Bridging the Language Gap on Rights, Literally and Figuratively

Patrick Malone

Rights advocates can forget that there is an entire world of potential allies out there we may be missing because we are not effectively communicating with them.

My first summer as a camp counselor, I got what I considered
a bit of an unfortunate assignment. 
I was  an assistant for a
group of the camps very youngest kids—three year olds.  I had hoped to be with slightly older
kids if for no other reason than they are far easier to understand.  You see the language skills of the
children in my group ranged from the virtually silent to the talkative yet
incomprehensible.   Still, we communicated enough to form a
fairly functional group that happily swam, finger painted, and played with
blocks through the lazy days of summer.


There was one little boy though, who had a bit of a harder
time than the rest.  His name was
Atsushi and he had come to the U.S. from Japan exactly 18 hours before starting
camp.  He spoke not a single word
of English.  His mother, who also
spoke no English, informed me, through a note written by a friend,  that she felt the quickest way for him
to adjust and learn the language was for him to be totally immersed.  In theory, this seems like a reasonable
idea.  In practice… well let’s just
say it was significantly harder.

By just the second day of the session I knew I had to do
something for poor Atsushi, who sat unmoving, unspeaking, and unblinking like a
shell-shocked soldier as he dealt with the multi-pronged traumas of being left
by his parents for the first time, being in a totally foreign environment, and
being three.  While wanting to
respect his parents’ wishes and help him immerse, I also felt a fundamental
human need to throw this kid a life line. 
I mean, I couldn’t even ask him if he had to go to the bathroom. So I
bought a book of conversational Japanese.

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The next day, I tried out my new skills.  I won’t butcher the Japanese language by
trying to recall the translation, but Atsushi understood perfectly, vigorously
shook his head, and took my hand as we rushed to the bathroom.  And then the most remarkable thing
happened.  Atsushi started to
talk.  And talk.  And talk.  It turns out that he was the most verbal kid in the entire
group.  Don’t get me wrong, even
with my new book I couldn’t truly translate what he was saying most of the
time, but once I made that initial effort to bridge the gap we managed to
communicate in much the same way I communicated with the other three year

Now I know that this example is long and a little heavy
handed, but it remains one of the most memorable relationships of my life, even
though it only lasted six weeks.  And,
I really do try to use the lessons I learned that summer in my work.

We, in the sexual and reproductive rights field, work in a small
community where we are comfortable with the language and are surrounded by
people who agree with us in almost every way.  The small differences in the missions of our respective
groups are nothing compared to the overwhelming similarities.  But, because we are so used to
interacting with people who speak our language of rights, access, funding, and
underserved populations, we can forget that there is an entire world of
Atsushis out there.

Because I am convinced, as I hope that many of you are too
that we are absolutely on the right side of these issues, with science,
compassion, and justice on our side, I have to believe that our problem is
fundamentally one of communication.  
Many of the people out there who don’t support us may not necessarily be
against us; they just have no idea what we’re talking about. 

I think we have seen this clearly as the Stupak amendment
brought our issues front and center in the health care debate.  There is a new audience now, one who
may be confused by the vast amount of information, misinformation, and opinions
that are swirling about surrounding health care reform as a whole.  The burden is on us to take the first
steps to speak to these people, because we are the people who want to draw
others to our side – to have outsiders understand the world through our
insiders’ point of view.  Believe
me.  We are never going to be able
to do this if we are locked in our one way of thinking and communicating. 

I would ask that as we think about issues like health care,
abortion, funding for HIV prevention, same-sex rights, and comprehensive sex
education, we start to develop some messaging frameworks that speak to people
with other points of view.  By focusing
our energies on empathy toward people who are not in our camp have, I believe
we can find new, strong allies.  We
just have to take the first step to open lines of communication and meet on
some common ground.

And, after all, it’s always a good idea to start any meeting
by asking if anyone has to use the bathroom.  

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