Weighty Words

It was prophetic of me to declare 2016 “the year of the written word.” My love of both writing and reading has enriched my life this year. I find myself more thoughtful and more engaged, both inside the covers of a book and in stories of daily life. I live my evenings in ethereal realities and lay awake far past my bedtime tossing phrases in my mind. Words recently read or waiting to be written linger, a constant companion. While in January I merely speculated at the power of the written word in my life, today I can clearly see the elemental role they play. Words are indeed a powerful fabrication.

If you distill my job to its primal function, I am a wordsmith. As a communicator for a global health non-profit, it is my job to employ words purposefully to further a predefined end. The complexities of global health must be translated into compelling stories that are at once personal and global. Stories must have the ability to move the reader, but more importantly inspire the reader themselves to move. This is not an easy task. Through my work I have been challenged in the most unexpected ways, though fundamentally each challenge is the same: how do we choose the right words?

Wiki wiki wiki whhhhhhhat?

Inspiration can spring from unlikely sources. Not long after beginning my new job, I started down the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia. I noticed the page for my organization was quite outdated and began investigating how this could be rectified. Wikipedia has very strict guidelines on Conflict of Interest and Neutrality among the menagerie of standards encompassing the wiki community. Each guideline was set forth with thoughtful intention which immediately earned my respect. I undertook this task carefully, attempting to navigate the intricacies. Though the documentation around the ‘what’ was very clear, the ‘how’ was nearly impenetrable. Little by little I expanded my work, and at each small increment there was no feedback. Until there was.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.40.34 PMOnce I crossed the threshold of acceptability, conversations sparked off about procedure and boundaries. This dialogue was incredibly enlightening and a definite reality check. My well-intentioned efforts had offended some of the most basic principles of this community. Reflecting, neutrality is where I faltered most. The Conflict of Interest is really an administrative function – my desire is not to promote or mislead, but simply update – but I exist in a realm too close to the topic to write in a neutral diction.

I’m not sure I’ve interpreted the sentence correctly which is the problem with using such jargon in the first place: it is intentionally vague which serves a business’ needs when talking about itself but does not serve the needs of an encyclopedia.

While intended quite narrowly, this comment extrapolates itself into the rest of my work. When I read terms like “capacity building,” there is immediate meaning; to an average reader, it just sounds like gobbledygook. The same is true for many terms like “private sector engagement” and “supply chain management.” These words try to define a complex function, encapsulating strategies and projects into a phrase. To us, these words are clarifying. To everyone else, its just jargon.

Even outside the encyclopedia context, this jargon builds a wall. Within phrases like “human resource gap,” there are stories. In one breath, we abridge the extra hours a clinic worker must put in because he is the only one. We speak airily of “health interventions” which obscure the conversations at the local health clinic about nutrition during pregnancy or the pharmacy assistant rearrange the medical storeroom to make it easier to give out medicine. Each of these terms tries to drive down to something specific and definable, but in the process they shed their humanity. We lose these stories in the pursuit of precision.

New Narratives

We have also lost something in our larger narratives. The stories we tell are strategic: they target a problem we are trying to solve or a success we are trying to celebrate. But not even the sum of these stories can speak to the whole. They begin to ring hollow as time marches forward and change is slow to come. This week, I was fortunate enough to hear Bill Foege speak on the storytelling of poverty. This was his point: our narratives are no longer adequate. We must find a new one.

In all of the notes I have from his talk, there is one that keeps coming back into my thoughts: “We need to find people who can tell stories.” These aren’t your western journalists or your internationally renowned orators – the next great movement of storytellers will be rooted in their communities. The only truthful narrative about poverty is one that germinates from poverty. New storytellers must take the stage to speak from their own experiences and help define their own solutions.

Choosing Our Words

So where does this all leave us? Our words are failing us. Our stories are failing us. As a young woman who loves words, it should seem like a hopeless mess. Words are the only recompense I have to add to the world. So what do I do when even that is not enough?

We find a way to amplify these new voices.

“Communities feel more empowered to represent themselves in wider society, and are more knowledgable about themselves, the roles they play, and the society in which they live. They have improved decision-making abilities and can speak out about the ills facing them.”

I wrote these words five years ago for my Masters thesis. I was discussing the potential roles of technology in post-conflict communities, but the sentiment is the same. When communities have command of the story, they claim their space in the global community. These stories bind us together and make the reality of the human condition clear.

I believe in the resurgence of storytelling. The flourish of new media – blogs, podcasts, reddit – had demonstrated something deeply embedded in our society. With the channels of expression democratizing, it becomes imperative that diverse voices are heard. Underserved communities, communities entangled with poverty, must be allowed to join the conversation. I’m proud to say this is the work I strive to do – to find better ways to tell these stories and share the untold pieces of humanity. When we are the storytellers, we choose our words carefully – not to obscure or explain, but simply to lay forth a reality different than our own.

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