Getting Our Voices Heard

by Lane Wallace on March 26, 2018

So, I’m closing in on the last chapter of my book on voice. And yes, it feels like the last five miles of an ultra-marathon. But the March for Our Lives, this past weekend, in which hundreds of thousands of young people and adults gathered in some 800 events across the country to protest gun violence and demand better gun control laws, has too much to say about voice to let it pass without comment.

For starters, there’s nothing like half a million people raising their voices in solidarity, out loud and at the same time, to demonstrate the power of voice. Literally. But it also illustrates an important point about voice that doesn’t usually get as much attention.

When we talk about “Finding our authentic voices,” we often visualize it as an individual, and deeply personal, endeavor. Being “ourselves.” Answering to our own inner compass and guide. Some of the people who argue that authenticity is a bad thing, in fact (and yes, there are some who make that argument), generally say that it’s a selfish and narcissistic goal; contrary to values of community. But in truth, developing an authentic voice and getting it heard in the world is very much about community.

To be sure, there are elements in the process of developing an authentic voice that require solitude and reflection. We have to learn how to become more self-aware, so we can hear what our inner voices are telling us. We have to confront inner fears and demons, and question the assumptions we’ve made about ourselves and our lives. Our voices are also formed through our interactions with the world; events, experiences, or activities that affect us or resonate with us strongly. Often, in fact, we only learn what matters most to us when something happens to bring that value into sharp relief in our lives.

So where does community come into it? Well, sometimes, the communities we’re a part of–schools, churches, neighborhoods, families, and friends–help give us the opportunities or experiences that show us who we are, who we can be, and what we do and don’t care about. But beyond that, strengthening an authentic voice and getting it heard in the world depends greatly on having a supportive community to validate, amplify, and help us use that voice to have impact on the world.

Putting an authentic voice out into the world is a terrifying thing to do. By definition, it means we’re raising our voice about something we care about deeply, in a public fashion. And that means we’re going to expose ourselves to attack. Just look at the criticism leveled at the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They survived a mass shooting, for goodness sake. And yet, when they raised their voices in anguish, they were still met–at least from some quarters–with vitriol, attack, and condemnation. It may be possible to keep our voice strong in the face of that, if we’re standing all by ourselves, but it’s incredibly difficult. So having a supportive community is important to help us keep our voices strong, even in the face of attack or dissent.

But beyond that, if we want our voices to actually be heard in the world, it helps to have others speaking with us. The poet Marge Piercy wrote a wonderful poem called The Low Road that speaks to this very point. “Alone, you can fight,” she wrote, “but they roll over you.” She goes on to list what different numbers of people can do. Two, for example, can “cut through a mob,” and “keep each other sane.” A dozen “make a demonstration.” A thousand “have solidarity and your own newsletter; ten thousand, power and your own paper.”

Piercy didn’t add, but probably could have, that if a dozen can make a demonstration, a demonstration of 500,000 or more … can actually get the attention of Congress. Maybe. I remember being told in a college political science class that if you could pack the mall with people in Washington, D.C., you could change the world. It’s not actually quite that simple, of course. The second part of voice, far less fun or sexy than public demonstrations of solidarity, is the drudgery of persistent day-to-day follow up; using our voices, with others in a community, to lobby, organize, ring doorbells, drive voters to the polls, and whatever else it takes, and for as long as it takes, to exert enough pressure to make politicians react in a longer-term fashion.

It’s also worth noting that an authentic voice is a hard-won prize. There are many young people who don’t know what matters to them yet, because nothing serious has happened to them yet. In my book research, I visited schools around the country to find out what mattered, in terms of helping young women find and develop authentic voices. And while educators acknowledged that most teenagers still had “baby voices,” one of the themes that emerged was that almost all the teenagers who did have a strong sense of authentic voice had experienced hard or traumatic life events. When life gets deadly serious, we learn what really matters. Which is to say, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have the powerful voices they do because, sadly, they’ve earned them. And they are raising them not for their own enjoyment or satisfaction, but in service and commitment to others who have fallen, or might be the next to fall. It’s what community is all about.

There’s one other aspect of voice that Saturday’s march illustrated that I believe is worth noting, as well. And that is, although we may assume that bringing our voice into the world means speaking out loud, there are times when the most powerful way we can raise an authentic voice into the world is through silence. One of the most powerful moments in Saturday’s march in Washington D.C. was when Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, spoke. After giving a short speech and reciting the names of the 17 people killed in the shooting, she stood in silence, “with a flinty stare, tears streaming down her cheeks,” as the Washington Post described it, for the remainder of six minutes and 20 seconds: the same amount of time it took the gunman to carry out his attack.

Bringing an authentic voice into the world isn’t about self-absorbed indulgence. It’s about effort, honesty, and courage. It’s about making our losses count, and our visions real. It’s about not only the power of truth, but the power of community, as well. Sometimes, it’s about speaking up. And sometimes–sometimes very powerfully–it’s about letting our silence, and our tears, say what words are unable to express.

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