Why is it so hard to be heard? In the line of communication, where do our voices get lost? If we speak out against hate, disparity and prejudice, how far is our voice actually carried? Why are some voices given priority over others? What can we do to allow everyone the equal chance to step onto the platform and speak their truth?
These are some questions I have been reflecting about in the past few weeks. Thinking about others’ voices and my own.
So, what do I mean by “my voice?”
My voice is MY opinion.
My voice is MY own personal experiences that no one needs to validate, except for myself.
My voice is MY desire to seek change and prosperity.
My voice is MY outlet for loving and supporting those in my life.
My voice is MY public projection of who I am and what I think.
I should be free to use my voice and not suppress what I think and feel. But in a world that polarizes more and more each day, I often choose the easier choice of keeping quiet and not polluting the world with just one more loud voice.
Recently I have been struggling with the action of using my voice and not being afraid to speak my own truth. As a person who hates conflict and heated debates, I often steer away from telling my whole truth and revealing exactly what I think. Well I am known to say how I feel about something if it impacts something greater than myself, when it comes to every-day decisions I often choose to go along with the opinions of those around me and reserve how I truly feel.
Yet while I encourage my students everyday to be bold and confident in who they are, what they are feeling, what they are learning and where they are going, I often struggle with this myself. Yes, I am an empowered, capable, passionate, confident woman who has been given the agency and opportunities to successful seek an excellent education and pursue my chosen career. But I am also a woman who struggles to say my whole truth in the event that someone would disagree or get hurt. I believe that there is a balance between using your voice and abusing the ears of others listening to your voice. In other words, attempting to destroy other peoples beliefs, and tear down the spirits of others is not the proper use of your voice. Instead you should seek mature discussion of issues and challenges, then seek transformation in your communities and spark change. But then again, that is just my opinion and my own voice telling you how I feel.
In order to feel that I can fully encourage my students to use their own voices, I am too seeking to demonstrate how I am using mine. Currently I am trying to more bravely stand up for what I believe in and use my own voice to speak up against hate, violence and discrimination.
For example, there are so many things I see every day that have become a norm in my mind: street children asking me for money, boys walking with girls at night about to engage in prostitution, people living without proper access to nutrition, girls suppressing their voice, single mothers being ostracized from their family and society, girls missing school due to their menstrual cycle (being out for nearly a whole week or more), girls beating themselves up over being 20 and single without kids, mistreatment and misunderstandings of those who are mentally ill, and men constantly speaking over women in conversation. Sometimes I shock myself for how I have normalized what is going on around me and how it doesn’t infuriate me every second of the day. How I have assumed this stance of, “Okay, I would love to change this, but what can I do about this? Are you kidding me? Organizations with millions of dollars streaming into communities barely create a few ripples of change. In fact foreign development can often create more harm than good. So what can I do? Let my know when you find the answer.” Quite frankly one person does not change the world. In fact one person can barely change a community – let alone a person.
So when people back home tell me: “Oh good for you, sweety. You are changing the world. Go change the lives of those Africans. You will be so good for them. They are so lucky to have you there to empower them.” I am infuriated. Not only are there so many things wrong with this western-centric mindset, but I can’t believe this mindset is still being propagated in the United States when we have the means to know differently.
Firstly, my goal while I am here is to develop relationships and encourage my students to pursue the very best in themselves and in their society. By the end of my fellowship, I may have only impacted one student or one teacher, and it would have been well-worth my hard-work and dedication. The reality of international development is that I may never see my efforts come to fruition, or see the impact of my work.
Which leads me to the “changing the world” part of that phrase. The reality of international development is that the most sustainable developmental work comes from creating relationships with the local people and equipping local leaders with the agency to address the problems that they themselves see in their community. So when international agencies and donors seek immediate outcomes and data tables proving their work is “doing good,” often workers on the ground are rushed to find immediate solutions instead of meeting with community leaders and members to strategize the best answers to the community’s problems. An organization that combats the normal metholodogy of foreign aid is Mocha Club, and I highly recommend you look them up to see what this proces looks like.
Next sentence: “Go change the lives of those Africans.” Africa is a HUGE continent. HUGE HUGE HUGE. Congolese and Kenyans are so different in mannerisms, opinions and speech than Rwandans, and they are neighboring countries! You can not group Africans into a category. There are Rwandans, Nigerians, Egyptians, Moroccans, South Africans, and 49 more nationalities with people who have drastically different cultures and mindsets.
Lastly, I have a problem with the word “empowerment.” This word has been consistently misused in the field of international development and foreign aid. Counterpart International said it best in their recent article, “Banning the Phrase ‘Empowering Others’”:
“Empowering is giving authority or power to someone to do something. International development organizations do not have power to give to citizens. And talking about us as an organization empowering people robs them of their agency to take control of their own lives and claim their rights.”
What if as Western nations we stopped using the word empowerment, and began to support leaders in communities to obtain transformative agency that would equip others with the means to change their OWN lives? What would we call that? Possibly, it would simply be called sharing resources, education and opportunities? Maybe we would see the real solution to be participating in humanity by seeking peace, security and happiness for all. What do you think?
I hope this blog post sparks a new conversation between you and your family members and friends. I encourage you to bravely seek your own voice but to never lose sight of practicing empathy for those in your life who have contrary opinions to yourself. Once you find your voice, encourage others to find theirs! It’s a big ask, but you won’t be alone; I’ll be working on it with you. And with time we may just be able to create small seeds of change and steer the conversation of development towards new directions.
On the bus ride from Kigali to Rwamagana.
On Safari in Akagera Game Park!
Visiting the Kibungo Girl’s Soccer Team!
Helping my friend Lily set up at the market.
Visiting a friend’s home, Jean Claudine, with my friend Meredith.