BY JUDITHE REGISTRE
FOUNDER and PODCAST HOST
In this world full of resources, if you find poverty upsetting, inequality appalling, and rampant injustice unacceptable, you might be moved to take action.
You may identify one of the root causes of these ills as people's own lack of personal advocacy, and so you may decide to become that advocate. You might decide that the solution is to be their voice, speak up, and speak for those who are not speaking for themselves. You may declare yourself “the voice for the voiceless.”
Such a calling is commendable—even noble. Working on behalf of society’s most marginalized is a commendable act, worthy of recognition.
But is declaring yourself "the voice of the voiceless" the right solution? I don't think so. In fact, it may only serve to propagate the problem.
We have accepted this constructed class of people called the "voiceless" without challenging its origin or relevance for our mission. The "voiceless" is a socially construction class, and we affirm it every time we claim to be “a voice for the voiceless.” We cannot continue to do this. We must challenge the assumption upon which this idea is based to move from limited symbolic gestures to systematic changes.
Congo and the turning point
A defining moment in my career into understanding the complexity of the “voiceless” was marked by my time working in in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Having studied philosophy and worked in social economic development and being originally from Haiti, I was acutely aware of the power of stories. I knew how the narratives of countries and people shape our perception of the people and the people’s perception of themselves. Still, like most people outside the Congo, I had gotten swept up in the uncomfortable and dangerous “Congo narrative”-—that is, the narrative of Congo as the heart of darkness, the rape capital of the world. In the Congo narrative, the Congolese people became minor characters, then faded away completely. In such narratives, we mark a people by the atrocities enacted by a few in stories written or told by others who are either disconnected or removed from the place or who lack the desire to understand and appreciate the full complexity of the place and its people. (This, as Chimamanda Adichie points out in her popular TED Talk, is “the danger of the single story.”)
During my two-year tenure in DRC, it was one mandate of my job to amplify to the world the stories of Congolese women—women who had survived war, who were severely traumatized, and who had experienced inhumane, inconceivable horrors.
I agonized over whether or not I was the right person for this job. How could I express the brutality of these women’s experiences without making them and their country the objects of pity or shame?
My final task, I learned through the process, was not to be the voice of the women in telling their stories, but to support them in telling their own. In the end, I realized that the power and nuance of our stories is best captured when told in our own voices.
Reimagining the power structure
The desire to act as a voice for the voiceless has only good intentions. At its core, it is simply a desire to help people.
However, before we take on that mission of being voices for the voiceless, we should ask ourselves: Why? Why is it necessary for me to speak on behalf of these people? What do I have that they don't? What makes me qualified to tell their stories and be their voices? Why aren't they present to tell their own stories?
To have a voice is to have power. This is something that we understand intuitively. Power shapes our everyday reality, both internally in our perceptions and externally in the world. It is something that we embrace without realizing we are embracing it, and it is something to which we cling dearly, consciously or not, because to be without it is to be ignored and be invisible.
By affirming the position of being a voice for the voiceless, we are reaffirming and propagating structures that say certain voices, certain lives, are valued over others. As we cling to this belief and practice, we reinforced our status and affirm and reaffirm voicelessness.
In order to truly change the lives of those considered "voiceless," we need to fundamentally let go of the idea and the practice by systematically challenging the concept of voicelessness. We must accept that everyone has a voice, and then we must work to support environments in which all of our voices can be used and heard.
Letting go to let all voices rise
If you have felt compelled by the mission to be the voice for the voiceless, it is not so easy to simply let go of the idea. However, doing so is necessary if we are to to find real solutions to the problem of voicelessness.
As we refocus our efforts and start working instead on ways to ensure that all voices are heard and begin creating new realities and new possibilities, the payoff will be immense. Once we change the lens through which we view poverty, and once we fix the foundation upon which the class of voicelessness is created, we will be able to build sustainable solutions.
The fact is that no one is voiceless. All men and women—no matter what status they are assigned in society—have voices, and they all have power. The problem is that our societies are not built to support the voices or power of everybody. And that is what we must focus on. We need to create societies where everyone can speak for themselves—societies in which all voices can be heard and carry equal weight. Not in the form of symbolic representation, but in actual substance. (For a demonstration on how we can debunk the myth of the "voiceless," see Women and Girls Lead Global's recent film Girls Connected, which features five young women from five different countries narrating their own stories.)
To be clear, letting go of our power does not mean giving up the fight against injustice. Far from it. When we have the privilege of power and influence and can see that others are being denied their rights, we can continue to speak out against injustice. But even in those circumstances, even when fighting for those who are too terrorized to speak, our end goal should be to work and change the environment that has imposed the silence.
It’s also important to stress that getting people’s stories out and being their voices are not one in the same. There is a place for getting people's stories out, as long as we bear in mind that the goal is never to be their voices. The goal is to transform communities, societies, and institutions so that they become spaces where all voices are valued and respected.
Novelist Arundhati Roy notes, “There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” At Inclusivus, we are committed to transforming how we understand power, voice, and agency in efforts to realize sustainable social change. Let’s create space to share and tell our stories. The details of your story are too important to be told by anyone but you. No one is better equipped to tell that story than you, and no voice is more powerful and accurate than your own. Wouldn’t you prefer to tell your own story? Wouldn’t you prefer to create a world where that is the only option available?
Let’s put down the burden of being the voice for the voiceless so we can create more meaningful, sustainable, and transformative change.