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Speaking up, Speaking with, Speaking to: How do we communicate equitably in an inequitable world?


IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Slide depicting Activism in Crisis logo (loudspeaker with flames and the words 'Activism in Crisis' emerging from the loudspeaker), workshop title and red flames at the bottom. Also pictured are Sign Interpreter, Irene, and panel moderator, Qiyun.


Al Lim (he/him): Community Mapping


Al spoke about thinking of maps as more than shapes and lines conveying a particular image, and thinking about who the map includes and excludes, and the reasons behind it. It is particularly important given that the current climate crisis will affect poor and vulnerable communities more. Al believes that a key question of today is how we can engage communities in conversation and take action on the climate crisis together. His work on tackling flooding in cities includes efforts to get people and communities onto maps. Based on his interviews with elderly people about their experiences of living with major floods in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Al worked with them (alongside others in a team) to create a map of their community to make people more aware of the issues around flooding.


The three key principles of community mapping that Al uses are summarised in the acronym ACT - Addressing, Connecting, and Things beyond the human. "Addressing" includes the question of what to call someone when you talk to them, since the way you introduce yourself and the way you talk affects the way communities see you and whether they trust you. The way you address people also indicates your relationship with the community, and the extent to which you are an insider. "Connecting" refers to thinking about communities as systems, not as a bunch of individuals. When trying to map communities, it means that your perspective of the community will be strongly influenced by the person or people you talk to. This is because they will influence viewpoints and relationships.


Finally, T stands for "Things beyond the human", which reminds us that when mapping communities, we need to look at non-human elements. This can include features of the landscape, or non-human objects, since the impact of such things are usually a reflection of human actions. For example, water that overflows from a canal is not just the result of rain, but the result of decisions about how the canal was built and where the water was directed to. Features of the landscape created by humans affect how nature affects us, so it is important to make sure the system and the humans making these decisions take responsibility for the impact of their actions."


Al concluded by saying that the acronym ACT (addressing, connecting, things beyond the human) is a reminder that we can choose to act or be silent about inequalities.


Raksha Mahtani (she/her/they): Speaking up, Speaking with, Speaking to: Communicating equitably in an unequal world


Raksha has worked with communities and Dr Mohan Dutta on various projects, including Project X Singapore, a sex workers advocacy organisation, and food distribution in rental flat communities. She started by talking about challenges to having communities and people speak up. One barrier is the fact that people feel they are not educated or knowledgeable enough to speak. Since in Singapore speaking up in itself is not valued and academic qualifications are emphasised, these people often feel that they do not deserve to speak about their own problems and elites are better qualified to talk about them.


Raksha pointed out a couple of specific barriers to speaking up faced by minority groups. One was a lack of minority representation in public discussions - it makes it seem as if nobody in government or media cares about minorities' issues, so it seems like there is no point in speaking up. Another problem is the fact that the government often punishes people from minority groups who speak up, as can be seen by the police investigations of Raeesah Khan, Preeti and Subhas when they brought up issues to do with racism. However, if allies from majority privileged groups speak up in support, this can give some protection when they raise points in public. An example of this was the statement which some Chinese Singaporeans put together and shared on social media, disagreeing with the government's claim that Raeesah's social media posts injured other races' feelings.


Another challenge was trying to identify the different places where people feel empowered to make their concerns heard. These could be in their own neighbourhoods, national (e.g. newspapers), regional (e.g. Southeast Asian organisations) and international (e.g. the United Nations). Another challenge was whether to speak as an individual or collective. A person sharing their own story can be powerful but people may feel more comfortable voicing their concerns as a group or community. The final challenge Raksha identified was that issues can be very difficult to understand. There are several factors involved, including lack of background information, or the necessary information is not publicly available.


Raksha stated that she did not think there could be true equality in communication while the current power structures are still in place. If we are in a position of power when working with a marginalised community, we need to be very aware of these dynamics and be mindful to think of participants as co-creators of knowledge about communities & themselves, not to see ourselves as experts. Some of the strategies she suggested include organising regular events and spaces for people to listen to each other, consulting with people to find out how they want to be heard, and directly affirming people that their participation is valuable without immediately judging their ideas as good or bad.


Dr Satveer Kaur-Gill: Communicating Social Change


Satveer's presentation introduced the Culture-Centred Approach (CCA) as a critically driven participatory approach for social change. Before using the CCA framework, it is important to think about the common stereotypes and beliefs that already exist and constantly require interrogation. For example, when it comes to climate change, views and experiences from the margins of the Global South are often absent in the media. By interrogating dominant discourses on climate change, these erasures remain uncovered. Instead, the CCA tells us that listening to the lived experiences of the margins can create entry points for alternative knowledge sources. Satveer's colleagues have done work with women in poor farming communities in India and learned that they have come up with their own ways of adapting to climate change, such as alternative and traditional farming practices that are resilient to climate change.


The CCA is also concerned with the question of how beliefs and perceptions about marginalised groups are created, and why the voices of groups themselves are absent. This is often due to how privileged groups communicate with marginalised groups in a very top-down way, such as giving less information and being less respectful than they would be to someone who has a similar background. For Satveer, the CCA framework is important to bring about communicative practices that are equitable to all. This brings up the question of how to create spaces where marginalised communities and the knowledge they bring are seen as equal to academics with advanced degrees, and where they can speak up in their own ways.


Regarding unfair treatment of migrant workers in Singapore during the pandemic, the CCA framework creates opportunities for understanding narratives from the ground. This includes changing the precarious systems of hire for low-wage migrant workers (e.g. debt-bound labor), and allowing workers to lead discussions about their own issues rather than having Singaporean activists speak for them. Under the CCA framework, Singaporean allies (including researchers and activists) must focus on not just giving marginalised communities space to be heard, but to make their voices the most powerful ones, and change the system to allow these communities themselves to take action about their own well-being and rights.

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