Representation Matters—Why ALL voices, perspectives, and stories are vital.

When I was a child, I did not see myself reflected or represented in the classroom, curriculum, media, or community where I grew up. I am the cisgender daughter of a lower middle-class, second generation Mexican-American mother and a Caucasian father who grew up in a predominately white community. As a child, I was sensitive to the subtle messages, spoken and unspoken, about my being. I was not “white” enough to be “white,” nor was I “Mexican” enough to be “Mexican;” a theme that would reverberate throughout my life. In limbo, I toed the line between two separate worlds.

My experience is in no way intended to be representative of all multiethnic or multiracial individuals, but it was MY lived experience and one that I share with the hope of creating understanding around the importance of inclusion, positive representation, and the messages that we internalize early in life about our value, who we are, and what we can become.  

What Representation Means

Representation is often defined as speaking or acting on behalf of another. Representation makes citizens “present” in policies and systems. Representation involves listening to the voices, perspectives, and stories of ALL individuals, and authentically reflecting them. Misrepresentation and lack of representation are harmful and perpetuate the status quo

Representation in Nonprofits & Voluntary Organizations

Nonprofits are vital to communities. They provide essential services and meet the needs of the communities that they serve. Nonprofits inherently represent the communities and people that they serve.

In a research note by Guo and Musso (2007) a framework is described for assessing how nonprofits and voluntary organizations represent constituents or the people/communities that they serve. The framework involves five dimensions of representation: substantive, symbolic, formal, descriptive, and participatory representation. These dimensions are measures of representational legitimacy and capacity, critical factors in building trust and effectiveness.

Guo and Musso reveal the complex relationship between the dimensions of representation while illustrating how participatory means enhance representation. This involves shared power, allowing constituents to participate in decision-making. 

Serving & Empowering ALL Individuals

In a country with increasing diversity, listening to and amplifying the voices of those from diverse backgrounds is critical to developing policies and practices that serve ALL individuals, including today’s youth. I believe that those most impacted by social issues, are those who can best inform us and guide us toward solutions and lasting social change. This idea is echoed by the influential supporter of social movements, Myles Horton (1998), who learned from a basic mistake: “we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that the people had themselves” (p. 68). The people themselves bring valuable resources, strengths, perspectives on issues, and funds of knowledge (Gonzalez et al., 2005). 

Why It Matters

Representation in volunteering and civic engagement matters because it is representative of the population, promotes equality and justice, empowers people, shares different perspectives/solutions, provides an opportunity for learning, and avoids perpetuating the white knight syndrome or white savior complex.

Youth representation matters because ALL youth are impacted by policies and decisions regarding the future. Youth representation matters because it provides an opportunity to learn about emerging issues that today’s young people face. Youth representation gives us a chance to see today’s youth as resources while helping to facilitate positive youth development. It is critical to include “at-risk” youth and those from diverse backgrounds, so that their voices and ideas can be heard and they too can benefit from the experience of engagement.  

Your voice matters. YOU MATTER. Your representation matters.

Representation is vital.

We ALL play a part in making society more just and equitable for everyone. This work begins with each of us. It begins with examining our beliefs/biases/language (and in many cases, our privilege), listening to and seeking to understand others, learning about social justice issues, speaking up against injustices, sharing our story, supporting local advocacy organizations, and engaging civically. This work begins with each of us, but it doesn’t end with us. We need collective action.  

Check out Project Giving Kids’ Achieve Justice For All for resources and ideas to help make society more just and equitable for everyone, including these service activities: