How to Fix a Broken Tongue

Natalie S. Burke
4 min readOct 24, 2016


We speak things into existence and use words to reinforce the status quo. We have all heard “Words have power,” the ability to define reality for ourselves and for others. That is exactly what we do through what we say, what we write, or those words we release into the realm of social media. While some words and phrases are obviously harmful like “illegal immigrant” which criminalizes the person instead of the action, other words are more subtle — insidious. They often lack the intent and strategy of language we consider to be “dog whistle” but the damage they cause is likely worse.

As I work around the country, I am stunned at the way well-meaning professionals (the ones “down for the cause”) talk to and talk about people and communities who are often not privileged and are rarely a part of the conversation.

Leaders regularly say they “empower” people, employees, and communities. How can people be given power by any of us when they already have it? The idea is arrogant, condescending, and pejorative. At best, we can help people use their power or we might confer authority to an employee in a workplace, but to empower them — -the power is already theirs.

The phrase “minority,” is belittling. In first grade, children learn to look for the root word. Do we want our kids to connect an important part of their social identity with being “minor?” Do we want white children to think of other kids as minor at a time when they are developing social skills, their belief system, and early perceptions of race, religion, sexual, or gender identity? I think not.

In education and health, we have been stuck on “disparities” for decades while failing to cultivate an understanding of inequities — avoidable and unjust differences — that desperately require our attention. Inequities cause disparities, not the other way around. Disparities are very real but they are also a very real distraction.

For decades, we have used “underserved” as a way to describe people and populations that live in under-resourced communities. Underserved makes it sound like they are sitting, waiting to be handed something on a silver platter and that all of their challenges relate to services when in fact their challenges reflect a lack of resources — of which services is only one. Use underserved only when talking about services, not as a blanket term for impoverished communities. Use the phrase “under-resourced” as a more accurate way to frame larger issues. For this purpose, resources include leadership, physical assets, money, power, political will, institutions, community cohesion, and services.

When was the last time you heard someone use the phrase “poor people?” In addition to lacking money or possessions, poor means inferior and worthy of pity. People living in poverty are no more pitiful or inferior than undocumented immigrants are illegal.

How often do you talk about “community members?” Now this one may seem innocuous but I believe it is a significant barrier to community collaboration (“collective impact” if you are into designer labels) because it serves to “otherize” nonresidents of a community who have a genuine, vested interest in that community. Also, “community members” can have subtle pejorative undertones. It creates an “us vs. them” culture that segregates people working in a community from the people who live in that community. To be effective, we have to see ourselves as community members, do the hard work to become part of the community, and let’s be honest, community is defined by much more than zipcode!

Another way that we perpetuate “us vs. them” is when we talk about giving community leaders “A Seat at the Table” when in fact, the community IS the table. To say otherwise, fails to integrate institutional identities with community identities and often makes successful collaboration impossible.

If you want to see the hair on the back of my neck stand up, label a population or community “vulnerable.” The word is often viewed as a character assessment and creates a perception of weakness when the truth is that people experience physical, emotional, social, and economic vulnerability when systems and institutions fail to allow access, respond to, or even plan for their existence. In some instances, those systems were designed to hurt, control, and oppress certain populations and people. What benefit is there in telling someone they are vulnerable over and over again, especially when it is not accurate?

Think of it like this. If you tell someone something often enough, eventually they will believe you and people act on their beliefs. Successful brands and politicians do it all the time and it works.

I have no interest in being the word police or politically correct but I am interested in using simple hacks to change the world. This is one of them. Choose to use words that affirm instead of question, benefit instead of oppress, respect instead of denigrate, and value instead of marginalize. Speak into existence the world in which you want to live — one word at a time.

Video: Health Disparities vs. Health Inequities in 69 Seconds.

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Natalie S. Burke

#GetUncomfortable. A full-bodied embrace of all that I am and full-throated expression of all that I think. I opine strongly but judge rarely.