As we begin 2018, we will hear announcements from Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and other credible sources about the most important word from 2017. We do not have agreement among the experts as to the ultimate word of the year; however, reviewing the top words on their respective lists does remind us about the tone of our society, both nationally and globally, during the past year.
Locally, a small group of leaders in the nonprofit and public sectors spent some time talking about words last year too: words that we habitually use in speeches, meetings and grant applications. More specifically, the words and terminology we use to describe the people who we help. We challenged ourselves about the tone and messages relayed by the use of certain words. The conversations were uncomfortable, yet necessary. We all agreed that it is time for a new word.
In an era where we are intentional about highlighting the assets of all members of our community, it feels antiquated to refer to large segments of our community as disadvantaged or underprivileged. Although those terms might have been appropriately descriptive at some point in the past, we now have a more evolved understanding of the damage that can be caused to the psyche of a child, or even an adult, by labeling them as “less than” or “under” the rest of us. We need to find more respectful terminology.
I made up my own litmus test to confirm that it is time to retire those words from my vocabulary. I imagine standing in front of a room facing a crowd of people who need the services that I have to offer. Then I assess if I would feel any discomfort, or if I would think that I sounded condescending, if I looked them in their eyes and called them disadvantaged or underprivileged. I realized that I would not be able to call them by either word to their faces. Therefore, I will not do it behind their backs. I am now trying to use phrases like “children with untapped potential” or “individuals who are struggling financially.” Yes, these are more words, but they pass my litmus test.
I encourage LMR members and all of our community leaders to be mindful of your word choice. I am hopeful that the local conversations about changing the words we use to describe the people we help will continue and broaden to include more community leaders in 2018. The time is right.
Class of 2002