Talking Our Way to Transformation

written by Johanna Depenthal

Folk wisdom claims that words are the ineffective opposite of action.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” children boast on the playground.  “Words can’t do it justice,” we say, marveling at something we are powerless to describe.  “Actions speak louder than words,” we tell ourselves.  Spanish speakers similarly emphasize the divide between words and actions. Del dicho al hecho hay un gran trecho. “Between said and done there’s a great trench.”  

Why, then, would we call our publication Streetside Conversations?  Why talk about justice when we could focus all our energy on doing?  Certainly, our sayings about words are right in many regards.  Words only communicate meaning if they refer to an agreed upon object or concept.  If words describe or promise action that is not forthcoming, they quickly become worthless.  Even more dangerously, without understanding the speaker’s intent, an audience may misinterpret words or intentionally distort their meaning.  

Words in the context of conversations, however, can have a radically different impact.  When we exchange words with a commitment to understanding each other, the resulting conversations have the power to shape and reorient us.  As it turns out, “conversation” and “conversion” are derived from the same Latin words: com, meaning “with,” or “together,” and vertere, meaning “to turn around, or transform” (Online Etymology Dictionary). This makes sense to me, because my own “conversion” to caring about and seeking to practice justice resulted from a series of conversations.  Some took place in the classroom, where my professors patiently sketched out the imprint of injustice in our society and on our campus to a group of skeptical students.  A few conversations were momentary snapshots of a reality I hadn’t experienced, such as a friend casually mentioning he was approached twice in one day by law enforcement officers.  It seems they were curious as to why an African American man would be visiting the church building where he had gone to pray.  Other conversations took place late at night in my apartment, where my friend told me in detail what he had seen on a trip to Israel and Palestine.  

These conversations were a crucial part of my “conversion” to caring about justice.  One way or another, I believe that for most of us caring about justice has been a journey.  For some of us, it is the process of coming to name, protest, and challenge the unjust systems that have always worked against them, something African Americans have described as being “woke.”  For others of us, myself included, it is coming to admit that systems of oppression are real, recognizing the ugly truth that we benefit from them, and joining others in working against such systems. In both cases, conversations often play a crucial role in our transformation into people who care about justice and are committed to playing a role in building a more just society.

Of course, conversations and conversions do not automatically transform us into justice warriors: they are the beginning of a long process of learning to act with greater integrity as we seek to practice justice in every dimension of our lives. Conversations about justice are only meaningful when they are accompanied by action.  This pairing of reflection and action is often referred to as praxis, and it is what gives our conversations value. Our focus at Streetside Conversations is reflecting on practices of justice, whether expressed through the decision to not buy a pair of cheap jeans or as a member of the UN High Commission on Human Rights.  We are not interested in arguing the theoretical nature of justice or trying to define its boundaries. Conversations can be a step in conversion to practicing justice, but justice can and should also be practiced within our conversations.  

How then should we practice justice within our dialogue here at Streetside Conversations?  I encourage us as a community to shape our conversation in the following ways:

  • By speaking from our own experience, using “I” and “we,” and avoiding generalizations
  • By acknowledging our biases
  • By defining our terms and using precise language
  • By respecting the dignity of persons by including relevant context
  • By describing persons in ways that do not limit or reduce them
  • By asking permission to share stories
  • By inviting others to speak for themselves
  • By emphasizing hope where it can be found  

Where does this leave us?  Words may be empty, but conversations have the power to transform us.  Here at Streetside Conversations, we see conversation—whether written, spoken, sung, rapped, signed, or texted—as a powerful action, but recognize that it must be paired with other practices of justice in order to be meaningful.  Practicing justice requires conversion. It requires that we be reoriented, turned around with one another, transformed together to go against our natural self-interest, step out of our cultural norms, and be willing to make sacrifices.  Being committed to practicing justice is hard. How refreshing it is to know that the first step in our journey can be as simple as talking about it.    

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