Ten years ago, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed himself as the Minister for Women. Much has been written about the message this sent and what the government of the time really thought about women, despite the carefully framed rhetoric being spewed in press releases and at doorstop press conferences. But this post is not a lesson in Australian politics. It merely sets the scene for me to speak about the underhanded ways that those whose voice should be heard are silenced.
Diabetes advocacy sits in an environment that often resists the voices of those most affected by diabetes, at times in somewhat sneaky ways. A wolf in sheep’s clothing in advocacy comes in the form of anyone claiming to advocate by ‘being the voice’ of people with diabetes, which is problematic not least because we have our own voices and don’t need others to speak for us. Being adjacent to diabetes does not give anyone license to speak on our behalf. In fact, the very idea that anyone thinks that they can represent those who should be centred is offensive.
It matters, by the way. When our insights are not the ones being heard, we find ourselves in a cycle of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Our perspective must be heard because it is inevitably comes with the reality of diabetes. When a person with diabetes is asked about why we need to invest in better diabetes care, have better access to drugs and technology or improve funding in diabetes research, we will speak of how improved care leads to better engagement with our healthcare professionals, reduced emotional load and the resulting increased time we can spend with loved ones and being productive at work. We will speak about how increased access can equal decreased burden for us and what that means in our real lives. And we will speak about how research is the gateway for us to have better understanding of our diabetes, helping us make more informed decisions, and speak to how research has changed our lives to date. We speak about hope authentically because we hold onto it with both hands.
Someone speaking ‘on our behalf’ will inevitably focus on reducing burden to the health system (which often makes us feel as if we’re to blame for overwhelmed and overrun hospitals and adds to diabetes stigma) or resort to listing diabetes-related complications, a familiar trope that sounds like a shopping list that does well to scaring us! I spent years being a spokesperson for diabetes organisations and always ensured that the reality of day-to-day diabetes was part of the discussion, not just the rehearsed talking points that tell nothing of the people behind the numbers. Even more importantly, I learnt very early on in my own advocacy when it was not my voice that should be heard and ensured I had a network I could reach into to find the right person. I estimate that about ninety percent of the time I’m asked to give comment, I point whoever is asking in the direction of someone far better positioned to share their lived experience.
This year brought with it a new role where it was essential that I step into the background. I now find myself in the incredibly fortunate position of working with unbelievably brilliant grassroots and community advocates doing truly life changing work with people with diabetes across India. I am not here to tell their stories or about their work. I wouldn’t do it justice – I have more than enough self-awareness to know that. I recognise that they are the protagonists of their narrative. They are the ones doing living the experiences, doing the ground-breaking work, and pushing for change. My responsibility is to be an ally and a supporter, doing what I can to amplify their voices rather than overshadow them. Perhaps this speaks to my own confidence in my abilities as an advocate that I don’t feel threatened by others who are raising their voices. Effective advocacy thrives on collaboration and shared leadership, and I admire those in the advocacy world who willingly take a step back. I think it’s fair to say that others also see those who do that; and also those who do not.
There are more insidious and damaging ways that our voices are silenced. Let’s go back for a moment to our former Prime Minister. I said earlier that he made himself Minister for Women. Except, he didn’t. In fact, he abolished the position and moved it into the Office of PM and Cabinet, removing the seniority and decision-making powers it had previously held. Sure, he appointed Michaela Cash as an advisor, but this was no more than an exercise in tokenism. The reality was that the PM would have final control over decisions affecting women. Abbott bristled when questioned about his decision, refusing to listen to the myriad women and women’s groups criticising the move, instead responding defensively.
I use this as an example when consulting organisations about effective engagement and how to address commentary from the community they work with and for. Receiving criticism can be uncomfortable. However, by being open to how community responds and the feedback they generously offer, it is an opportunity for improvement and collaboration, rather than a threat to be neutralised. It’s incredibly disappointing when organisations respond by attempting to discredit or question the motives and expertise of those with lived experience or suggest that negative comments are part of efforts underpinned with ulterior motives. It’s disheartening to hear implications that individuals offering critical perspectives are merely being influenced by others, disregarding their ability to form independent thoughts and opinions. This is simply another way that community voices are effectively silenced, and proves to the community that contributions from those who should be heard are not valued at all.
I speak a lot about allyship as a pivotal force in including and amplifying rather than excluding and silencing the voices of those with lived experiences. Allyship is an active commitment to placing people with diabetes at the forefront of conversations; featuring them in all levels of decision making; putting them in the rooms where things happen. True allyship involves listening to and acting upon the needs and concerns of people with diabetes, even when what is being said is difficult to hear. What it isn’t is fantastic window dressing. We see right through that.
I wrote this piece while listening to Black Oak Ensembles 2019 album, ‘Silenced Voices’. It’s stunning.