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We all long to be heard

Voice: Part 1

In October I will be voting ‘Yes!’

I suppose over forty years of teaching I have learnt something about people. I have certainly learned about my own fragility and feet of clay – my many faults and failings. But if there is one thing I have learnt, especially working with young people, is that people have a voice, and they want it to be heard.

In my professional career I can count probably twenty occasions when the young people I was working with rebelled or carried out a guerilla campaign against the school leadership. I am told that the hardest war to win is the guerilla campaign where the enemy appears out of nowhere, dressed like the ordinary day to day citizens, attack a target and then disappear back into the crowds of smiling passers-by. What I have learned is that almost always there is a root cause for the unease, the rebellion or the need to wage war. Sure, sometimes that root cause is simply the adolescent journey and the need to find their own identity and sometimes it is a herd mentality.

But often the root cause was voicelessness. When the young people felt imposed upon, when their voice was not heard nor respected. There is an old dictum, “Nothing about us without us!”

That dictum is so true. It has so much power within it. One of the principles of Catholic Social Justice teaching is subsidiarity. Subsidiarity simply refers to the practice of decision-making being made at the local level, at the level which directly affects those involved. We all know the powerless (and voiceless) feeling when some unseen person or power in some boardroom or government office makes a decision that directly affects US on the ground.

Our lives are littered with examples where we had no voice. I am from a small country town – Proserpine. I can recall when small rural towns had their Post Office closed or their bank closed, or land subsumed for a highway or farming land purchased by some ‘unseen’ multinational for a mine and more. In all of these cases the decision effected the local people directly. But when the decision is made with no consultation and when it is made with the voice of the local people not being in any way invited, listened to, or respected – the pain is worse and the anger long lasting.

When your voice is taken away or not listened to or even invited you feel powerless. Hopelessness grows. A sense of apathy grows – “Why bother – we won’t be listened to anyway!” The power of ‘them’ grows and as it grows the sense of power within ‘us’ weakens. We feel we are mere cannon fodder for someone else’s dreams, plans, ego, or power.

I have often been the one with power. I know I am on shaky ground when my only reason for wanting young people to do something is, “Because I said so!” I also know the power of fear, fear of the other’s voice, fear of an opinion different to my own, fear of letting go of my own power! As Franklin D Roosevelt (the American President) said in his 1933 Inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear by fear itself!”

When I have become aware of my own self being motivated by fear and when I have faced that fear and owned it, I have discovered that every time there is no rationality behind it – no real reason. When I let go of that fear and trust – I grow and we create a win – win situation where all are empowered, feel honoured and feel respected. So, when I have invited young people to speak up, to claim their seat at the table and to contribute from the wisdom and experience of their life’s journey it has always been a win situation. The decisions made are more whole and true. The decisions reached are more complete and successful. Relationships are strengthened. Fear is dispatched to the boundaries of our thinking, and we all grow.

This is not to say that I become a doormat to be walked upon by every whim. No, there are times when I have invited young people to voice their opinion and after listening to them I have said, “No!” I have learned that it is always good to give my reasons for my ‘no’ – but it is still a “no!” And that too is a win – for we know that young people need boundaries, and they grow from within them. My experience of working with young people is that almost always they respect the ‘no’ when they have felt heard, felt listened to and respected.

One of the most empowering things on one’s life journey can be to ‘claim one’s voice!’ This simply means to speak up, to speak from the heart, to say what is on your mind and heart. This implies that you believe that what you have to say is worth listening to. It is – because it comes from within you – it is part of you and therefore it must be worth listening to.

It is no secret that I love Holy Scripture and the Sacred writings of all the world’s great religions have so much to offer our human journey and our human spirit. The Old Testament contains some of my favourite Scripture passages. Perhaps my favourite is from the Book of Exodus. Moses would pitch a tent just outside of the camp and whenever anyone wanted to truly communicate with the Lord they would go to that tent.

Exodus 33: 9-11 recalls that Moses would to into the tent of meeting and there, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend!”

At the referendum we have nothing to fear by fear itself. At the referendum we have the sacred chance to invite our fellow Australians to sit down at table to discuss and share about the issues that directly affect them: to give them a voice. At the referendum we have a chance that will certainly not come again in my lifetime to honour, respect and embrace voice – the voice of our first Australians, the voice of people just like myself who long to be heard and ultimately the voice of truth leading to healing.

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