Much of what I have learned recently came through reading books: a history book, how-to books on qualitative research, that one economics book, books on how the spiritual intersects with caring for others. And then there are all the words I’ve gratefully received from the people around me that work in the nongovernmental (NGO) sector. However, just because I’ve learned a lot doesn’t mean my application is on point.
In my first blog here, I wrote about learning that we ought to work “with” and not “for” the poor. In the world of education, it is easy to say, “Got it! I passed that test. I know that information. Let’s move on.” But good learning is so much more than that. These foundational pieces are meant to be built upon, not disappear. They are so important that we might have to check every once in a while and make sure the foundation isn’t cracking.
I considered sharing a poem I wrote recently called “Envision a Heard World.” In it, I basically critique the position that advocates for material things to be sent to those who need them, instead of also acknowledging their nonmaterial needs. I say that dignity never arrives in a box. So far so good. At the end of the poem, I wrote: “Please do not be deaf, too. / Hear our voices, / Close your eyes of self-determined vision / And hear our need to be heard.”
When I wrote this and read through it again the first few times, I saw nothing wrong with it. This time, though, I realized that I used my voice to cloud the voices of those who want to speak for themselves. Not good. In fact, that goes against everything I want to do and achieve. There is a time to advocate or speak on behalf of someone when you are acting as a mediator, but this is not an appropriate way of doing that.
One of the important things I learned in creative writing classes in college is that form needs to match function. If you are trying to say something, use a format that works with the point you are trying to make. I broke this rule when I used quotations in this poem, inserting my own power over the voices of those I did not even speak to. Those words were never said outside of my head. If I appeal to my audience in my own voice on behalf of others, perhaps that could be done in a way that does not trample on their own words.
So this is my confession. I am still learning and always will be. But I hope the cracks in my foundation are being filled with good cement so that I can build and advocate in a way that reflects the people I’m trying to love. This is also my warning, a little piece of advice to myself and others: don’t let words like this slip in through the back door of your mind and out of your mouth or onto a page. Yes, speak for yourself. And speak with others and sometimes about their stories when appropriate. But do not speak for them. They are capable of that. And if they need a megaphone, maybe your role is just to hand it to them without saying a word.