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Word Matters: Searching for the ‘Right’ Words

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

As an editor with Family Development, I spend many hours searching for words. I don't always succeed in finding the "right" word — the "best" word — to express my own and others’ thoughts. But I try, because word choice is critical to clear communication.

I was reminded of that principle at last week's 2016 Qualey-Skjervold Professional Development Conference. And more than that, I was reminded of the importance of word choice in building community — because words can either bring us together or push us apart.

I’d like to highlight two moments of the conference that stood out for me.

The First Moment

Professor Scheibel.

The first moment occurred during Jim Scheibel's opening remarks on Monday. A professor of practice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Jim is a former community organizer, city council member, and mayor — all in St. Paul. In a presentation titled "We Are the Ones: Creating Opportunity for All," he discussed the importance of being a "citizen professional," practicing "everyday politics," and working "on the edge of the inside where you can effect change" for the common good.

He also noted the added urgency to working for the common good in light of the recent "incident" in Falcon Heights. It's likely everyone in the room understood that the "incident" was the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, an African-American man, by Jeronimo Yanez, a police officer, during a traffic stop on July 6 in Falcon Heights, a neighborhood that adjoins the St. Paul campus.

But Joyce McGee-Brown, EFNEP community nutrition educator, wanted to make things clear. Following Professor Scheibel's remarks during a Q&A session, she stood up and with great force and eloquence said, in effect, that we won't get far changing our communities unless we call things what they are. What happened in Falcon Heights on July 6 was not an "incident," she said. It was "murder."

That was not the first time I'd heard an African-American person stand up at a meeting and describe police brutality (and other ongoing injustices to black people) as "murder." But Joyce’s comment still hit me in the gut — because she was speaking her truth.

I believe all of us in that room needed to hear that truth, especially those of us who are part of the dominant white culture. Even if we all can't agree to call it "murder," we can at least use more precise phrasing, like “fatal shooting” rather than "incident."

Naming the event and the person helps reduce the distance between us and what happened. And that brings me to a second moment that stood out for me at the conference — Mark Vagle's presentation on Wednesday.

The Second Moment

An associate professor with the University's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Mark has written three books and many articles focusing on the powerful ways interactions between adults and youth influence how they learn with, about, and from one another. His most recent research examines the profound influence social class has on the ways teachers and students perceive and engage with one another.

Professor Vagle.

On Wednesday, Professor Vagle talked about how words can build walls between us when we should be building bridges. One obstacle, he said, is the use of "distancing" language, especially pronouns. Some examples make the point: "Those people. Those kids. Their problem." Words like that set up an "us vs. them" scenario: them with the problems, us with the solutions.

Instead, Professor Vagle said, try "Our neighbors. Our kids. Our problem." (And "our" solution to co-create.) This kind of language recognizes our common humanity, our shared dignity, and respect for each others’ skills, talents, and knowledge.

Continue the Search

The moments I just described, and others I experienced at last week’s Qualey-Skjervold Conference, only reinforced the importance of word choice to me — not only for the sake of communicating clearly but also for building community. Of course, we don’t always find the “right” words in our writing, in our formal presentations, or in our daily interactions with others. We’re only human, after all. But we need to try — and fail and ask for feedback and try again — if we truly want to create opportunity for all.
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