What words do we need to invent to embed systemic change?

A sheet of paper emerging from a typewriter with the letters “words have power” copied over and over.
Image from Pixabay by Geralt.

(4 min)

I have the privilege to speak 3 languages: English, French, and my native Spanish. Even if the three of them share a lot of history (all are Indo-European languages with close ties and use the same alphabet) it still surprises me how some words apparently close in meaning can resonate differently. Let me share my experience with the word “engineer”.

I’m a Chemical Engineer and in the country where I pursued my studies (Venezuela), it was assumed that engineers are smart people that get to top management positions. Later on, I lived in France. There, to be an engineer has even more prestige! If you happen to graduate from one of the Grandes Écoles d’Ingénieurs (Great Engineering Schools) the sky is the limit for your professional career.

So, it was a surprise when I moved to the UK and realized that the word “engineer” was sometimes used interchangeably with “technician”. Also, I noticed that images would often portray engineers as people in overalls working on power plants rather than solving equations in a computer or in a meeting room making decisions.

One day I learned that the interpretation of their origin may actually different!

Ingenier@ (in Spanish) and ingénieur (in French) is often associated to the word genius (ingenio and génie, respectively). In English, it’s linked to the word engine, hence the connection to machinery (for a more in depth discussion, go to this article in French). Still, engineering degrees across South and North America as well as Europe touch on similar topics and prepare students to perform similar kind of work.

So the words we use do colour our perceptions about world. What people are allowed to do and what aren’t.

Giving ourselves permission to create and discard words

Recently, I attended a thought-provoking virtual discussion about Cultural Equity between Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Vice President and Artistic Director at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, and Hodari Davis, Chief Innovation Officer at Edutainment for Equity based in California.

What a treat!

Among my aha moments during the session, one stood up:  We need neologisms to create new futures – the use of futures in the plural is not a typo but a provocation – that propel us forwards.

Let me explain the concept with an example.

I queried Marc on his use of systemic allyship as a tool and process to enact systemic societal change. Basically, I questioned if allyship is still a useful term or we should use a more radical word such as co-liberation.

He replied that we often rely on pre-existing words which meaning is supposed to be shared by everybody. This blocks our imagination. And I can see how. For example:

  • What if calling glass ceiling to the barriers women experience as they try to progress in their careers is actually preventing us from challenging the status quo? Glass sounds like something anybody can break on their own with relatively low effort. What if instead we called it diamond ceiling, with diamond being the hardest material to break and that can only be scratched by other diamonds? Would that shift the perception from being a people problem to a systemic problem? Would we then consider sytemic solutions rather people solutions?
  • What if we’d ditch the word users to refer to someone utilizing a computer and instead, we’d talk about digital citizens? Would we care the same about their data and rights?

Marc posits that to create futures that embed systemic freedom, we need to create new words with a common meaning that we can all share from the start.

And we got us started! During the discussion, je shared with a new word:

Co-belonging: Creating spaces where one’s belonging doesn’t preclude the belonging of somebody else.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

That got me reflecting about who creates the dictionaries, who decides the meaning of words, and who selects what word is worth to be in a dictionary.

  • What words are we overusing and are blocking us from change? I mentioned glass ceiling, allyship, and user. What do you think?
  • What words should we birth to embed systemic change? I talked about co-belonging and diamond ceiling. Which words do you need?

Let me know in the comments!

Before I go

For reflection

I read this interview with Marian Keyes recently. She said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” and “horrible things damage you. They don’t make you better, or wiser and stronger. Most of the time they hobble you a bit.” This resonated so much with me!

What if we’d internalize that micro-aggressing, excluding, and harassing people won’t make them stronger but weaker? Would that shift our energy around justice, diversity, inclusion, and belonging?

A boost of energy

You can watch the one-hour discussion between Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Hodari Davis here. I you only have 4 minutes, jump to minute 8:06 to listen to the poem Some Questions of Value.

News from me

On 8th February, I discussed with Tom McCallum what’s next for diversity and inclusion. To give you a sense of why I’m so chuffed, previous interviewees include Debbie Forster MBE, co-founder and CEO for the Tech Talent Charter!

Among other topics, we discussed:

  • How companies will continue to lose money and taint their reputation by disregarding diversity and inclusion in marketing, sales, products, services, and procurement.
  • Why allyship won’t fix diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • What we can do instead!

You can watch our 30-min conversation here.

How does this article resonate with you?