We have become taken with the expressions “being a voice for the voiceless” and “giving a voice to the voiceless.” But, are people really voiceless?
In reality, they don’t need us to be their voice. What they need is for more people to really listen.
We often like to be seen as a champion for justice. We like to think that we are sharing other’s stories with our own voice. What if, instead, we took a moment to listen? What if we offered our ears instead of our voices? For a moment, be a student instead of a champion. It’s easy to assume we understand someone’s situation, their past, their trauma. We likely do not.
When we become a voice for the voiceless, we are inserting our own opinions into their story. We end up speaking over them. We end up shouting our own view without first listening to their experiences, their needs, their voices.
Instead, we need to give voice to the voiceless. There’s a difference and it’s a big one. Giving voice to the voiceless requires listening to them, learning form them, and amplifying their voices over our own.
The sort of righteous anger we feel when we hear about injustices is a good thing! And, all of this isn’t to say we should never speak out. Our voice is important at the right times. Bringing these issues to the world’s attention is often the first step in the right direction. There are people out there who are hurting. They need help. They need people to carry their cries further than they can. There are certainly times to speak up and we should not remain silent in the face of injustice.
Jesus’ parable about giving the seat of honor away at the table is an interesting one. It’s often interpreted as being about humility; and it is. But, humility is a tricky thing. It doesn’t always look like you think it will. Sometimes, it means investing your energy into giving a platform to someone else rather than taking the platform for yourself.
Jesus asked questions. He listened carefully to the answers. He didn’t go around lecturing the poor or talking about them ignorantly. Rather, he spent 30 years living among the people before he ever opened his mouth publicly.
“What they really need is for us step out from behind the microphone, make room at the table, and give them a chance to speak.
“In the end, being a ‘voice for the voiceless’ can do more harm than good. Because here’s the thing: the ‘voiceless’ already have voices. What they need is not someone to tell their story for them—they need to be empowered to speak, an audience to hear them and a community that supports them.” SOURCE
When we speak for people who may prefer to speak for themselves, we reinforce their “voicelessness,” we marginalize them all over again by muting their own voices.
Working with survivors of human trafficking taught me that my voice is not always what they need. These individuals are already telling their stories. Their stories come from a place of vulnerability and have the potential to make a real impact. They are the story. They have the voices. What they don’t have is the means to be heard. What if instead of speaking for them, I looked for ways to amplify their voices?
My journey as Daughter of Charity gives me the extraordinary opportunity to remember my fundamental vocation: to be close to the poor, to hear their cries, and to be the presence of God. God is listening to them through my ears. God is helping them through my hands, my compassion, my systemic action, my advocacy. Sometimes, this means putting my best intentions aside so that the vulnerable can take the spotlight.
Written by Sister Michelle Loisel, D.C.