The Sound of Silence

I had been working for an organization I was deeply passionate about for six years when they hired a new executive director. The new executive director’s first move was to try to convince the board that we should change our program model from one that partnered with middle school students and their families to get to and through college to a model that served as summer camp for second graders at their parent’s expense. As I sat in the meeting over the course of an hour, I lost my voice entirely. I had been trying, along with my colleagues from around the country, to raise concerns about completely changing the program model – we didn’t know anything about teaching second graders, we had always been a free program, and we had less than four weeks to create this new program – and I didn’t think anyone could hear me, even though I felt like I had been screaming at the top of my lungs. My voice didn’t return for three days, during which time I decided my only option for interrupting this decision was for me to quit, which I did as soon as my voice returned.

Feminist sociologist Shulamit Reinharz describes voice as “having the ability, the means, and the right to express oneself, one’s mind, and one’s will. If an individual does not have these abilities, means, or rights, he or she is silent” (Reinharz, 1994,180). In our society, power structures privilege some voices while excluding others and yet to speak and be heard is to have power over one’s life and to feel silenced is to have that power denied.

In times of change, we often find ourselves feeling like we are alone, like we are going through the change process by ourselves, and no one understands what we are feeling or what we are going through. And often, in organizational change, the people with the most power have the least ability to hear those around them, and as a result, those who aren’t leading the change feel like their voices aren’t heard…like they are silent.  And even if those who are leading the change ask for feedback, those who aren’t part of the change are so afraid of what will happen to them if they share what they really think that they remain silent about the things that matter most to them.

The other thing to know about silence is that it’s contagious – just as Simon and Garfunkel rote over 50 years ago – “silence, like a cancer, grows.”  This timeless ballad asks us to consider the consequences of not being able to communicate with each other, of being afraid to speak, and then having all of our fears realized by not speaking our truth. And as Audre Lorde calls to us to remember:

“when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
remembering we were never meant to survive”
~Audre Lorde
The Black Unicorn: Poems

If you’re feeling silenced, chances are others are also feeling that way too and it’s better to speak than remain silent, afraid, and alone.

And so what’s important to remember when we feel silenced, when we feel alone?

  • You are not alone. Everyone goes through change in their lives, and the emotions we feel as we move through those changes – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, and – eventually – renewal‑ are totally normal responses to moving away from something we cared deeply about and towards something that may not be clear to us yet.
  • There is strength in numbers. Courage is multiplied by working together, silence is divided by togetherness.
  • Find ways to hear yourself and feel your emotions. Write about what you’re feeling and thinking, take a walk, listen to music, meditate, exercise…whatever works for you to get in touch with your thoughts and feelings.
  • Speak loud and proud. Silence is deadly and oppressive, to lose one’s voice is to lose one’s power. Even if you aren’t able to influence the change that is happening around you, it is important to name, feel, and share what you’re feeling with yourself and other people. Your emotions are real and if you deny them then you will get stuck and feel increasingly less power and control over your ability to see and choose options that work for you. In sharing what you’re feeling with others, you will feel less alone and more able to release the energy that will help you move through what you're feeling.
Jennifer Mayer-Sandoval