“The liberation of my voice is the liberation of your voice,” Raquel Gutierrez whispered in my ear. It was Friday, March 21st, the last day of the National Hispana Leadership Institute week long workshop at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. As a faculty member of this program, I had just facilitated several days’ sessions on communication, presentation and leadership skills.
Racial and cultural issues were alive in the room from the moment we began. How could they not be? Sixteen women had been chosen from a national pool of applicants as Fellows for this program. Although their Latina heritage was one commonality, their differences were telling. Several women were born in Puerto Rico, one woman was from Peru, some were from Mexico, others were born in the U.S. and identified themselves as such. They worked in education, government, public service, non-profits, insurance and banking. More stark, though, was the makeup of the faculty: four non-Latina women, one Dutch male.
One participant was particularly tuned to the ongoing issue of white privilege in her work as the principal of an at-risk school in Oregon. She could see how it played out yet again in this particular Harvard environment. The group became polarized around her perspective. One woman, who had immigrated from Mexico as a child, didn’t name herself as a Latina but as an American. She was fiercely proud of everything that she had achieved in the U.S., putting herself through school, finding a great position, and now taking this class at Harvard. Another, who was born in Peru, had been adopted by non-Hispanic parents. She seethed all week until the last day, when she spoke passionately about her white parents and the safe home they had provided for her.
Every day, I listened to the voices of these women. In my former role as a voice and speech teacher in the theater, my thrill at the variety of accents in the room would have been about how words were being made. I would have wanted to record each of the participants for my sound files. I would have been dissecting the vowel and consonant shifts, the placement, the musicality and rhythm. I would have been thinking about how an accent might fit in the theater or what would need to change in order to be viable in performance. I would have only partially heard what was being said.
The last session of the last day, each Fellow had five minutes to speak about their biggest learning from the week. One at a time, they came to the front of the room. One very successful woman talked about how this workshop had made her proud of her origins. She spoke about how she can now love her Latina hair and body. She can love her Mom, who she described as wearing a hoodie when she goes out for a smoke in front of the projects where she still lives. She also spoke about how proud she is of how she sounds: her strong Nuyorican accent is no longer something she is ashamed of. I realized that I was hearing her, truly hearing her, because I wasn’t wearing my voice teacher hat.
After all the participants had spoken, there were to be a few closing words, followed by a graduation ceremony. But the Fellows called out for everyone in the room, faculty and staff, to reveal their own big “aha” from the week. I started to think about the decades I had spent required by my profession to correct how actors speak. My mind raced over the current controversies in the voice and speech teaching world. I had heard hours of discussion about how formal or informal a non-regional American dialect should be. I had been a part of ongoing debates about how to honor cultural variations yet provide actors with a practical tool for success in the theater. A big bell in my head was ringing, “white privilege.” The real questions should be, “Are your thoughts clear? Can you be heard? Can you be understood?”
I felt unusually fragile as I came to the front of the lecture hall. I spoke about how I had been wearing my voice teacher hat for thirty-six years. I could feel the weight of that heavy hat lifting after hearing the voices of these women. I had an exquisite sense of something big shifting in my life, letting go of a particular kind of judgement that had been the hallmark of my success in the theater. I could take delight now in the multiplicity of voices, listening for sense, hearing the words, feeling the meaning, understanding the person.
The graduation ceremony began. As I handed Raquel her beautifully bound Harvard Kennedy School certificate, she wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, “The liberation of my voice is the liberation of your voice.” I took a huge breath of relief as tears of understanding filled my eyes.