I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately while reading about “critical consciousness” and the importance of “critical literacy” for youth, particularly in marginalized communities and communities of color. I have also been inspired by the example being set by young people involved with Special Olympics as they advocate for the end of the “r-word”. These young leaders know all too well that words have full and rich lives and dynamic capacity beyond letters and sounds. Young people with intellectual disabilities know what the r-word feels like – this word is not heard, it’s felt. One young woman with intellectual disabilities who I met last year actually has begun passing out cards when she hears the under-the-breath use, or even the overt use, of the r-word toward her. Her cards say “words hurt like fists.”
But, language is often much more subtle.
With all of this in mind, I began reflecting on some of the language we use working with young people, with communities and around social justice. And, while I will not go as far as to advocate the eradication of these terms, I do suggest we pause to reflect on their implied meanings (and compare with our intentions) before we decide if we wish to continue their use. I believe the language we have chosen in the examples below unfortunately frames our ultimate ineffectiveness in engaging our young people and building our communities.
“Youth are our future ... Youth are the leaders of tomorrow”
I know many adults use this language with the best of intentions, to demonstrate the optimism (or react to pessimism) for the future given the current state of things with youth. It is also used to validate our investment in young people today. But, why tomorrow? Why the future? Why would we even need to validate investment in our youth? With effective, ethical leadership and a breadth of transferable leadership skills fundamental to healthy individual development and critical for positive economic, social and cultural development, why would we wait to cultivate or to engage our youth and defer their leadership to some nebulous future? As I consider our most marginalized young people for whom opportunities to lead could be most transformative; for whom the empowerment of true leadership may be a positive feeling or a source of identity that can be found nowhere else in their lives; perhaps for whom an 18th birthday is celebrated as the realization of a future they never dreamed they would see, I cannot conceive of appealing to them to wait. I cannot conceive of informing them that the future (that they may not even imagine or believe they will actually live to see) will be their time to lead. Just wait ... When I hear this language and these appeals, I am haunted by Langston Hughes’ timeless question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
“Pass the torch”
This one builds on the whole “leaders-of-tomorrow” discussion above. The passing of the torch has somehow become synonymous with the attempt to light and link the gap between generations. And yet, when I work with adults, particularly those who are at an age most likely to be reflecting on work/life in a way to think about the torch, they also have repeatedly said “I am not ready to go out to pasture either!” In spite of the transactional language, adults don’t typically want to hand off the torch as much as bring new, younger folks into their work -- a demonstration of their understanding that systemic change is generational in its timeline. However, in attempting to pass the torch, adults have failed to realize that it is too often still about “their work” and still about the tools they used for “their work.” Instead of genuinely inviting young people into the work to build the work, to expand the toolsets, to update the language, the invitation feels more like (read in your best James Earl Jones voice) “come in young man and finish what I started, but be sure and do it how I did it.” In communities and in social change work there is a place for all people with all levels of experience and all with something to add. We don’t need to pass the torch; we need to expand the flame and, with it, ignite new flames.
“Give back to your community”
I really hope I never “give back” to my community, and I cringe when people offer that term in acknowledgment of my work. For me, the whole language of “giving back” too often implies my having transcended or moved beyond my community; or, at a minimum, that I owe my community something in return for something it provided me. Regardless, the concept of giving back implies a sort of transactional relationship (like the torch conversation) with community – an arbitrary system of debits and credits and finite means. Community is a function of relationships, not of this sort of transaction. Do I “give back” to my spouse, or my brother, or my mom, or my friends? That would seem odd and strangely mechanistic for a personal relationship. But, I also have a personal relationship with my community, which is comprised of potentially infinite other personal relationships. As such, an investment in my community is inherently an investment in myself. Shouldn’t giving and receiving, sharing, serving and investing be core to the actual definition of a community? If I am an individual member of a true community, aren’t I a part of this constant process? Let’s not focus on “giving back” to our communities; let’s just be part of them.
“A seat at the table”
In social change work, sometimes a “seat at the table” is given, sometimes it is won. In either case, if I get a seat I am likely pulling it up to a table still owned and ruled by someone else. If I am “given” the seat, aren’t I there at the table’s behest? If I “win” the seat, aren’t I there despite the table? Isn’t what I really want the re-creation of the very table itself? I don’t question the power or purpose of garnering a seat at the table as an incremental step toward change. This sort of inclusion, whether given or won, is a critical first step and we need to keep pushing for more seats for more people at more tables. I do wonder, however, in the 21st century, if the idea of getting a seat has actually lowered our standards, or anesthetized us against the real need for a systemic shift in the concept and purpose of the table itself. We can and should keep fighting for “a seat” but we must remain committed to building a new kind of table – our table.
These are just a few examples of the language I hear in conversations almost daily and to which we typically give no thought. We all just nod in familiarity without truly listening or understanding our words.
Perhaps we and our youth and our communities could borrow a strategy from my friend at Special Olympics and begin to pass out our own cards when we hear this and other language that just doesn’t work for us. If we really paid attention to language, what might our cards say?