Our Words Matter

Word Have Power

By Hannah Summers

January 25, 2021

At Impact, we are heartened by the growing movement for racial justice and deeply committed to the J.E.D.I. principles of racial justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. In 2020, we made a significant investment in becoming a more equitable and anti-racist company. We partnered with Mission Partners to educate ourselves about systemic and structural racism and strengthen our team’s ability to drive meaningful action and positive change.

As writers, one of the best places for us to start is with the words we use – both internally and with our clients. Language is powerful and we can either use words to reinforce the status quo or disrupt it. There is much in the ‘language of philanthropy’ that needs to be disrupted. Here are some common words and phrases that we are working to avoid in our efforts to model equity.

“Vulnerable” – The term vulnerable creates an “us” vs. “them” distinction that conveys a largely negative judgment. The truth is that people experience vulnerability when systems and institutions fail. Instead, talk about how people “experience vulnerability” to remove the accountability being placed on a group of people and place it on the system.

“Empower,” “Lifting out of crisis,” “Lifting out of poverty” – These words and phrases create a savior scenario that robs people of their own agency.  In reality, the people served by your organization already have power – but they have encountered roadblocks in accessing it. Instead, talk about how you challenge discrimination that prevents people from maximizing their power.

“Underserved” – This is an inaccurate term being used as a way to describe people who have actually been unfairly denied resources and opportunities. The word “underserved” implies that people are passively waiting for someone to give them something rather than acknowledging the discrimination that locks them out. Instead of underserved, use “under resourced” or better yet, be specific about who you are talking about such as “students in low-performing schools.”

“Non-white” – This is often a phrase used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis that simply calls people what they are not. BIPOC is a popular term being used, which is much better than saying “non-white,” but it is still not preferrable because it leaves out other groups of marginalized people. It’s imperative to acknowledge a group of people or community for who they are – Black, Latinx, Indigenous, etc.

“Giving people a voice” – Everyone has a voice; they don’t need us to give them a voice. Instead, we can “amplify their voice,” “lift up their voice,” or “ensure their voices are heard.” Or simply, “give voice to critical issues.”

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