It’s a moniker we’ve all heard, “I am the voice of the voiceless,” people claim.
But it’s not true. I am not the “voice of the voiceless” and neither are you.
That’s a good thing. It means that instead of speaking for someone else, we get to listen; we get to learn and empower others to use their own voices.
For many years I’ve worked with various homeless populations.
I‘ve written stories and made observations based on what I’ve been privy to. It’s an honor that I hold nervously and delicately—afraid of misusing my position.
So please know this is not me imploring you to quit speaking out on behalf of those living in the margins; it’s rather a charge to stop and re-evaluate our motives.
Someone allowed us to ask questions. Someone invited us into their lives, their thoughts or their conversation. So when we take on a moniker such as the “voice of the voiceless” we are only furthering to draw attention to ourselves, silencing those we claim we’re helping.
We are told us in Proverbs 31:8 to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” These words are poignant and an admonishment not to be ignored.
There are certainly times in which people being oppressed or marginalized need someone to speak up for them. There are people who have been abused into fearful silence, but I believe it’s our job to help bring their voices out—not speak for them or worse, over them.
The reality is, very few people are in fact voiceless.
Writer, speaker and activist Shane Claiborne puts it like this in his book The Irresistible Revolution:
We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there drowning out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put their hands over their ears to drown out the suffering.
The problem with speaking for someone is that it can often come without fully engaging or speaking with someone. It’s easy and even noble to attempt to put ourselves in another’s shoes but dangerous when take that empathy and turn it into our own narrative.
A few years ago I was working with a homeless population in Los Angeles. For months we’d painstakingly planned an event to celebrate the opening of a new low-income apartment building we’d renovated. We had all the right people planning to attend, great food and fabulous entertainment.
When it came time to decide on a speaker someone suggested I take the stage. After some debate we agreed it would be powerful to tell the story of one of our new residents. I was a social worker at the time and knew backstory of most of our residents and felt confident I could do the job well.
I asked Victor, the resident I’d chosen, to share about how he’d feel if I spoke about him from up front. He readily agreed and we began planning my speech together. However, halfway through something hit me: “You do it, Victor, you share your story,” I said. He told me he couldn’t; he was too afraid. I told him he could and promised to stand next to him as he did so.
His speech wasn’t perfect. He mumbled and stammered; he forgot important parts and; he sweat through his dress shirt—but he told his story and that day became far more empowering than if I attempted to do it myself.
The temptation makes sense: When we care for those in the margins we want to speak out on their behalf. It’s important, however, that when doing so we do it wisely.
In Micah 6:8 we are implored to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”
Sometimes this humility looks like quietly listening, learning from those in the margins before speaking out. Other times it might look like giving up your well-meaning place in the spotlight in an effort to let someone else shine.
Let me be clear: Your voice is important, but it’s our responsibility to figure out when and how to best use it. Because despite our best intentions, if used wrong, we are in danger of perpetuating the problem we claim to be fighting against.