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Deconstructing “Voiceless”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with great speakers on an engaging theme. The only problem was the name:

“Tweets & Blogs: Voices for the Voiceless”

It’s a sexy title. It immediately conveys social networks, new tools and marginalized people. It speaks to the need to expand the conversation. And it’s the kind of title that will get university students to turn out .. and they did. The room had well over 70 people in it.

Here’s my problem: Have you ever met someone who is voiceless? I haven’t. I’ve met people who communicate through languages I don’t understand, who use sign language or speak with the aid of an electronic machine, but I’ve never met a person without a voice. Not in a refugee camp, slum or rural village, not at a guard desk or janitor’s station in a hall of power.

The real issue is not people being voiceless, the issue is not listening. By using the term “voiceless” we emphasize the (perceived) shortcomings of marginalized people rather than condemn the structural injustices that might prevent voices from being heard. New technology does indeed make it more possible than ever to amplify people’s voices. So the questions I am interested in are:

Why are some voices “heard” less than others? Who should be listening? How can we amplify voices that need to be heard – and who decides which voices are valuable or not?

All of these questions are particularly relevant to me this week, as I work on a full application for Project Einstein Indianapolis to the Knight News Challenge. Project Einstein Indy is a community media project training the young Burmese refugees in Indianapolis in photography and storytelling. Our goal is to facilitate dialogue between the refugee youth and their classmates, in a place where there has been a lot of tension and misunderstanding between different groups. We’re using photography to transcend the language barrier, to stimulate creative self-expression and as a tool for more deep connections.

More broadly, I hope our work at Digital Democracy can deconstruct the idea that people are voiceless, and instead, empower the youth and community groups we work with to amplify their own voices both locally and globally.

Despite Twitter, blogs and other social media, there are still too many people talking for communities rather than talking with them. I was incredibly privileged to join a youth journalism program called Y-Press at the age of 13 that trained me how to think critically and ask good questions. That training was reinforced by opportunities to interview young people around the world and produce journalism pieces that amplified their voices into mainstream media. Working at Y-Press taught me that young people have voices – it’s adults who don’t always listen.

***

Speaking of Twitter, the title of the panel also sparked a great conversation on the medium between Digital Democracy, Sam Gregory, Lina Srivastava, Audacia RayBrian Conley. Brian wrote his own blog post on the subject … check out it and the great comments.

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