Choosing words carefully

by Judy Chambers

What we say and how we say it can send a powerful message to members of our communities. It can encourage them to work with us – or to stay away. I often hear nonprofits and community organizations bemoan the lack of interest and participation from the general public. It’s hard to get residents to show up for meetings and special events, or to volunteer. There are a lot of factors that contribute to low levels of involvement, some of which may be beyond our control, such as how busy young families are. Traditional news outlets no longer suffice, as fewer people are reading local newspapers, and social media is an effective but constantly changing platform.

One thing we can control is making sure people feel invited and welcomed. Too often, our language conveys a sense of us v. them. It’s great to create a feeling of unity in our organizations, but not to the exclusion of others. For instance, when we speak in terms of the past, newcomers may feel left out.

Here’s an example: a friend of mine who was volunteering with a fundraiser for the first time had to park several blocks away from the event and then lug her baked goods to the building. When she arrived, one of the regulars told her she should have parked in a nearby private lot and said “everybody knows that”. My friend felt underappreciated since no one bothered to tell her about the parking, and wondered how long it would take for her to become part of “everybody”.

How often do we describe longtime residents as ‘natives’ and longtime volunteers as ‘regulars’? Think about how that makes a newcomer feel. Sometimes the nuance is more subtle. When we use the term ‘citizen’ in a community with many recent immigrants, some residents may be unsure whether they are included. And yet we use terms like ‘citizen engagement’ without reflecting on how that term might exclude important segments of our communities.

So what can we do to become more inclusive and welcoming? Start by thinking about the words we use and how they sound to someone else. Ask someone else to look at our invitations and notices, and tell us if they seem welcoming. Pay attention to how everyone in your organization speaks about members, volunteers, residents, participants. Make a conscious effort to use words that are inclusive, such as everyone, all welcome, long-timers and newcomers, new, fresh, neighborhood, community.

Tiny changes to our mindset and our vocabulary can make a big difference in community participation. The first step is changing the culture of our own organizations, encouraging everyone to think more inclusively. Perhaps a gentle reminder “remember when you were new?” will help people use their words to invite other in.

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