"Where there's a man who has no voice, there I shall be singing." This is one of the beautifully poetic lines written by the great artist Jewel in her song Hands. The song has many great tidbits of wisdom but this one has often struck me as I sing this anthem to myself. This sentiment that some people need other people to be their voice is echoed again and again by service-loving individuals, advocates, and NGO people. The idea that some of us need to speak for others. I have reached a point in my life that this idea is very off-putting and when I hear others say their job is to speak for such and such a marginalized group, I often mentally respond with my favorite come back "Just go home." You are further perpetuating the cycles of dependency and 'voicelessness' you claim to war against, if you feel you are giving someone a voice. This may offend some, so keep reading to see why I make this statement.
I fully believe all people have a voice. The issue is not a lack of voice, it is that some of us choose not to listen (in the broadest sense of the word, not necessarily involving the ability to hear with your ears) or some people are not given an audience to hear their voice. This could mean language barriers; it could mean confidence barriers; it could mean those people have been so well-trained by cultural norms that they think they have no right to speak and thus do not; or they have cried themselves hoarse in the past without response, so they decide to save their energy. I have decided we need a new paradigm. Instead of being the voice for others, we need more people who will give others a seat at the table. We need to start asking, "Who will be your plus one?"
Perhaps this concept resounds with me because of the sheer number of friends I have getting married, all the wonderful cards asking who will be the plus one that I bring along. Or, maybe it connects back to my time in DC where I had the pleasure to attend a number of galas, fine dining, networking affairs that often provided the opportunity to bring along one more person. This, I think, is an approach we need to copy, since we cannot force people to listen.
As I talked about power and privilege in previous blogs, we see we each have our perspectives and we likely have our own groups with which we spend time (perhaps with those who hold similar perspectives). For some of us, there may be certain events and parties that we are invited to attend because of our power and affiliation (audiences that we can access because of our power and privilege). Instead of speaking for others, what if we start inviting those whose voices are not heard into those halls of power along with us and giving them an audience with whom they can speak?
An example from my own life... I have shared before that on a number of occasions I have been called on to be an interpreter for some of my Deaf colleagues. Though, not an ideal situation for a perfectionist with nothing but life experience to serve as training for such a task, I am often eager to take on the challenge (and at times create the challenge by lobbying to bring my Deaf colleagues along with me to meetings and events). Why? Because so often people say well-intentioned things like "It is so great for you to speak out for Deaf people since they can't do it themselves." Or "It is nice they have you to speak for them." Sure, the sentiment is often benevolent but my Deaf colleagues sure don't need me to speak for them. Many of them are equally, if not more opinionated than I and simply need to borrow my voice or ears (as some have before asked) so that I can make their language one that others will understand. Or, they need access to my audience. The limitation is imposed by the society in which they live, not inherent to their being.
A colleague of mine, also working in the NGO sector, has said numerous times "Guilt is a useless emotion." Thus, I write this not to chastise, as I, too, have likely used some of the phrases above and likely said even more offensive things. I simply want to propose a new approach and to draw attention to this issue for all of us who are lucky enough to have a seat at the table with those who have power and privilege. It is not our job to take on another's story or fight, we simply must give them the audience.
Who will you bring along as your plus one?
This post originally appeared on The Life and Love of Karen in August 2016.