Much of what we have covered up to now has been focused on ways in which you can take action to mold your community to be what you want it to be. One of the most elemental ways to do this is by the simple act of speaking. We’ve all heard the catchphrases: “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and all the rest of them. These sayings are great but end up sounding prosaic over time, and we stop realizing the importance of what they mean.
Today is National Day of Silence, and several students on campus will take a vow of silence for the day to draw attention to the silences forced on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are targets of bullying and harassment in their schools. Day of Silence exists because there are many people who do not speak up when they see bullying in action or hear people saying hurtful things unintentionally. Those who feel they cannot speak up for themselves fall into silence, so today we renew our commitment to speak up. Ironically, we speak up in the demonstration by refusing to physically speak.
This day encourages us to think about three kinds of silence: silence as a form of inaction, forced silence and silence as a form of action. When someone fails to speak up when they could step in as bystander, this inaction causes harm. One of our favorite quotations from Elie Wiesel, and you probably know it too, speaks to this exactly: “We must take sides . . . silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Bystander silence forces the victims into silence themselves. The effects of this silence manifest in many ways, often unseen. Targets of harassment, bullying and micro-aggressions can slowly sink into despair, and unfortunately, this ends in suicide far too often.
The silence of those participating in today’s demonstration is not the failure to act but rather a conscious decision to use silence as a distinct and intentional action. If you cannot take a vow of silence today, at least absorb the message about the good and bad kinds of silence.
Speaking up can take the form of intervening if you see someone being verbally harassed and walking with the targeted individual to a safe area. And though it sounds a lot like “tattling,” an important and effective way of intervening can also mean telling an authority figure about the situation, which can keep you safe if a direct intervention could be harmful. Whatever form intervention takes, we would urge you to decide to be an active (instead of passive) bystander. Because, like the tired phrase goes, it could mean the world to whomever you help. As forms of intervention, these are great, but another important way to bring about change is by teaming up with other people.
You might be unsure of how to speak up in a big way. Sometimes we are too; so both of us, along with other students from Trinity, are going to Austin over Memorial Day weekend to the Harvey Milk Day Conference. This conference was started in 2010 to commemorate the birthday of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. Now, in the conference’s third year, it attracts more budding community organizers than ever before. If you want to learn more about the conference, you can go to http://getequaltx.org.
Learn at least one thing from today: speak up, especially when it feels the least comfortable, because those are the moments when it counts the most. Take the vow of silence today if you want, but, after today, speak up as loudly and as often as you can because you will never know how many people you help by doing so. Hopefully we can learn that in a world of only silence, nobody wins.