Listening to the quietest voices
On the 19th of October 2011 I attended a symposium hosted by the University of Queensland (Centre for Communication and Social Change), titled “Listening to the quietest voices.” Any debate about the Greater ‘We’ (or greater common good) requires the creation of a space for genuine dialogue to occur, including with the “quietest voices.” By “quietest voices” I am referring to those groups of people who are the most marginalised in our communities, including (in the case of Australia): indigenous people, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and refugees, the economically disadvantaged and homeless. The disturbing reality is that in many countries, when the “quietest voices” speak out, they do so at risk of imprisonment or even death. Citizenship (whether it be local, national or global) involves the right to speak out and to be heard, and we cannot have a Greater ‘We’ before we have a Smaller ‘We,’ and address issues such as oppression and disadvantage within our very own communities.
The Symposium Panel included Grant Paulsen from Reconciliation Australia; Professor Margaret Reynolds, human rights advocate and former Labour Party Senator, GetUp! Campaigns Director Paul Oosting, and Dipak Naker, co-founder of Raising Voices, who each spoke about their experience advocating for the rights of those with the quietest voices. Throughout the Symposium, the two common themes that emerged were relationships and respect. If we are prepared to let the quietest voices speak out, then we, as the dominant majority, must be prepared to actively listen and learn. This may require us to deconstruct our own preconceptions about the issues we are addressing, and a willingness to listen to things we may not necessarily like to hear. Above all, the basis of any dialogue must be a fundamental respect and appreciation of all participants, purely and exclusively on the basis of our common humanity. Here the mantra of “diversity within unity” comes to mind. Undeniably, there will always be differences based on culture, political opinion, religion, and so forth. At the most basic level, however, we all share several common characteristics, such as the desire (or right) to feel valued and respected, safe, secure and healthy. Unfortunately, in many societies we are still a long way from achieving even these most basic rights, and hence a long way from achieving any notion of a Greater ‘We.’
One civil society organisation that embodies the transformative power of genuine dialogue is Raising Voices, based in Uganda and co-founded by Dipak Naker. At the Symposium, Naker argued that perhaps no other group in society has a quieter voice than children. This is particularly the case in Uganda, where violence against children (and women) is normalised and deeply entrenched. According to a survey of 1400 children, 98% had experienced physical or emotional abuse, and 75% had suffered sexual abuse. The approach of Raising Voices was founded on the belief that the best way to address this issue was by creating a space for genuine dialogue and discussion. Rather than traditional development interventions that are primarily response-based, or “top down” approaches that often rely on indoctrination or finger pointing, Raising Voices chose to launch a national multi-media campaign that aimed to transform perspectives on the issue of domestic violence, by prompting adults to self-reflect on the impact of their parenting and teaching styles on the well-being of children. This included columns and cartoons in 7 newspapers, programs on 10 Radio Stations, 3 TV stations, and a variety of alternative media such as community events, murals and video halls. In doing so, Raising Voices was able to persuade, engage and entertain individuals, rather than judge or intimidate them. Ultimately, this depended on effectively listening to, and learning from, children, parents, teachers, members of the community and authorities.
In her article “The Greater WE,” Ulrike Reinhard asks, “If governments don’t succeed, should civil society take over and propose its own solutions?” After attending the Symposium, my answer is no – long lasting change will not occur until we have genuine dialogue and cooperation between both. Civil society has a vital role to play in defending the rights of those with the quietest voices; but ultimately it will not have any long lasting impact without government support and collaboration. For this to occur, each of us must ask the question: Am I the quiet voice that needs to be heard, or the loud voice that needs to listen and learn? Or in the words of Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”