Speak-Up and Find Your Voice

Posted: November 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

In the summer of 2002, I walked into the offices of Figure Skating in Harlem (www.figureskatinginharlem.org) in New York City to offer to teach a communication program to the girls enrolled in this very successful after-school program. My plan was to rewrite for their young students a lecture series I had been giving to Toastmasters Clubs and speakers in and around the New York area: “It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It!”

I was thrilled to learn from Founder and Executive Director, Ms. Sharon Cohen, that a public speaking program was a perfect fit for her organization. I began teaching the following October when the skating season in New York City begins.

My first class was wonderful; Ms. Sharon introduced me to the loveliest group of girls and young women I had met. I remember thinking – “this’ll be piece of cake.”

Second class – not so rosy. In fact, these youngsters were not interested in public speaking. Not even a bit! Their body language, one hip out with a hand planted firmly upon it, or  arms folded tightly across  chests, let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they were not having one thing to do with my idea of them speaking in public. No way!

Feeling out-numbered and somewhat intimidated, I made my way around the room. Standing before each one I mirrored their poses and said, “Your body language is telling me this is the dumbest class you have ever attended. But, just do me one favour: just keep coming and listening because, one day, you may be out in the world and maybe you will remember something that you heard in this class.”

As I imitated each one of them, I told them that I wanted to teach them how to stand up to the world out there. I wanted them to find their voices; to know that they could say anything if they knew how to say it. And as I went around the circle speaking to them, they began to drop the armour of their body language and by week four, I practically had a revolt on my hands. Most were vying to get-up, tripping over each other to stand up and speak up. I had 26 girls in a 50 minute class and 20 of them wanted a go at it. I gave them  all roles so they could have at least something to say. And speak they did! Thus began my first Speak-Up! Performance Club.

We followed three simple principles:

  1.  We will speak impeccably – meaning we must speak with respect. We will use language that evokes respect. We do not gossip nor criticize one another but rather, speak well to and of each other.
  2. We evaluate one another to motivate and never to annihilate. This because very quickly the girls began criticizing the clothing of another and questioning, “Girl, what were you thinking when you put those earrings on with that outfit?” Teenage girls can be so tough on each other!
  3. Because of this toughness, I created a “Sacred Circle Contract” for them to sign. Here they vowed to speak one at a time, to listen to the speaker, to evaluate rather than criticize, to honour that they all were each other’s teacher,  and to adhere to strict confidentially. Each student willingly signed the contract and I always had it to fall back on when the going got tough.

The Sacred Circle principle proved to be the bonding agent that brought respect, grace and dignity to the group. It also provided a deep safety net for the young women to speak-up. Most of all though, they loved being there for each other and took their supportive roles very seriously. They learned something from every evaluation they gave and heard.

I wanted them to find their voice. I mean, I wanted them to articulate what they believe to be true, good and beautiful. I wanted them to know and to declare who they are, where they come from, what they are passionate about, and where they dream of going. They were taught to use their voices in ways that make it easy for others to listen to them and, hence, hear them. We worked on identifying tones of voice, on intonation patterns and vocal variety, volume, and pitch – the elements of speech that determine if we are heard or not.

Week after week, their “declarations of independent thought and expression” became increasingly powerful. The evaluations got consistently clearer and stronger. The girls were encouraged and encouraging. They began to speak-up on issues that were important to them. They began having conversations with their mothers and people in authority. They understood that their grandmothers were right, “You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar.” They got it: you can say what you need to say, you just have to say it in such a way that you will be heard.

Every season ends in an Awards Banquet at Figure Skating in Harlem. It used to be that Ms. Sharon had to hire key-note speakers for the banquets. But, after a few short seasons, she was able to cull her key-note speakers from our Speak-Up!  Performance Club. The Awards Banquets became much more meaningful for all of us as we heard witness to the successes our young ladies had attained over their years at FSH. As they were now on their ways to college, they were  ready and able to speak eloquently of the many lessons they had learned while being at FSH. They spoke of how, as a result of their training, they were prepared for the bigger world outside the doors of the skating rink.

They had learned two of the most important lessons in life: that when you fall down, you get up, you dust yourself off and you carry on.  And yes, they  learned that they each had a voice and  an inherent right, each one of them, to use their voice to stand up and to speak up from their hearts and minds. They learned to declare to the world who they are and what they stand for.

This is the work of which I am most proud.

Go well and speak from your heart.
  1. Wow more like this one please.

  2. Thank you. More to come for sure.

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