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Everyone has a voice

April 15, 2012

Last year, a group of bloggers hosted a counter campaign to TOMS shoes “One Day Without Shoes” called “A Day without Dignity.” This year the campaign is back, focusing on the work of “Local Champions.” According to the organizers, this year’s theme “was chosen to show an alternative to awareness raising events that often focus on Whites in Shining Armor at the expense of the dignity of the people they’re trying to help.”

I want to take this opportunity to talk about an idea that seems to be prevalent among those working with the poor and underprivileged. I often hear reporters, people, and groups say they are “giving a voice to the voiceless” or “speaking for those that can’t speak for themselves.” There are even organizations that brand themselves in this way: think Invisible Children. The problem is that this notion is wrong, disrespectful, and hurtful to those that are cast in this light.

Why? Because there are NO voiceless people. There are NONE who are invisible.

You may never have heard of a certain war, or seen these abducted kids, or heard this people’s story, but that doesn’t mean that those people are invisible or without a voice. It just means that you didn’t know.

Instead, by saying that someone is voiceless or invisible, you are stating that they are incomplete without you. That they need you in order to be whole. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To be presented as something less than you are is humiliating, degrading, and defeating. This is the exact opposite of what these groups say they are trying to do. We must realize that our choice of words and how we frame them has a direct effect on how we and others perceive a group of people and may even effect how that group of people view themselves.

The idea that someone is voiceless or invisible and that you, as an outsider, are needed to give them voice or make them visible is a very imperialistic suggestion. Amanda Taub speaks to this:

I have had it up to here with people claiming to be “giving voice to the voiceless,” or that their own writing is allowing someone else to “speak.”   I get that it’s just a cliche, but it seems to me that the by “voiceless”, we mean “this person is too poor/foreign/black/underprivileged to speak for themselves.” And “giving voice” seems suspiciously similar to “graciously filtering the story through my own privilege so that the the elements I think are important will become palatable.”

Our job as outsiders should never to be to “give a voice to” or “speak for” others. Instead our job should be simply to amplify what locals are already saying. People can speak for themselves. A great example of this is the new website Uganda Speaks. For us to think that this is our job is absurd.

That is not to say that we as outsiders must stay silent. We can share our own experiences and talk about what is happening in the global south, however, we cannot fall into the trap of framing it as giving a voice to the voiceless.

Those we say we are helping deserve to have their agency kept intact and to be shown dignity and respect. We must see them and present them in the same light in which we ourselves would want to be seen and presented. Anything less is unacceptable.

To see all the posts and articles written in response to the campaign, check out the website or follow the hashtags #LocalChampions and #Dignity2012 on twitter.

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