Inclusive language is key to collaboration

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Developing a shared understanding of language helps facilitate communication and build trust in multidisciplinary partnerships.

Building relationships is easier said than done. For some of us, building rapport is challenging, even as practitioners in the highly people-oriented field of sexual violence. Some of this difficulty derives from how we all communicate differently. For instance, how a campus law enforcement officer at a liberal arts college communicates with another sworn officer at a large state university will be different from the way they communicate with an advocate.  Regardless of the audience, context or means of communication, there is one common denominator overcoming the challenge: use inclusive language.

In it’s purest form, language provides the capacity to communicate and share information.  For campuses, sharing knowledge, access to services, campus resources, as well as community services and resources are critical to developing an effective coordinated community response. An example? The very act of naming a group of professionals working together to improve a campus response to sexual assault, domestic/dating violence and stalking produces a form of control and power. In a similar fashion, the absence of naming leads to a perception of invisibility or homogeneity.

Language is a shared understanding of relating to one another i.e. a reflection of perceptions defined by relational power.  Being mindful of the language that we avoid as well as the language we use at meetings, in press releases, websites, and our daily face to face interactions, ultimately reflect our points of privilege and oppression.  Systems of oppression are interconnected and these systems impact not only how students access services but also have a significant and palpable impact on the collaboration that occurs on Coordinated Community Response Teams.

Donna Barry, Forensic Nurse Practitioner & Chief Paul Cell, both work at Montclair State University, are inspiring advocates in the field against campus violence that offer a few suggestions on how campuses can develop a shared and inclusive language:

  • Individual agendas – Learn why your partner comes to the table. We all have rich histories that explain our motivations and trajectory to where we are today.
  • Learn their focus – The director of the campus health center has a different focus than that of the university prevention specialist that is also part of the CCRT.  They both work at the same organization but have specialized knowledge and a unique focus. Know their focus to help identify resources and needs on a CCRT.  If partners do not come prepared to share their focus, model the behavior that you’re seeking from others.
  • Respect their roles – Understand what limitations your partners have given their role as each partner brings a valuable set of experiences and resources that enrich your CCRT.
  • Communicate in another language – Become comfortable with the discipline-specific language that your CCRT partners use. Not only does this help with developing a shared understanding of language but it also helps build trust.

Are there suggestions missing from the above list?  What has worked for you when developing rapport with campus and community partners?

Livia Rojas, MSSW, is the Training and Resource Coordinator in the Campus Program at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) where she provides training and technical assistance to recipients of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) Grant to Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking on college and university campuses across the United States and territories. Livia has eleven years of working to advance human rights and student organizing through practice and research.

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