When do you or I have a voice? Usually this question comes up in relationship to public officials – do they hear us? I’ve spent much of my professional life addressing this challenge. But today my hope is to address you personally – can you hear your own voice? Wherever I go, this powerful and deeply personal question emerges. Just last week when I was visiting Binghamton, N.Y. a young student at Broome Community College said that it wasn’t until she took a recent debate class that she ever truly felt she had a voice.
She was trying to tell those of us in the room something basic and important. It is the same point I hear from older people who are high-paid lawyers, stay-at-home moms and dads, non-profit chiefs, and many others. They each say something similar – something very personal.
What does it mean to have a voice – at work, in the public realm, with others? Is this challenge we each face simply about gaining power; for instance, is it something you can secure by gathering up grant dollars, claim by the position you hold, or create by making enough noise?
There are moments when each of us speak and still feel we have little or no voice. We may utter words, proclaim research findings, assert a position, or perhaps make a demand. But, still, we feel that our own voice is not present. Somehow the words we speak do not come from deep within ourselves; indeed our words fail to capture the sentiments that give meaning to our life. We find that our true intentions and purpose go un-reflected.
At a Barnes and Noble book event I did in Binghamton, a storeowner in nearby Johnson City told a story of how she and fellow merchants had been waiting for the local government to create change in their downtrodden downtown. Ultimately, she told us, the local merchants got tired of waiting and formed their own partnership to clean-up their main street and bring people together.
What, she asked me, should be her next step? I told that she had already taken it. By stepping forward in the bookstore she was doing something that so many people wish they could do: gain and spread newfound confidence and faith in themselves and others.
Gaining our own voice doesn’t necessarily mean that we must solve a local community problem or take a debate class. Rather, first and foremost, it seems to me that we must step forward in our own way to know something about ourselves. How do we see things? What do we feel? What do we believe? What’s more, to know something about ourselves often means knowing something about others, too; our voice exists in relationship to others.
I told the Broome Community College students that I believe cultivating your own voice is one of the most important things they could do, especially in relationship to public life; otherwise, even in our discussions we remain oddly silent. Thus I urged them to try out their voice in different settings – in their classes; in the papers they write; in private journals that no one else may ever see or hear. They must try out their voice if they are to find it.
In our own ways, this is something we each can do. For I hear so many people say that they wish they had more of a voice. Maybe to be truly heard we must first find our own voice.