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If People Matter, the Words About Them Matter too

honoring people and not the trauma they face

Two women sitting at a table looking at a laptop

American Philanthropy has a history rooted in trauma and charity, with funds and programs created to temporarily help people, and make funders and nonprofits feel better, more times than not, for their own transgressions. These acts often cause our funders and nonprofit leaders to think of those they are helping by the trauma they face and not by the humans and people they are.

If our foundations, nonprofits, and social services are about and for the people, then it's essential to look at the language our systems use to define them. Philanthropic language often reinforces stereotypes, trivializes experiences, and reinforces dominant white culture and norms. If we are to truly work towards better solutions, we first need to humanize the people we seek to help and step away from terms that often cause more harm than good.

For example, disadvantaged. According to Merriam-Webster “disadvantage” means

  • “1: loss or damage especially to reputation, credit, or finances

  • 2a: an unfavorable, inferior, or prejudicial condition

  • b: a quality or circumstance that makes achievement unusually difficult”

What did our “disadvantaged” communities lose? Why are they in an inferior position? What is their circumstance?” They didn’t lose something that wasn’t given to them. Under-resourced schools, lack of access to proper healthcare, unlivable wages, this was handed to them. These circumstances are what they are fighting to overcome, why should they be in an inferior position because of where they were able to live. These circumstances are not of their own, so why should we define them by it? Let’s call out what this is, an undeserving of an entire community,if not an intentional undeserving.

So instead of disadvantaged people, how about underserved people

  • Instead of Slave, person that was enslaved

  • Instead of Homeless, person experiencing homelessness

  • Instead of Disabled person, person with a disability

  • Instead of Mentally ill person, person with a mental illness

  • Instead of delinquents, convicts, or formerly incarcerated, justice impacted youth / people

  • Instead of Rioters, demonstrators

  • Instead of Illegal immigrant/ Illegal alien, undocumented person

  • Instead of Addict, someone with a substance abuse disorder

It may often seem trivial to look at the words we use to describe others because this experience may not impact us, we may not understand the significance, or we think it's just part of the norm. However, this is why it's critical to educate yourself your peers and acknowledge the experiences of others who are impacted by these types of situations. It's essential to self-reflect and work diligently to look beyond the trauma someone may have experienced or is currently experiencing and see them for the humans they are. Because if we can't see them as humans first, how will we ever truly uplift our communities.


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