If someone used an adjective to describe you, which adjective would they choose? Have you ever asked yourself that question? It’s an exercise that’s both fun and terrifying. It’s fun because it lets you dream about who you want to be and how you want to be remembered. At the same time, it can be terrifying because it opens your imagination up to the possibility that someone might describe you with an adjective that fails to capture your full capacity and value.
It’s the difference between calling someone wise or old, assertive or aggressive. Adjectives are inherently limiting, which makes them tricky. You might know what you mean, but words are pregnant with cultural implications and associations. That’s why it’s important for us to be very intentional when we use them.
Lead Collective exists to equip and elevate youth leaders from historically under-resourced communities. That’s been our mission from the beginning, and by God’s grace, we’ll continue to pursue it for years to come. While our mission hasn’t changed over the years, the language we use to describe our work certainly has. The language used to describe populations at-risk of teen-pregnancies, homelessness, and incarceration has evolved over the years. Over time, we’ve adopted the language used by many other organizations and social scientists. The problem is, in an attempt to describe needs and circumstances with brevity, we have taken those needs and circumstances and turned them into adjectives by which we define people—people who are far more capable and valuable than those adjectives convey.
The students we serve are so much more than “at-risk” or “underprivileged.” A student might be at risk of something serious or under-resourced in a practical sense, but they are so much more than that. Recently, I spoke with a former student who grew up under the banner of “at-risk,” and he described his experience by saying, “That sh*t labeled me growing up.” He felt defined by the description, limited by the label. He felt as if a glass ceiling had been placed above his head by the people trying to help him.
This post is both an apology and an invitation. I am apologizing for the language we’ve used in the past. I think it was unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. It was well-intentioned and based on industry trends, but as time has gone by, we’ve learned and adapted. Almost a year ago, we established a new internal policy and began overhauling the language we use to describe our work. We’re inviting you to adapt and grow with us.
Here’s an excerpt from our internal policy:
The only adjectives we want to use to describe students should be affirming and uplifting adjectives. We want to define students by what is ultimately true about them—they are made in God’s image with the potential to do great things! A good rule of thumb might be this: if you don’t want a student to live into a particular definition, then don’t use it as an adjective to describe them. If you think a student is more than “under-performing,” then don’t use that to describe them. Students will live into the definitions we give them. Let’s speak a better word over them, one that, when lived into, will empower them to become the people God created them to be.This approach doesn’t mean that we deny the challenging circumstances our students experience. It just means we don’t use those circumstances as adjectives to define them.
Let’s get practical.
Instead of saying “under-resourced student,” we’ve decided to say, “student from an under-resourced community.” This simple shift allows us to honor the challenges that a student might be facing without limiting their capacity or value through an unhelpful label. We’re more committed than ever to our mission of equipping and elevating youth leaders from under-resourced communities. Thank you for your willingness to join us as we adapt and grow in our ability to communicate this mission while dignifying and honoring our students’ God-given capacity!