Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
This little adage—often spoken in a sing-song, taunting voice—was taught me when I was young.
The point was often that although people sometimes said mean things I didn’t need to let them land. I could, as Taylor Swift says in her now ubiquitous song, “Shake it [or them] off.” But in my mind, this statement grossly underestimates the importance of language—how and what we communicate.
As a director of communications, I have a vested interest in helping people to see the importance of the words and images we choose, but within Mennonite Church USA and across many other organizations and church groups, we have underestimated the power of our communication to transform lives, to get people on board and, when we are not careful, to wound deeply.
A few years ago, the team I’m a part of conducted a short survey that asked people to describe the purpose of our communications team. We asked them to say how they understood what we did. Many of our peers suggested that the purpose of a communications team was to be servants to the organization and to take pieces or images others produced and “make them look good.”
This is not completely incorrect.
Our team is in the business of copy editing, graphic design and web design—all jobs that are concerned with aesthetic appeal. But our team does so much more than this. We are involved in strategic visioning and shaping a cohesive brand identity that tie together our stories, website and communities across the country. We solicit and tell stories of how God is at work in communities all across Mennonite Church USA.
And we have come to understand that the words we use and the images we choose are the “story-within-the-story.” They help communicate who is present, how they are viewed and how we hope people will engage.
My first post-college job was with Mennonite Mission Network.
One of my first projects upon beginning my time as part of the marketing and communications team was to help copy edit and give feedback to the first edition of Shared Voices: Anti-Racism Communication Guidelines. The genesis for this project grew out of the marketing and communications team’s increasing awareness that words and images are not neutral and that too often our communication was reinforcing racist cultural narratives.
We unpacked the ways people were positioned in photos: Who is at the head of the table?
Who is standing above others? Who is pictured preaching and teaching? We talked about the ways certain words perpetuated stereotypes about who was knowledgeable, capable and had agency.
This was a huge learning experience for me.
To put it in basic terms, my privilege was showing. I understood and was actively opposed to blatant racism—offensive jokes, name calling—but I had little to no understanding of the systemic layers of oppression that are sneakier, hardier to spot and often worm their way into the language and images we use.
By naming our failures and developing guidelines for more inclusive language and images, we hoped to stop perpetuating racism. We also hoped we would stop using that language that subjugated or made people invisible.
As I’ve continued to edit, write and lead teams within the communications field, I continue to learn more and more about the pitfalls of exclusive language and the intersections of systemic oppressions around race, gender, sexuality, class and age. With a word, we can reduce people from living, breathing beings with thoughts and feelings to an “issue.” With spiritualized, “churchy” language, we can cover up and justify violence.
But when we communicate well, we can also build buy-in.
We can get people excited about what’s happening and how they can get involved. We can craft a vision that is so compelling people can’t help but get excited. We can offer people opportunities to tell their stories in their own voice, and we can be about the business of confession, repentance, healing and building something new.
Don’t be fooled.
Words certainly can and do wound us.
Communication is not just the frosting or the “cherry on top” that completes an already existing composition, but it gets at the heart of how we want people to understand and engage with us. Leaders would do well to understand this.
Hannah Heinzekehr is director of communication for Executive Board staff for Mennonite Church USA. This appeared in the June issue.