A Voice for the Voiceless: Science, Social Justice, and Advocacy #ThinkBigDiversity
I’ve just returned from Korea and have stepped into an America that has masks removed. As an advocate for diversity and inclusion though both personal and professional work, I need to address some issues that speak to our current state of affairs. I have made the decision to speak up in places and spaces where I hear silence or whispers because there are so many people who need to know that they are heard.
Juxtaposing my science and social justice
A few weeks ago, I gave two talks with similar titles related to a “Voice for the Voiceless,” My keynote at Florida International University (FIU), “A Voice for the Voiceless: Why You and Your Research Matter for Civility, Science, and Social Justice” was inspired by an invitation that I’d received a week prior from the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland College Park where I am adjunct faculty. I had been asked to have an informal discussion with a group of doctoral students, and I decided to talk about the juxtaposition of my research and social justice. That discussion led to the building of an entire speech for FIU on the connection between being “voiceless” from a scientific perspective and being voiceless in the context of social justice. In the photo, you are looking down the throat at a top-down view of the larynx. The hole in the neck is called a “stoma” and is the physical, external location of where the larynx had been prior to removal. [Photo ref: Itzhak Brook.]
My speech science research was based on developing improvements for technologies that could serve people without physical voices. My past work has included examining speech patterns from people who are deaf and don’t speak with their voices, and studying people who have had a laryngectomy, or surgery to remove the larynx — or voice box that allows us to speak. In the case of the laryngectomee, the person who has had the surgery often due to cancer of the larynx, the removal of the larynx inhibits their ability to speak. Therefore, they need to have new ways to speak using alternative methods. (Examples include use of assistive technologies, or engaging another part of the body such as the esophagus to create the vibrations needed for speech.) In this case, people who are physically “voiceless” are assisted by others to help them have a voice. The various methods that are employed to help people to develop speech after being “voiceless” have been described by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) as difficult to use effectively “especially in rushed or stressful communication situations, requiring practice, and that some “disadvantages exist.”
Anytime one makes a link to cancer, it must be done with sensitivity and caution, recognizing there are distinct differences between an inability to speak that is manifested by physicality, and inability to speak that is caused by psychological intimidation. For the purposes of this post, I respectfully suggest that the definitions that are used to discuss the difficulties that laryngectomees experience as they are re-engaging with speech, can also be utilized to describe the feelings experienced by people who have not had agency to express their feelings about inequities … using one’s voice to speak for injustice can be difficult to use effectively “especially in rushed or stressful communication situations, requiring practice, and that some “disadvantages exist.”
I shared these words above at the talk at FIU in October, and I’ve talked about it with my students in Maryland and my “adopted” students at other schools. One of the students for whom I was a guest mentor in October wrote an article on her personal blog less than 2 weeks before the election to express her hurt at having her intelligence challenged by a professor. Tiffany Martinez’ post, “Academia, Love Me Back,” was received with a lot of support, particularly from students and faculty who were aware of that and similar types of situations that were happening around the country. The story was covered widely by a variety of media outlets such as BuzzFeed, the NY Post, and others, however it was the vitriol, name-calling, and pure hate that many expressed toward this beautiful young woman that really hurt. After being in her oral presentation and poster presentation sessions, and being a guest mentor at the conference, I’d had the honor to affirm her brilliance, and even congratulate her mentors back at her home university. Seeing comments from people who tried to discredit her, and break her down threw me into “Protective Mentor Mode” because our students aren’t in positions of power where they can effectively fend for themselves. In case one wonders, this is not just happening to students, we have colleagues, friends, and family members who are feeling voiceless, and powerless as well. They should not be vilified for feeling scared when they feel threatened. Fear is a real emotion, and it is not fair to tell people that they are imagining issues with which they are confronted in this new, bold society.
As a voice for the voiceless, I will not:
- Leave my brothers and sisters out there alone when people are dismissing their pain post-election. I validate that the pain and depression are real. The tears, whether they are visible to the masses or not, are present. The anger, whether expressed or surpressed, is raging.
- Send my students to schools that don’t have a supportive environment. Yes, we teach resilience, but I am not sending my beloved students and brilliant graduates into mine fields of inequity and hate under the guise of graduate school or faculty diversity.
- Ask my students to engage in academic exercises that don’t consider their physical and emotional health as a priority.
- Stop advocating for the health, safety, and participation of all people, from all backgrounds.
As a voice for the voiceless, I ask my friends and colleagues with voices to consider the following:
- Allow some time and space to process the “new reality” that people are facing as they navigate situations that are now overt, such as being called names, or seeing racial slurs splashed across their physical and virtual and virtual sacred spaces.
- Validate the pain when friends come to you seeking brave allies. Remember that they have probably expressed this to you before, so please know that it hurts when people act like it’s new or nonexistant.
- Be open to hear what people are feeling without dismissing it if it is different from your reality (this actually holds true for both sides, in red and blue states).
- It’s so important to acknowledge that the feelings of women in this election will vary across groups. There are some cross-overs (hence, intersectionality), but there are some things that are different, and will be felt and experienced differently.
- It’s also important to note that the feelings of Christians vary across groups. As an African-American Christian, most of the things that are being attributed to Christianity in this election don’t match what I’ve read in the Bible, nor what I’ve learned about Jesus (My Facebook post about that is here: https://www.facebook.com/renetta.tull/posts/10154625633312604?pnref=story)
- Recognize that doing the work of diversity within this climate is physically draining, especially when you are navigating injustices that have been hurled against you as well as shouldering the issues of others.
- Know that emotions from unjust situations that we’ve experienced may pour into our professional spaces even as we work to keep them at bay.
- Speak up to denounce injustices, whether those to whom the offenses are directed are in the room or not.
A student from Tiffany’s university told me that he really liked this slide when I presented it at FIU, and students from UMBC, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, UNC, and Penn State also said that they liked it, so I will post it again here.
So as I write this, I am listening to one of my favorite Christian inspirational songs (by Chris Tomlin) for the 75th time in a row to keep me somewhat focused on my faith as I work today. The words speak to me still, and give me the courage and will to move forward, despite the uncertainty that seems to lie ahead.
I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we’re all searching
For answers only you provide
‘Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word.