The concept of voice is one that has long intrigued me, both personally and professionally. I have struggled to find and use my voice and interestingly—and likely not by coincidence—my work has involved the centering of those voices often silenced.
As a young, white girl raised in a rural, Southern town, I learned that my voice should be soft, sweet, and agreeable. When I went away to school, others made me acutely aware—all of the time—of my strong Southern accent. Some even accused me of “faking it” for attention. This attention exacerbated my already existing struggle for voice. I questioned my voice.
My first semester in college, I distinctly remember a professor sharply advising me to not use the word “like” so much when I spoke, that she had a hard time “even listening to me”. Her admonishments came in front of the whole class and largely silenced me for the remainder of that class. I hated my voice.
I also learned that I could easily instigate a laugh, probably in large part due to my accent, but that when I attempted to make an argument or share a critical insight, I struggled to value and use my voice and as a result, others lost attention quickly. I felt embarrassed and invisible when this happened so chose to stick mostly to using my literal voice to poke witty jokes or in humor.
On the other hand, writing was my thing. It has always been the vehicle through which I make meaning of the world. I was five years old when I received my first journal and used this gift to create stories and poems. More importantly, I wrote to process life’s experiences, to make meaning of myself and my world. As I grew and struggled to find and use my voice, my relationship with my writing deepened. I became dependent on my writing and hid behind it in some ways. Just as I was receiving messages that my literal voice was not valued, I was assured that my writing was valuable. My writing became my voice. I told myself this was ok; in face, this was preferred. Academia justified my thinking in its value placed on the written word.
I recall in a graduate course, a well respected scholar and theorist (and one of my very fave teachers of all time), Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, challenged me to share my thoughts with my peers in class. She called me out: writing was not enough. “Who is your audience?” she asked. Simple question. Hard to come to terms with the answer. I didn’t want to just “talk” with academics. This meant I could no longer hide behind my writing.
As I emerged from academia a practitioner, my struggles with voice continued. As a feminist committed to shared power and creating participatory processes, I pay close attention to my use of voice and to the voices of others. In fact, perhaps I am hyper-sensitive to this and yes, sometimes I’m ashamed to admit I hide behind this, as well. Sometimes we pay such close attention to something that we suffocate the very thing we are trying to protect, just as Lenny did to that pup in Of Mice and Men. I know there are times when I silence myself because I tell myself that I should let others speak. That is bullshit. And not in any way empowering. Voice is not about whose voice is literally being heard. Getting stuck on this prevents the recognition of the very complicated ways power and privilege work.
I have learned that voice is an evolving process. It is not that you wake up one day, do some hard self-reflection, discover your voice and that’s that. My voice is a reflection of my identity: a complicated, multi-faceted, contextual expression of who I am. For me to find and use my authentic voice, I must pay constant attention to myself and my relationships with those around me. I know when I am most present and honest with myself, my voice feels most like my own and can be used in ways that are congruent with my values and purpose. Many times, my body responds to validate this: my face flushes, my heart races, my hands sweat. These times I know I must speak, that I must raise my voice.
Other times, I try to be aware of my selfish, egotistical-need-to-be-heard so that I don’t use my voice as an empty SOS call: “Look, here I am. I know, I know. Don’t forget about me!!” When I do this—and I do—I don’t feel authentic because I know that I am only reacting to what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me. I don’t want to define myself in others’ terms. This means at times, I use my voice to not speak.
I study the ways others use their voices. Some of the loudest, most recognized are voices that are empty. Sometimes I pick up on this fast. At other times, I come to this realization with a sense of betrayal and disappointment to find that a voice I had listened to with hope and expectation turned out to be mostly an echo.
For me, I want my voice to be authentic, thoughtful, emphatic strong. I want to use my voice to reflect my values, to express myself and to amplify voices silenced. I want to use voice to make change, to disrupt the status quo, and challenge systems of oppression. I want my voice to be heard, taken seriously, and respected. I want my voice to bring laughter and in the acknowledgement of life’s truths, bring tears. I want my voice to matter. I want to choose when and where and how to use it and when I do, for it be my own. Southern accent, “likes,” and all.
Amy Howton is the Assistant Director for the University of Cincinnati Women’s Center. She is also advisor to the WILL program. Amy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.