More than 150 people gathered virtually on April 19 for “Words Matter:  The Intersectionality of Race, Religion and Public Policy.” A panel of academicians and community leaders explored the power of language in the intersection of race, religion and public policy and how that is reflected in the ways that different groups thrive while others remain marginalized.

The Zoom webinar was sponsored by Perkins School of Theology’s Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions and the Department of World Languages and Literature at Dedman School of the Humanities and Sciences. Isabel Docampo, Director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions, coordinated the event and co-hosted along with Ángel J. Gallardo, Associate Director of the Perkins Intern Program.

“We brought together experts from the academy with leaders working in the community, and the result was a rich and thought-provoking conversation,” said Docampo. “I have received many emails of gratitude and requests for the recording of the program, and a few of the attendees tell me they plan to take the information they learned to their own churches.”

The recording of the Words Matter webinar is available on the Latino Center website at  https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/PublicPrograms/LatinoCenter/Events

Bill Holston

Bill Holston, Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative in Dallas, opened the webinar with these words: “Words have real power – for good and for bad. They can even kill. One of the most powerful examples is from the country of Rwanda.”

He recalled how promoters of genocide used ‘other’ metaphors to incite Hutus against the Hutu minority, calling them ‘cockroaches’ or ‘snakes.

“This use of rhetoric motivated people to kill 800,000 of their neighbors eventually,” he said. “There’s a direct connection between words and actions and violence.”

Holston catalogued ways that President Trump invoked anti-immigrant emotion at his campaign rallies, using words such as “animals,” “invasion,” “rapists,” “killers” or “predators” more than 500 times– language that was ultimately mirrored by individuals who perpetrated acts of violence, including the gunmen responsible for mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso and a mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand.

Dr. Alberto Pastor, Associate Professor of Spanish, Department of World Languages and Literature, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, SMU, described two types of linguistic discrimination that Spanish speakers in the U.S. encounter:  external discrimination (example: bumper sticker that read “This is America, speak English!”) as well as internal linguistic discrimination from Spanish speakers toward other Spanish speakers, based on the notion that the two languages, Spanish and English, must be strictly separated.

A survey of attitudes among DISD students revealed that the design of the bilingual program was based on monolingual principles – one day in English, today in Spanish. Standardized tests were based on language varieties from outside the U.S.; as a result, kids from the local community in Texas were expected to know words from as far away as Spain. Speaking variants from outside the U.S. were considered superior to variants from inside the U.S.  Students are taught that Spanglish is not the proper way to speak, and that Spanglish words “don’t exist.” Local varieties of Spanish aren’t reflected in textbooks.

“Linguistic behaviors such as word loaning—borrowing words from English—or code switching were highly repressed in the classroom,” he said. But these behaviors “are not the result of laziness; it’s quite the opposite.”

“The result is that students do not feel that their language and culture are validated in the school setting,” he said. “Research concludes that internal linguistic discrimination leads to language loss. With time, Spanish will be replaced by English.”

Emily Timm

Emily Timm is Co-Executive Director, Proyecto de Defensa Laboral/Workers Defense Project, in Austin-Dallas-Houston, which works to improve the lives of low-wage immigrant workers in Texas, especially those in the construction industry.

She noted a shift in thinking during the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of “essential workers” who grow food, build and maintain infrastructure, stock grocery stores, deliver mail and provide healthcare and how that became a household word during the pandemic.

“These workers have always been essential,” she said. “As so many Texans were ordered to shelter in place, we suddenly saw that essential workers became visible, because they still had to go to work despite the risks, because they were necessary for the function of our society.”

The new awareness “became a powerful tool to try to raise up and highlight the importance of these immigrant workers and give context to the dignity and justice we’ve been demanding for years.”

Unfortunately, she added, the new “essential worker” language hasn’t translated into increased protections for low wage workers.  These workers may be essential, but they are still excluded, Timm said.

Timm played a video of an essential worker performing a poignant song he had written, in Spanish, describing his experience: “I am the builder of your schools / I build your city and highways, bridges, hospitals and homes / Even if you don’t see me building, I am for Texas.”

“We need to honor and value these workers by providing concrete protections for frontline workers: a pathway to citizenship, safety protections, national paid sick leave, fair wages, health insurance,” she said. “How do we claim the power of the words ‘essential workers’ to actually advocate for real change in the lives of essential workers?”

Shellie Ross

Shellie Ross (M.Div. 2011), Executive Director of Wesley-Rankin Community Center, spoke along with Alé Lopez, a longtime resident of the west Dallas neighborhood the center serves.

Since the completion of the Hunt bridge in 2012, the neighborhood has been undergoing gentrification, displacing many residents, Ross said.  She talked about how words like “renewal,” “revitalization” and “renovation” are problematic.

“These words imply that there was something less, or nothing, before,” she said. “Many residents were displaced because of gentrification. What happens is, property taxes increase and families who’ve lived there for centuries are dislocated. Gentrification is a visible sign of inequity. To choose words like ‘renovation’ and ‘renewal’ pits the longtime residents of west Dallas against the new, wealthier residents who are moving in. The language doesn’t embody neighbors, it embodies walls.”

Lopez shared the sense of grief she feels as the favorite neighborhood restaurants and mom & pop shops disappear. “I used to walk down the street to visit aunt and grandmother,” she said. “Now, it’s a CVS. It’s mentally exhausting to see families who have lived her for decades, even centuries, leave because they can no longer able to afford them.”

Rev. David Wilson

The Rev. David Wilson, Assistant to the Bishop at the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church, brought up the power of “no words.”

“Native Americans are considered a people that has been conquered,” he said. “As a native American person, we have become the invisible ones. We have no contribution to make to voice the future.” He described attending a meeting to encourage more participation in the 2020 Census; posters were available targeting African American, Asian and Latino audiences – but there was nothing for Native Americans.

“We are a city with a significant native population,” he said. “Our mayor is native American. Yet we had been left out.”

Dr. Evelyn Parker, Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology at Perkins School of Theology, described the importance of language in how religious leaders speak to the faithful.

“The words of religious leaders matter,” she said. “They are life and death. They have power to influence and persuade the thoughts and actions of people who trust them and view them as a source of authority. Pastors can speak words that protect and promote life or lead to harm and death.” She described empowering words from a pastor that inspired generous donations to support COVID-19 relief – in contrast to the words of Jim Jones, whose words led 918 followers to commit suicide at the Jonestown community in Guyana in 1978.

Parker addressed specifically the way that religious leaders can influence for life or for death in situations involving intimate partner violence.

“When there are few words of life from religious leaders, where there is ignorance or denial, I would contend that silence gives consent for perpetuating the problem,” she said.

Parker encouraged pastors to illustrate sermons with stories that portray the worth of women and girls; to preach and teach texts about violence against women and girls; to speak intentionally about intimate partner violence when counseling couples; to develop ministries that address intimate partner violence in partnership with rape crisis centers and women’s shelters; to serve as an advocate for better policies; and to join with other religious leaders to create public statements on the topic.

In closing the program, Isabel Docampo said, “All of you have inspired us to be thoughtful about words—who is controlling the message, what are the forces behind that, who’s benefiting and how we can bring our own power into that space. To really listen, with the humility and the openness that that takes. We have much to think about and I hope and pray that all of us are feeling empowered to be more attentive and more thoughtful about our own words.”

“We can use our language to affirm each other, or we can use it to destroy each other,” Holston said. “The choice is ours.”