The idea of listening to voice — whether it’s youth voice, parent voice, worker voice, customer voice, voter voice, or otherwise — is predicated on the truth that without deliberately listening to specific people, they wouldn’t be heard otherwise. Why aren’t they heard already? Because they’re inconvenient voices for the person listening to them.
There have been voices that have been forgotten, shut down, locked out, thrown away and completely disregarded throughout the American democratic experiment. Because of the ways politics, economics, culture, education and other systems work, people in positions of power routinely neglect everyone who doesn’t fit conveniently into their line of sight. That includes those who appear powerless, inconsequential, disposable and otherwise small or little.
The reality that some voices are convenient and some are inconvenient is such a known factor that many leaders rely on it. The people who stand in front of businesses, governments, schools, and communities routinely expect that young people, Black people, GBLTQ+, low-income, undereducated, American Indian, underemployed, underinsured, Hispanic/Latino, and other oppressed people will not show up to be heard.
There are many tools that are proxies for our voices, including voting, spending, attending, Internet clicks, telephone calls and more. Those who are convenient — including adults, white people, heteronormative, middle and upperclass, educated, fully employed, fully insured, and others — conscientiously know to use these proxies for their priorities. As a matter of daily living, the convenient voices in our society know:
- Votes reflect values, ideals, dreams, hopes and desires;
- Spending shows priorities, intentions, action and outcomes;
- Attendance demonstrates commitments, courage, and connections; and,
- Clicks reflect their attention, showing what they believe in, what they stand against and where they belong.
Convenient voices in our society rely on these proxies, which is what makes them convenient to leaders who rely on them. This is why leaders really don’t like inconvenient voices. Through the social, cultural, educational, economic and other forms of conditioning, many leaders believe that if you’ve never experienced being heard you’ll never expect to raise your voice.
…[M]any leaders believe that if you’ve never experienced being heard you’ll never expect to raise your voice.
The problem of many of these proxies is that they can be used as tools to oppress voices instead of uplifting them. Kept from voting, some people experience it as a futile exercise in disempowerment. Banks and lenders are increasingly labeling entire segments of the population as “failed consumers” who don’t make enough or spend enough money to be worthwhile to advertise to, open stores in, or otherwise serve through their products and services. When people don’t show up, others assign them to be lazy, apathetic or indifferent. Although everyone does it, many assume that too many other people waste time on the Internet doing nothing of use. All of judgment and derision this is oppressive. However, all of these acts are different types of inconvenient voices.
Inconvenient voice is unpredictable: it doesn’t do what leaders want, when they want it, or how they want to hear it. Inconvenient voices aren’t shared by people who leaders want to hear from and they aren’t expressed in ways leaders expect to listen. Instead, what makes these voices inconvenient is that leaders cannot anticipate exactly who is going to speak, when they are going to talk, what they are going to say, why they are sharing it, and how these voices matter.
The challenge isn’t how to make inconvenient voices more convenient. Instead, it’s how to stop many leaders from thinking of people as inconvenient, no matter what station in life they are from. The challenge is how to stop expecting representative democracy to be enough, and instead how to expect, insist and demand fully participatory democracy right now. The challenge is how to stop challenging people to speak in convenient ways, and instead learn to listen to what people are saying; how they are saying it; where it occurs; when it happens; and why it matters. Leaders shouldn’t interpret, translate or otherwise filter what is being said, either. Instead, simply listen, hear, feel, think and appreciate.
Inconvenient voices aren’t about the speakers; they are about the listeners. Are you ready to move stop seeing and treating people as inconvenient?