Language Lessons

By Jay Menard

What’s more important? Using one’s voice or being able to listen? When it comes to trying to engage a diverse, but largely fragmented, public, we need to focus on a few key language lessons.

Even more important than the act of listening is the ability to understand. It’s where we often fall short and where more of our efforts need to fall.

We see it in political activism and lobbying: selected group assuming the mantle of the civic voice, standing up for their interests, and speaking loud and proud. The ReThink project and the subsequent London Plan is the latest of these items – a group of people have come together to speak about their vision (though the actual number still is in doubt – I’ve asked about how the 15K number was counted, and whether that includes people who attended multiple events as one or more participants… Still no response), but what does that mean?

What does any of it mean? Can we truly understand? Do we want to?

Engagement is a tricky word in that it’s often laden with the assumption that there is only one way to engage. Even voting isn’t seen as good enough by some (where the expressed will of 40 per cent of the electorate is often dismissed outright.)

And the great criticism? “They” are not engaged.

It’s a statement based on arrogance and is the same rationale that hearkens back to the idea of Speak White.

We live in a diverse society, with diversity of communication and expression. A community that engages in the way it best sees fit. Instead of criticizing the voices that we don’t “hear” perhaps it’s best to try to educate ourselves to understand their language.

Whether it’s 5,000 or 15,000 individual participants, I applaud the ReThink efforts for what they did. It’s a great start – but it’s not the canon that some are treating it as. Especially when so much may get lost in the translation.

Both downtown and living in the suburbs (I moved a few months ago), and in talking with extremely intelligent and socially aware friends, I can accurately say that most people had no idea about ReThink. They may not be on Twitter; they may not come downtown (where the vast majority of events leading up to it took place), but they love their city. They’re out there living their lives, invested in their own communities, and working every day to make things better. When it comes to elections, people from across all demographics simply choose not to get involved.

So why aren’t they heard from? Why do they not get the message?

Because we’re not all speaking the same language.

The goal should not be to get people engaged in the way in which you approve, but to make the effort to learn another ‘language’ and explore another ‘culture.’ Why? Because the understanding you gain is immense.

Experience is a wonderful teacher. Whether it’s moving out of your bubble for a few years, or learning a new language, the benefit of exploring new or different cultures allows you to look at your own experience with new eyes. I’m blessed to be bilingual (English/French), with a more-than-passing comprehension of Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. I’ve lived in and around people from all walks of life and have done my best to immerse themselves in the lessons they’re teaching.

It’s allowed me to temper my views and understand there are greater problems. Life is put in perspective when friends have had to flee home and family simply because they’re afraid that their sexuality was a death sentence. It’s easy to temper rhetoric and realize some things are not as dramatic when you realize that certain things are life and death.

And it’s easy to respect, discuss, and learn when you realize that listening to other people’s stories, needs, and desires is far more valuable than getting up on your pulpit and assuming you’re right.

It’s the foundation upon which I write. It’s also one that proudly bears the fact that I admit to not knowing everything. I form opinion based on knowledge, experience, and listening. And I continue to be willing to listen, discuss, and change that opinion based upon rational, factual arguments.

It’s easy to see everything in black and white if you don’t take the time to listen and learn.

At SunFest this week, I visited my favourite booth – a local group whose members make the world’s most amazing Pupusas. They do so (and have done so in parks and at a now-defunct restaurant) because they’re raising money for their Church. Their focus, week in and week out, is on supporting those within their community.

And I dare anyone to say that’s not engagement.

But what about their needs as part of the broader community? What about their contribution to London? It’s safe to say they’re already doing what parts of the London Plan professes: creating strong communities; but how do we hear their voices, listen to their needs, and ensure they’re part of the London we should be building.

One that offers something for everyone – one that’s focused on creating a sustainable and attractive lifestyle not just for the young, but for every stage of life. One that celebrates families, differences, and everything that goes into making the wonderful Cultural Mosaic that is our country.

It’s a two-step process:

  • Losing the Speak White attitude and understanding that the impetus is not on others to learn ‘our’ language, but to actively learn their language and using it to communicate in the way that’s best for them; and
  • Listen. Not talk. We need to hear their voices; not interpret them on their behalf.

We have a multifaceted city that has plenty of stories to share, voices to be heard, and ideas to promote. Wouldn’t it be great if we could listen to those stories the way they were meant to be heard? Wouldn’t it be a more effective way of “engaging” by speaking to people in the way they’re most comfortable?

It starts by some language lessons — not asking everyone to speak one way, but gaining the experience and respect needed to approach others in their own tongues.

Otherwise, London could get lost in translation.

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