Participation is all well and good, but assuming we’ve been able to begin a conversation with the appropriate people in the room: who is doing the talking?
Before, during and after discussions, we always need to ask: Who is talking? Who is listening? Is anyone talking over anyone else? With whose voice am I speaking? Am I claiming to speak on behalf of everyone? Do we speak on behalf of a certain group of other people? Do we have their permission? Do they even agree with us? How do we know? And surely nobody these days is still asking “do they take sugar“? (Surely?)
We all know that sometimes special efforts are needed in order to be inclusive. Dividing into groups by gender identity for discussion is a common practice at workshops or trainings; other times by age, or language group, or whatever is relevant to the the current subject. This can be essential to creating a safe space for people to speak and be heard and valued and appreciated.
But what about those who are not even in the room? Those who didn’t know about the meeting, the forum, the participatory-consultation-action-thing or whatever? Either because they are too busy getting on with their lives (or just surviving) to be paying attention to survey requests and meeting invitations; or because those attempts at reaching out simply missed their targets; or because no matter how genuine the offer or invitation some people don’t feel important enough, or welcome enough, to set foot across the threshold?
Working with marginalised groups takes effort and time. But by failing to create safe spaces in which people can speak and be listened to respectfully, we can inadvertently silence voices who have a need and a right to be heard.