The Black Lives Matter protests that are occurring throughout the country and, in fact, around the world, are bringing many issues to the fore. One of them is how critical it is to be careful in our choice of language when referring to people – especially when those people are “the other.” Words matter and we all need to become more careful and purposeful when we make our word choices.
At St. Francis House, we are becoming more conscious of the words we use, and steering away from those that may be perceived as belittling or stigmatizing. We do our best to refrain from saying “the homeless” to describe our guests. Instead, we talk about our guests as people who are experiencing homelessness. Our elevator pitch says we’re an organization that rebuilds lives by providing refuge and pathways to stability for adults experiencing homelessness and poverty. As Karen LaFrazia, our President and CEO, says: “Homelessness is an experience, not an identity.”
In our work, there’s no better place where words matter than when we’re talking about substance use disorder. It’s too easy to slip into pejorative, shorthand terms like “junkie,” “drunk”, “meth-head.” We must be diligent in recognizing that those with a substance use disorder have an illness that’s chronic. Having this illness doesn’t make them bad people, moral failures, incapable of change. We see every day that people with a substance use disorder are able to recover.
We need to make sure that the words we use don’t put up a barrier that keeps an individual from seeking treatment for their illness.
The Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center has created something called the Words Matter pledge. Their goal? Build a stigma-free environment where all people with a substance use disorder are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. They’ve laid out a set of guidelines that show the difference between non-stigmatizing and stigmatizing language:
Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests, and despite the pandemic, the team at our new Resource Support Center has been leading the effort to adopt the non-stigmatizing language, and we’re all following suit! As part of St. Francis House’s ongoing commitment to treating our guests with dignity and respect – and helping those suffering from substance use disorder a pathway to recovery, we encourage you to join us in taking the pledge.