By Elena Aguilar, President and Founder
Ja Young’s words echoed in my mind for a long time after we recorded our conversation.
My name made other people feel uncomfortable. I want to hear my name from people. People who don’t have names that we’re comfortable saying in our English-speaking mouths, who don’t hear their names as often.Ja Young
I recalled countless times when my name wasn’t said, or wasn’t said correctly, and about how that little act made me feel like I didn’t belong. Me and my foreign-sounding name did not belong in an English-speaking country. Because of my experiences, I’ve been committed to ensuring that people say each other’s names correctly when they come together. But more than that, I’ve also created opportunities for people to learn about each other through their names. Here are some of the strategies I’ve used both when I was a classroom teacher, and as a facilitator of adult learning.
Insist that Names are Learned and Practiced
When I facilitate professional development with folks who don’t know each other, I ask them to all wear name tags (and make sure that they are visible) and then when they introduce themselves, I suggest the following:
“If you know that people say your name incorrectly, take the time to teach your group how to say it. Feel free to ask each other, as many times as you need, to repeat the pronunciation. Jot down notes for yourself so that you’ll remember how to pronounce someone else’s name. And then, if your name is mispronounced, please correct the other person. Don’t be shy about saying you forgot how to pronounce someone’s name—just ask. Let’s say each other’s names, and let’s say them correctly.”
As a facilitator, I also make an intention to speak the names of the folks who have non-Anglo names so that they hear themselves addressed. I want them to know that they belong.
Invite People to Tell the Story of their Name
This is a commonly used ice-breaker or storytelling prompt, and it’s often very meaningful. You can simply say, “What’s the story of your name?”
I also love to begin this reflection with Sandra Cisneros’ passage, “My Name,” from The House on Mango Street. Here’s a short excerpt: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”
If you haven’t read this book, or haven’t read it in a while, it’s gorgeous. And accessible to students in grade 3 or 4 and up.
Create a Video Library of Names
Here’s something you can do for students and staff in a school. Have each person record themselves on video saying, “My full name is…And I like to be called…” Then create a place online where these videos can be accessed. This is helpful if teachers have students whose names they struggle to remember how to pronounce (and this happens—especially when we have dozens of students). With a video bank, a teacher (or other students) can quickly access a recording and be reminded of the pronunciation.
I hope these suggestions might help you create inclusive communities. And if you’re wondering how my name is pronounced, (it’s my last name that people struggle with) you can hear me read it here. I added this to my website a couple years ago after I got tired of being incorrectly introduced at an event one too many times.
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