Changing Your Language, Changing Your Life

What are some terms that you use in your cause, in your movement, that you assume everyone knows? What are some terms that you WISH everyone knew?

“Language is our first step toward salvation. We cannot fight what we cannot describe.” -Chris Hedges

Do you know what rankism is? What horizontal oppression is? What the wheel of power and control is? How about schadenfreude?

If I’m saying some new words to you here, don’t back away. Stay and learn. This could save your sanity.

Whether your nonprofit is set up to fight a disease, or to promote equality for women, whether your nonprofit is advocating for the rights of domestic violence survivors, or whether you’re working to make the arts relevant to your community, whether you’re working to rescue animals or simply to improve the world, there’s a vocabulary around what you do.

There’s a measure of educating the community in nonprofit, charity and cause related marketing. You tell people what you do, and you tell them why they should care. But have you ever thought about going further, and starting a movement, educating an entire group about the ideas behind what you do?

In a domestic violence nonprofit, the wheel of power and control is an everyday reference. Not so in the arts charity.

In a social justice nonprofit, horizontal and vertical oppression may be talked about often. Not necessarily in an environmental nonprofit or animal rescue charity.

In a ballet or opera nonprofit, the importance of art as the soul of a community or a place could be part of the general conversation. But this wouldn’t necessarily happen at a church or association nonprofit.

Isn’t it time we started to talk among ourselves about the ideas that make us get up and go to work every day?

Recently I answered a question on Linkedin about how to stop the fear-mongering in our societies and start to focus on courage.

What it comes down to, for me, is our language. We cannot fight oppression if we don’t know what to call it when we see it. We cannot hope to stop rankism unless we make it a regular topic of discussion in our personal and work lives. And when schadenfreude is what our culture encourages us to focus on, we find it hard to give our attention to more important matters.

Here are my definitions. Why not start a conversation at your next nonprofit networking meeting or Young Nonprofit Professional meeting around one of these ideas?

Rankism is: “abusive, discriminatory, or exploitative behavior towards people who have less power because of their lower rank in a particular hierarchy” -Robert Fuller

Schadenfreude is: n. Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. [German : Schaden , damage (from Middle High German schade , from Old High German. How often do you see this in your local grocery store? On the NYTimes? On Huffpost? Etc.?

Co-Opting Culture is: When coming in contact with other cultures, there is a tendency by some to romanticize that culture and adopt certain aspects of it, without actually having to deal with legacies of pain and oppression. A classic example is the adoption of Indigenous culture by non-Indigenous people.

Oppression is: When stereotypes and prejudice are so woven into our way of life, discrimination is put into structures of society through policies, laws, etc. The system then grants advantages/disadvantages differently to different groups. Creates the agent group, who has privilege, and the target group who is disadvantaged.

Horizontal Oppression is: The result of people of target groups believing, enforcing, and acting on the agent system of discrimination. This can occur between members of the same group (e.g., a Chicano telling another Chicano to stop speaking Spanish), or between members of different target groups (e.g., Asian Americans fearing Blacks as criminals, Latinos believing stereotypes that Native Americans are alcoholics).

Vertical Oppression is: Oppression from Dominant Powers


The Arts Drive Business: Support of the arts helps stimulate economic development in the state. The availability of cultural resources and opportunities helps attract businesses, since companies and workers consider quality of life – including the arts – an important factor when deciding whether to relocate to or remain in a community.

“My Vocabulary Did This To Me” -Jack Spicer, Poet, (last words on his deathbed)

What are some other terms or concepts that you wish people outside your cause understood?

Posted in