The Gift of Speech

What Bilaam's donkey and under-represented minorities have in common.

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In Pakistan, whose 1973 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, thirteen journalists were killed and forty more were abducted or arrested in 2008, while media that did not self-censor suffered retributive attacks.  In addition to silencing the media, repressive regimes also silence the voices of dissidents in blatant and sometimes violent ways.

Even in democracies, the voices of ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, poor people, and numerous other marginalized populations are vastly underrepresented in many societies. This silence translates into a lack of power that often leads to lack of access to basic social services and, at times, even the violation of human rights. Many NGOs work with such populations to help them make their voices heard.

CACTUS ("Center for Working Together for Community Support"), an AJWS grantee, works with rural and indigenous communities in the Mixteca region in Oaxaca, Mexico. In 2006, the community experienced violent police crackdowns against protestors who were rallying for indigenous rights and an end to government corruption. Censorship and monitoring of NGOs' activities made the community feel powerless.

In response, CACTUS began to empower local people to speak out against injustice. In one of its projects, it facilitates a radio station, Radio Rabiosa ("Rabid Radio"), which is run entirely by teenagers. The teens use Radio Rabiosa to share music and culture, as well as information about social protest movements. Bety Cariño, CACTUS's executive director, expressed the importance of giving voice to these teenagers: "The radio programs are the voices of the community," she says. "We've never been invited to speak, never had the opportunity to articulate who we are. This breaks the silence."

Proverbs teaches us that speech is a gift given freely by God: "A person may arrange his thoughts, but his ability to express them in language comes from the Lord" (Proverbs 16:1). Let us work to ensure that the voices of the poor and marginalized do not remain silenced, and that the power of speech, a gift from God, becomes fully accessible as a tool for blessing and justice for everyone.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.