Listening for Unheard Voices

Posted on December 28, 2013


In my work with people with disabilities over the past 34 years, it took me about 30 years to realize the extent to which the dominant society has silenced the voices of the dominated, i.e. the oppressed.

When I say “listening for”, I mean something very different than simply “listening to”. Listening toImage someone means that they are audibly talking to me and that I must focus my attention to hear what they are saying. This is not always easy because of the nature of communication and words. We must learn to listen, not just with the ears, but also with the heart to the meaning behind the words. BUT “listening for” means that the voices may not be speaking to me, that they may not be speaking audibly at all. But we all speak in many ways. Every action we take speak loud and clear about what is within. What I have learned is that a voice that has been silenced may no longer be speaking audibly but it continues to speak quietly and nonverbally. Hearing this outcry of the heart is not easy and takes great discipline. But we must learn to listen, especially to the lost voices of society; the homeless, the disabled, the prisoners, the hungry, and those that are just “different” in background, race, culture, values, and creed. Why is it that unthinking humans demand that all people be like us?

Oppression is a form of violence. But at the roots of all oppression is the lack of choice. Choice is limited or denied by those other than oneself (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere). I am the only person that has the right to limit my choices that fall within my inalienable rights as a human being. If someone were to try to limit my choices (as a privileged white male) I’d be very pissed off and not allow it. Yet we turn around and do this to those that are “lesser than”. Please understand that the quotation marks refer to the fact that this is an absurd lie that we allow ourselves to believe. We truly are all equal and each person should demand the dignity and respect that any human being deserves.

I was largely unaware of institutionalization of people with disabilities. But as I heard the stories, listened to the voices, I was appalled that “normal” human beings could treat other human beings with such extreme disregard; for all practical purposes, throwing people away. This history was not taught in school. And when it was talked about among professionals, it was mostly an intellectual activity. But the stories coming from people with disabilities brought to life the reality of the oppression that was so common place.

Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to hear voices from other “silenced” groups. I am seeing more and more that there are clear intersections of dominance and oppression across society in so many groups of people that are deemed “lesser than”… Please let me know if you see familiar themes in your sphere of experience in other areas that we create systems to serve; homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, welfare, mental illness, criminal justice, education, rehabilitation, health care, and religious systems. For within each of these systems, structural inequality resulting in discrimination exists; powerfully, yet quietly.

The shocking realization (beyond the realization of the oppression and suppression of voice and choice) that came more recently was the extent that those voices have been silenced. Sure, in America we allow freedom of speech. But when a person speaks out over and over and over, and their voices are disregarded, eventually they grow weary of speaking out, feeling ultimately alone in their oppression, the struggle for self determination. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an intentional silencing. This is a sort of residual silencing that systems create unknowingly. Why? How? That’s what I’ve been wondering. There are many reasons beyond my limited understanding. But here are a few reasons that have reared up and stared me in the face. Of course we only see what we look for, so I am sure they have been staring me in the face for a long time. But hearing unheard voices has opened my eyes and allowed me to look for something I had no idea was there.

Here are reasons that I can now see:

1) Systems are designed to do a certain “good work” and then to sustain it so that the good work will continue into the future. That really is the only reason that we organize into systems, organizations, and institutions. So we hire good little doobies that’ll will fit into that system, be good little cogs in the machine, and carry on the work that they are told to do. There is no room for anything beyond compliance. Systems must be joined with community for quality to be realized.

2) Limited resources: systems, by design, are part of the economic system which is limited. There will never be enough time, and money does not allow creativity and innovation to be a priority. These things just do not make the agenda.

3) Limited capacity of the professional: due to the size of caseloads, in order to sustain the work, nothing beyond compliance can be accomplished. Hiring does not include hiring for innovation and creativity because of the higher level of thinking, understanding, and life experiences these skills require. In order to sustain the work, the salary to hire staff with this capacity is a limiting factor.

For fear of dominating this post by system talk, I want to refocus on the unheard voice. But from a  large picture perspective, let me say this; systems were never designed to meet all the needs within our communities. Meeting those needs must begin and end with community; with system taking their rightful place of filling the gaps designated by community that the community is not able to meet. Specializations like medical care, therapies, rehabilitation, and coordination are necessary professional activities. But only after community has been engaged to the greatest extent possible. Creating a meaningful life and engaged citizens cannot be done by professionals. This is the job of community. Creating and expanding circles of friends and family is critical.

The unheard voices, why are they so important? They are critical to understanding the need. From my place of privilege; whether racially, economically, racially, or religiously, I simply cannot see without listening for the unheard voices. Person Centered Planning is designed to begin with the person and their needs and not begin with the programs that systems have designed. Programs may or may not meet the need. But we cannot begin with an efficiency that serves the system; like a program. Voice, self expression, self determination is where we begin. When I first began to realize this, it was a realization that happened alongside the people with which I was working daily. As I began to realize how much I do not know, I saw that was good. I should not “know” for others. I must listen and strengthen voice. Too often people are limited by the thinking of others more than by their own limitation.

Self-defined limitations are real. Imposed limitations are simply efficiencies and conveniences of a limited system; a form of oppression that limits the voice and choice of other human beings.

How dare I challenge the voice of a person from any group that has been targeted (whether intentionally or unintentionally) for discrimination and oppression in our society? If we work in the field of peace and justice, or in the field of human services, we tend think that we are then qualified to speak for those that are “lesser than”. This, my friend, IS the injustice for which we are working to overcome. Why do we so often get in our own way? Why do we so often try to be the voice of others rather than be the change we want to see in our world?

We must earn the right to be an ally of each and every unheard voice by first listening. Then by advocating for them (in their voice), and then by strengthening their voice so that their voice of self advocacy is the voice that resounds throughout society… not ours. Our proper place as allies, professionals, and advocates is to listen and to follow… as a friend.

“We do not listen. There are too many noises about us; inside us, there is too much talk, too much questioning, too much demanding, too many urges, compulsions. We have so many things and we never listen to any one of them completely, totally, to the very end. And if you would kindly so listen, you will see that, in spite of yourself… the perception of what is true, comes into being.” J. Krishnamurti, Bombay, 1st March 1964

“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

“I now understand what Nelle Morton meant when she said that one of the great tasks in our time is to ‘hear people to speech.’ Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken—so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence.” ~ Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

‎”‘I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.’ I still believe this. I still believe that if we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good.” (Margaret Wheatley)

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”
Fran Lebowitz

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)