Amplifying What She Just Said

On speaking and being heard. 

October 13, 2020

For Kamala Harris and all of us who need to keep pointing out that we are speaking. 

Last week, women across the world felt seen and heard when Kamala Harris uttered the phrase that took social media by storm: “I am speaking.”

This was a hot topic during last week’s podcast recording conversations for this season’s View from Venus.  We had inspiring conversations with Wendy Wilson, Ann Gagne, and Selcen Oner. One of our main goals for both the University of Venus blog and the View from Venus podcast is to amplify the voices of women. 

I learn so much from our podcast guests and our writers. For me, curiosity and learning are intrinsically intertwined and it ties back to generous listening. When I am speaking, I am not learning as much. When I am listening - especially generously listening - I am like a sponge soaking up so much new knowledge. 

When I meet those who speak far more than they listen, I am always surprised and dismayed, especially when I find them in higher ed. I can’t help but wonder if they think they have nothing to learn or perhaps, in their minds, there are only certain people who are deemed worthy enough to learn from and worthy enough to listen to. I know that racism and sexism color who counts as being worthy of learning from, and that extends to seeing and hearing what people say. 

We are trained through multiple systems and societal structures to hear white men, to listen to white men, and to view knowledge as coming from white men. Society trains our brains to hear other voices as background noise. The filter we have been taught to use is one that prioritizes the voices of white men. If I only listen to white men, then I will never hear what women and BIPOC are saying. I will not hear them and I will not see them because I have already pre-determined that I have nothing to learn from them, that they are not knowledge producers. This is how society is structured. It is not usually intentional at the individual level- at least not in my world. 

So what does that mean? For me, it means we have to pay attention. When a white man enters a room and we all turn, we need to notice this behavior. We also need to recognize that this is not his fault and it is not our fault. We are not intentionally doing this. However, we have to intentionally undo it. 

We need to watch, listen and look for equity of voice. We need to ask ourselves: Who isn’t speaking? Who isn’t being heard when they do speak? Are there patterns of exclusion? Are the women less likely to speak or be heard? What about BIPOC folks, especially BIPOC women? How do we teach ourselves and others to truly hear folks who are not white men? Like being anti-racist, it takes work.

It begins by paying attention and noticing who is in the room and who is not in the room, who is at the table and not at the table, who is speaking or not speaking, who is being heard and not heard. As we are noticing, we also need to amplify.  At our faculty orientation last month, I spoke about equity of voice and I asked those who normally speak to take some time to listen and to notice who is not speaking, and to find ways to amplify the voices of those who are not being heard. 

Amplification is one of those behaviors that’s new for a lot of folks. For women, we are often focused on finding a way to have our own voice in the mix, and the nervousness and anxiety around figuring out when to speak and what to say often prevents us from amplifying the voices of others. We need to do more. We need to do better. 

When trying out new behaviors and learning new skills, my coaching clients often ask me for phrases they can use, and these kinds of templates can be really helpful when you are learning new skills. Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended an HR training that included recommended phrases when approaching someone who is not wearing a mask or physically distancing (they would make great t-shirts). 

So, what’s your amplification phrase? My go-to is: I would like to amplify what she just said. 

Even if we don’t agree, we can still amplify. When that’s the case, I still try to amplify:  I want to acknowledge what she just said. Although I don't agree with her, I think she has some really valid points and I want to make sure she was heard. 


Mary Churchill is associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University, where she also teaches in the higher education administration program. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis (spring 2021, Johns Hopkins University Press), which details the merger of Wheelock College and Boston University.



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