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MAZI Articles

Make Them Hear You
Message from Denise Gray-Felder

This is the second issue of Mazi , our online report. Mazi means together. The CFSC Consortium has entered our second year of operation, and together, with our global network of supporters, we already see positive results. Results of our efforts to influence how communication for development training takes place at local levels and with groups of people who have been voiceless too long. Results in gathering institutions and resources to support CFSC processes. Or in bringing those in power together with those who lack confidence in their own personal or community's power. And in supporting coalitions of professionals who believe that social change communication is essential to good, effective development work.

As you can tell from reading this issue and our first one, which you can view on our Web site archives, we have a wonderfully talented group of partners, staff and consultants working with us. One of them was Everett Rogers. Early in our CFSC work, Ev signed on to help us think through how CFSC can be learned -- as opposed to "taught" -- at the university graduate level. We were overjoyed that he agreed to help our advisory panel. Personally, I was dumbstruck when he entered the room for our Bellagio forum; being rendered nearly speechless was something that had rarely happened to me before or since. One of my clearest memories from my University of Michigan journalism training was Ev's writing and research.

Despite all that has happened in my life since college " and the people I've crossed paths with -- I still remember the great impression made by a fine scholar and teacher.

The phrase and song "make them hear you" keeps ricocheting in my head as I reflect on Ev's story and the other stories in this issue. At the heart of our work is the belief that everyone can and must be heard. That everyone's story has value and meaning " and that collectively our voices are our strength. A good teacher grooms learners into smart, aware people prepared to lift their voices when necessary. Free societies cannot survive without this basic process of citizen participation, discourse and deliberation.

Arno Penzias, a Nobel Laureate for discovering the Big Bang Theory, used to say about schooling: "The most important thing is to ask good questions, every day." The same applies to development

So I ask.

Is it possible that those of us trained as communicators are using our skills in the best way we know how to "make heard" the stories of those who are poorer or disenfranchised " so that those in positions to alleviate poverty are compelled to do so? Can we say, at the end of our lives, as Ev Rogers did, that we listened to differing opinions about our most important life's work, and we were changed by those opinions? Do we really believe that development must be a democratic process where those most affected can hold donors and their own governments accountable for their development decisions? If so, what can we do to strengthen the ability of people at all levels of societies to "make them hear us"? Who are we helping by continually pushing institutional perspectives that do not reflect the expressed needs of the world's neediest people?

For nearly 15 months we at the CFSC Consortium have been climbing hills, pulling ourselves out of a few valleys and sometimes getting hung up on a hurdle or two. But we're mostly pushing forward so that others can be heard. We've learned that in some places, like Zimbabwe, political structures, disastrous economies and regressive legislation get in the way. In others, cultures that are closely bound by rules of conduct can be hard to enter. Some people simply do not see their roles as citizens of their nation to criticize, or even question, those in power. In other places, like California, where we recently started working with an organization of health councils, dialogue is easy " following through on that talk throughout a defined community is far tougher.

As is overcoming the "obstacle of past experience."  When training, I urge learners to be open to new approaches " to realize that learning truly happens when one is willing to hear different ideas rather than abort creativity with your own past; "we've had that problem before and this is what worked."  With communication for social change what matters is the "moment"; the context and norms that are at work in the current setting. 

We should all be motivated by the La Primerisima Radio story: poor people in Nicaragua using their own money to make sure that their community station " their organized voice " stays on the air.

If this can happen in a country where financial resources are scarce, certainly we in the global communication community can come together to make our own professional voices better heard. How do we find better ways to influence global funding institutions so that they can really listen to the people they claim to represent? How do we "keep our ears to the ground" so we can be critical and protected sources of what's really happening within countries; information conduits for those who do not have such easy access to power wielders who determine much of the fates of financially poor countries.

This is hard, gut-wrenching communication work. It is far easier to sit in comfortable offices cranking out news releases, banner copy or campaign slogans. Most of us in the Consortium spent many years doing just that before we allowed ourselves the freedom to criticize our own work. To have our minds changed. To be heard when we knew business as usual wasn't working.

As you read this issue of Mazi, I ask that you do two simple things: 1) reflect on the struggles underlying each of the stories, and 2) ask yourself, "what should I be doing in my work, today and now, to help elevate another voice?"

We'd like to know what you think. We promise to listen.

("Make Them Hear You" is one of the signature songs from the musical Ragtime. It's become an anthem of sorts for African-American classical singers, especially tenors, in the United States who continue to struggle to literally have their voices heard in fields where people of color are not readily embraced. One line exclaims "make them hear you, that justice is our right.")

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