Have you ever lost your voice? Instead of your usual silky tone, outcomes what sounds like an engine without motor oil? It can be extremely unsettling to wake up one day and have your power of speech ripped from your precious vocal cords. But what can you do? You have to go to work, where people need to ask you questions and you’ll open your mouth only to have gurgling and raspy noises come out…attractive right?

As I was preparing for our first challenge’s presentation, where I would be speaking, I was battling a case of the classic “voice gone missing,” syndrome. Good timing! Not only did I need my voice and speaking capabilities for the presentation but, I also love talking! Communicating my thoughts, feelings and ideas, engaging with those around me, making people laugh, also offering affirmations and providing advice, all things I love to do and are all actions that I could no longer do until my vocal cords returned to their normal vibrato.

During this time, I couldn’t help but think about a powerful slam poetry piece performed at this year’s TEDxDetroit by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley. The piece was called “Lost Voices,” and they cleverly and powerfully depicted what happens when someone deliberately takes your voice away. They stifle your power to speak your mind and share your experiences so all that is left behind is pain and a feeling of powerlessness. This happens when we try to speak for each other, instead of listening and actually hearing what another person is saying, we act like we know and thus immediately discount their first hand telling about their experiences and their own emotions.

Listening can be extremely hard. We might not like or fully understand what we are hearing, especially when the voice accounts personal stories of hardship and discrimination. The importance of listening could not have been clearer to me than when we, as a cohort, had a Deep Dive session with Lauren Hood. Lauren facilitates group conversations of race, privilege, and discrimination. Living and working in Detroit, it is vital that we understand the historic and current role race plays within the city. No matter how aware you are about the social constructions of race and how it interacts with policy and our daily lives, the most important thing you can do, is recognize your own privilege and what that means, and then listen. Too often, men attempt to speak for women and detail their experiences like they understand what it means to fear for your body. Too often, white citizens try to account for what black citizens feel and experience in their daily lives. Too often we try and speak for someone else’s experience, instead of actually hearing what that person has to say. As a white woman, my relation to race is very different from a black woman’s, and the most crucial thing I can do is to understand that I can’t understand, I can only empathize. Therefore, instead of speaking, I listen. By deliberately not using my voice and actively engaging and empathizing with what is being said, I can help curate a space where there are no lost voices.

Talking about race, privilege, discrimination and the like is not easy. It’s a difficult process because pain, misunderstanding, and tensions can be very high. So how can I make sure that I am never a person who takes someone else’s voice away? That I’m never the person who leaves someone else stifled and left to feel undermined and devalued? I wish I had all the answers to give to you; I wish I could write a simple how-to-guide detailing all the ways to never be insensitive. Unfortunately, I’m still working out that part myself. But what I can do is tell you how I try to be considerate when talking about and unpacking heavy topics such as structural racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and the like.

First off, understand that you can’t understand, but what you can do is empathize. How do you empathize you may ask? LISTEN! Really listen and engage with what someone is telling you, they are being vulnerable when talking about discrimination or any personal hardship so don’t criticize because you don’t understand. It’s ok to say that you don’t understand, but offer that confession with a sense of alliance. Be an ally. Eventually it’s alright to speak and engage in conversation, but never at the expense that you will take someone’s voice away. These are the mere guidelines I try to follow, not by any means all encompassing. There is so much more to be done and to be said and to be heard. At the end of the day, the important thing is that you try to engage in these conversations with compassion and empathy and the easiest way to do that is by listening to the voices that normally get lost or taken away. 

“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you. May not call God the same name you call God – if they call God at all. I may not dance your dances or speak your language. But be a blessing to somebody. That’s what I think.” Maya Angelou