Big changes start locally

Talking about Language with Expert Citizens CIC

Language Workshop ideas

Darren Murinas (DM) is the Chief Executive of Expert Citizens C.I.C.

Nancy Doyle-Hall (NDH) is the Executive Director of the Virgin Money Foundation


DM: Nancy – why did you feel it was important to work alongside an organisation like Expert Citizens CIC to explore the language used by Virgin Money Foundation?

NDH: We recognised that we have a whole range of ways to describe the communities into which we fund, some of these are clearly positive and others fairly negative. We wanted to change this. We knew that we had two obstacles. Firstly, that if we chose a different vocabulary it still might not be the language that those communities would want us to use to describe their neighbourhood, so we needed to listen before we made any decisions and second, we might still end up using jargon without even realising we are doing it! Working with Expert Citizens helped us to listen and to be pulled up when the ‘funder speak’ crept in.

NDH: Darren, one of your key recommendations in your report to the Foundation was around labelling and stigmatization. You reminded us not to label people as synonymous with the circumstances they experience. Rather than describing ‘homeless people’ or ‘asylum seekers’ to describe ‘people experiencing homelessness’ or ‘a person seeking asylum.’ These are fairly minor changes to make, why is it important?

DM: Very often, within the fields we work in, deficit language is used to describe people and the problems they are facing. By continuously labelling individuals as ‘homeless’ or ‘disadvantaged’, we minimise the potential of the person. On hearing such labels over and over a person may become ‘fixed’ internally believing that the label is who they have become, not remembering positive things that they can / have achieved. Externally, people involved in their support may become so ‘flooded’ with the labels that they overlook the importance of identifying a person’s skills, knowledge and assets. Why, in our sector, do we automatically describe people with labels when, with friends, and family we refer to people by their names? Through my own experiences I have been subject to long term and multiple labelling which, for me, was demeaning and I lost who I was as a person. Follow the link for my blog on labelling that reflects my own experiences.

DM: Nancy – have you ever been subject to people labelling you? What were those labels and how did they make you feel?

NDH: I am fortunate to not have been subject to what I feel are negative labels. We are all described by words and labels and amongst others for me these include ‘woman’ ‘leader’ ‘gay’ ‘Christian’ ‘funder’ ‘grantee’ ‘posh’ ‘common’. None of these are particularly negative words to me but each carries a range of assumptions, preconceptions and expectations. The preconceptions can be very different to the reality and as a result the expectations can be limiting, frustrating or hard to shake off.

NDH: I have come across labelling theory but never really explored it in its application to places rather than people. Your advice to us is to describe ‘an area experiencing economic deprivation’ rather than ‘a deprived area’. What difference do you think changing your language in this way creates?

DM: A person moving into or being born into a community labelled as ‘an area of deprivation’ may grow up believing that their chance of success in life will be low with few opportunities. Generational experiences pass down and people, some at a very young age, lose their goals, their aspirations and even their hope. They also become very aware of the stigma attached to such a label which, in turn, takes away any pride that person may have felt for both the place in which they live and their roots. People outside of the community, often including the media, make assumptions about individuals who come from ‘a deprived area’ and, whether or not a person is struggling, involved in crime or living in poverty, they feel that they are perceived as such.

By shaking off the negative label and referring to a community as ‘an area experiencing economic deprivation’ the focus shifts from the person and becomes a collective community issue that can be overcome. We are instilling hope to the people who live there – the language itself suggest that there ‘is a way out’.

DM: Nancy – how would you describe the community where you were raised and did this affect you in any way?

NDH: I didn’t grow up in one community, we moved loads – by the time I was 12 we had lived in North London, Redcar, Darlington, a couple of places in Middlesbrough, South London and Northern Ireland. Each place has influenced me as has the process of moving around. I am a Northerner and a Southerner, a Londoner and a Celt. I’m from all of these places and a constant outsider!

NDH: One of the really interesting things we encountered in the workshops you hosted was that the same word can be viewed by some people as empowering or positive and by others as laden with negative connotations. One of these words was ‘community’, a term I probably use 50 times a day. What is your view on why there is this mixed response and how we should respond?

DM: I also use that word around 50 times a day; I ensure it is applied in a positive way. For years now central government, local government, funders, foundations, the press and other media sources very often describe communities as ‘broken’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘deprived’, ‘hard to reach’ …… all of which are deficit describers and used instead of looking at the community and saying, “they may be experiencing financial hardships”. Maybe, as a result, people have lost their sense of pride within those communities.

If we look at those communities and focus on the creativity, the positivity, the ‘can do attitude’, the skills and the resilience of community members, people may feel more comfortable in being a part of their community; adding to their sense of pride and to their motivation to make things better collectively.

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