot be fixed solely by professionals. In fact, this crisis demands a new role for professionals in our communities, whether they be counselors, educators, clergy or cultural leaders such as Chiefs or Elders. The new role is to build relationships between those who are experiencing loneliness with an attentive community and simultaneously from the community to the lonely. 

I began developing the concept of attentive communities while working with incarcerated youth in the State of Washington decades ago. My primary focus was to prepare volunteers in the community to spend time listening to youth and to create classes on values using appreciative inquiry. 


Two very important learning truths for those who are adolescents or trapped in typically adolescent behaviors are:

1.They learn more “with” than “from.”

2.Questions are more important than answers at that stage of development (perhaps at all times of our lives).

I used to call our community members, “mentors,” but have changed that terminology following a quote from the book, White Awake, the author states,

“We changed the name of the adult position from mentor, which had been in place for many years, to listener. We weren’t denying the need to have stable mentors who would become part of the larger adult network surrounding these young people. But by changing the name to listener, we acknowledged that the adults needed to learn too. By listening to what these young people were experiencing and by coming to understand how they were navigating challenging circumstances, adults were entering into a relationship that was as transformational for them as it was for the young people.”1


It was almost inevitable that after two or three visits from a community listener, youth would ask, “Why do you even care about me? You’re not paid to be here…

“You’re not paid to be here…”that’s a statement of deep yearning for a young person often surrounded by paid professionals. It’s not unlike the disclaimer I hear from my own children when I praise them, “Yeah, but you’re my father.” Many times, I’ve heard a youth say to a caring staff member, “Yeah but you’re paid to be here.”

No matter how caring the adult professionals, the youth discounts their presence and words because the relationship is transactional from the youth’s perspective.


Youth that do not have healthy adult relationships outside of family and paid professionals in their lives are lacking in a crucial element of adulthood. Social Capital. 

In our Group Homes it is a critical role of the staff, to help expand the social capital of our youth. This means actively—agressively—seeking volunteers in the community who will listen and encourage our youth to grow and deepen their values and their goals (we call them Areas of Mastery).


1White Awake; An honest look at what it means to be white, Daniel Hill, InterVarsity Press, © 2017 by Daniel Hill, pg. 180


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