In my African culture, it’s normal to spank your child when they misbehave. So the fact that my mother never spanked me is pretty significant. My mom knew that she didn’t have to. She would give me this look and say something cliche like, “I’m disappointed in you,” and I’d immediately burst out into tears.
From that, I had a general sense of how powerful words can be, but I didn’t truly grasp the extent of that power, specifically in terms of changing a narrative, until I became a Karel Fellow and interned at Spitfire Strategies. Spitfire Strategies is a public relations firm in D.C. that only works with nonprofits that align with it’s values and morals. They do everything from crisis messaging, to developing communications plans, and creating content for social media and websites. But everything at Spitfire is centered around what is arguably the most important phrase in that office, it’s motto: Spark Change.
This got me thinking about a word that has a particular meaning to me: dream. While some may associate this word with their goals or aspirations, I immediately think of a dreamer. That’s right. I’m undocumented. But because I do not fit the media’s and society’s stereotypical, misguided, and negative narrative on who an undocumented person is, I am never associated with this community. This is a direct reflection of the power of words and messaging. That’s why as communicators, it’s imperative to be inclusive in our messaging. Because when we exclude certain groups, society as a whole, suffers. Misguided narratives are developed and people are marginalized.
My second week on the job, I wrote a press release in response to President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy that lead of the family separation crisis at the border. Later on, I also wrote a blog post about a success story on behalf of a client who helps qualified refugees find jobs in the U.S. Those were great experiences but, more importantly, what I wrote was part of a greater movement that is hopefully starting to change the narrative around immigrants in this country.
I also wrote a feature story about Angel Harrison, a African American female lawyer, for the Georgetown Law School Magazine. When asking for my help on this, the project manager said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry. This probably isn’t as exciting as some of your other work.” If this assignment had been given to me one month ago, I might have agreed. But, I was nearing the end of my internship and, at that point, I was already realizing how powerful words could be. I immediately told her that I was very excited to write this because I knew the potential impact a piece like this could have on society. The stereotypical black women in this country is not educated nor successful. Featuring Angel Harrison in that magazine is helping to change the narrative of who us black women are.
Words in general, when used properly, can change the narrative around every marginalized group in this country. As people who already know the power of words, we have the responsibility to use them to create an impact. So write early, and write often. Write things that challenge public perception and give a voice to the voiceless. Write because words can help you create the world that you want to live in. Words from a president to a nation can build walls, and divide families. Words from Michelle Obama to the general public can inspire us to go high when they go low. Together we can spark change.