Listen first, I dare you

Hailey Echan, Features Editor

Illustration by Micky Flores-Nieves

Stop assuming you have the power to ‘give someone a voice.’

The problem isn’t that people don’t have a voice. Everyone has a voice because everyone has a story. Even if someone can’t physically talk, they have experiences and wisdom and failures and hope; therefore, they have a voice. They bring something to the table.

The problem is, not enough people are listening.

With a constant fight within humanity for voices to be heard, there is too much noise and not enough silence.

Many times I have come across someone who has the heart of an advocate and wants so badly to fight on behalf of a specific individual or people group. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I highly encourage it. But, believe it or not, there is a way to do more damage than good when advocating for someone.

While I believe that most people who spend their time advocating have their hearts and minds in the right place, some don’t realize the damage they are doing. By stepping up and claiming they are giving someone else their voice, they are claiming that those people don’t have a voice in the first place. Not only that, but it’s possible their voice is one of the many drowning out the voice of that individual or group.

The claim of giving a voice to someone is more demeaning than empowering. If I am advocating for someone, the goal shouldn’t be for me to be praised for using my voice to give someone else a voice. That’s missing the point.

There are too many voices.

Sure, use your platform to share the stories of others, but let their voices be heard. There is a time to speak, but let’s not forget there is also a time to listen. The phrase “give a voice to the voiceless” focuses on the wrong thing. It gives people a way out. It says “I am doing the work for this person or group of people, so you don’t have to do anything.” The point of advocating and fighting for justice is to promote change, right? So why do we think the change ends with getting their voice out there?

It doesn’t.

That is where the work just begins. Advocates need to focus more on how to get their people’s voices to be heard.

Now, heard is a relative term in my book. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to hear is “to have the capacity of receiving sound” or “to become aware of sound.” Although this definition is sufficient in the most basic context, it isn’t efficient when talking about everyone wanting “to be heard.” An alternate definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides a little more insight: “to listen with attention.”

There is a major lack of people listening with attention to the people who are being hurt by systems set in place. The call for change is a call for other people to step up to the plate. But sometimes stepping up to the plate means stepping back and simply listening. Of course, action is needed. But we need to listen first.

Stop assuming you have the power to ‘give someone a voice.’ Rather, assume they already have a voice and they need to be heard. That is where the work begins.