Thought Piece

The Right to Speak and Be Heard

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Speaking for others

When I was in my early 30s I went with my parents to a lawyer so they could set me up as their power of attorney; at the time I remember thinking this was a bit over the top. Years later, when my father had dementia, I clearly recall the day this was invoked and I took on the role of speaking on his behalf. At the time I had just completed my PhD, a period in my life when I’d been immersed in thinking about, researching, and writing on social justice. This included how to challenge and disrupt dominant discourses and the practices that create marginalisation, silencing and exclusion. I felt the weight of exclusion as my dad’s voice was officially deemed inadmissible.

The importance of this was not lost for me; it has contributed to much of my work since and my ongoing resolve to ensure others speak for themselves as much as possible in my work.

As a researcher and evaluator I find this responsibility a constant challenge as much of my role is to interpret what I see and hear and to make sense of this in my reporting. I don’t always get it right but it’s constantly on my radar. Here are some of my personal thoughts and insights on this.

Why does this matter?

Past and recent history is full of people speaking for others. Before women in New Zealand were granted the right to vote in 1893, and later allowed in Parliament, society believed that men could adequately speak for women and that the male perspective would suffice. White people speak for non-white, colonisers speak for the colonised, adults speak for young people, and younger people speak for the elderly. Why does this matter?

One issue in speaking for others is we can get it wrong. My dad was fortunate because although I was his spokesperson, he had a family that was committed to his well being and we worked together for him. Despite this, we could have got it wrong. Speaking for others increases this possibility, and when we get it wrong we begin a process that can lead to false narratives about those we are speaking for. Here is an example of how this works:

When Jacinda Ardern (Aotearoa New Zealand Prime Minister from 2017 to 2023) resigned she gave this reason for her decision: “I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice”, adding that she felt she would be “doing a disservice to New Zealand '' if she continued (Mac Donald, 2023).  Immediately after this announcement the speculation and commentary on why she had really resigned began.

One strand of thought focused on the hate speech and threats she had received, particularly in her last year of office, claiming that this was the reason she was standing down. Despite how people felt, this soon became one of the dominant discourses circulating around Jacinda’s resignation, even though she had denied this was the reason.

Ardern also addressed the wide discussion that has been going on since her announcement about the vitriolic and misogynistic attacks on her on social media — something she has said did not contribute to her decision to step down. (ABC news)

The problem with speaking for Jacinda in this instance and in this way, was that as the commentary around this grew, a false narrative was created. Even with the best of intentions, this practice began to position Jacinda in a particular way. Let's imagine for example, how the commentary around this might evolve into something like, She can’t cope with criticism; I knew she was too young for the job; Women are just too emotional; Women with children should not work in high powered jobs, and so on.

Even inadvertently, speaking for another can result in what feminists describe as a process of naming and categorising. This practice puts people into groups, creating stereotypes that lead to bias and discrimination and with this the inclusion or exclusion from groups (Butler, 1999;  hooks, 2000; Taylor, 2007).

For minority and marginalised groups, being ‘spoken for and about’ is an experience they understand well. This is especially so for indigenous communities, such as New Zealand Māori who know firsthand what it is like to be named, categorised and misrepresented (Jackson, 2016; Lee-Morgan & Hutchings, 2016; Tuhiwai Smith, 2021). It began with the journaling of the early colonising settlers whose versions of events then became history. Much of what was spoken about totally ‘missed the mark’ in terms of accurately representing te ao Māori (a Māori worldview). This naming was the beginning of a false narrative created about Māori, which has led to stereotyping, bias, discrimination and for many young learners - self doubt about themselves and what they are capable of. For Māori in particular, this has resulted in alienation and the loss of their land, culture, language, and identity.

The right to speak

When I was researching for my PhD I read the work of the French philosopher Foucault. His theories, along with poststructuralist feminist theory, became the framework I used for analysing my data. You cannot read Foucault without also, at some point, examining the dynamics of power, and along with this, who has the right to speak. I particularly liked his triangle of 'Power - Right - Truth' as a way of examining this.

According to Foucualt, you can enter this triangle at any point. For instance:

- Those in positions of Power assume the right to create the knowledge or truths that will tell us how to live.

- Those who have knowledge (Truth), such as university scholars, may claim the right to influence, which gives them power over others.

- Those who have the Right through a designated position, also then have the power to determine the knowledge (truths) that others need to know.

Even though a somewhat simplified approach, I have had many complex discussions over the years that were kicked off by this triangle. In essence, some people have more right and power than others to speak and determine what becomes accepted as the best or truest way to be, and how to achieve this. The problem is that those who speak for others do this through the filtered lens of their own knowledge, experiences and worldviews, which according to Freire (1996) are never neutral. This means that minority voices, indigenous communities, and young people, for example, are the least likely to have a say.

For researchers and evaluators like me, it is our job to make sense of what we observe and hear. This is how patterns of behaviour are established, from which knowledge is created and shared. The same applies to those working in education settings; watching behaviour and assessing progress is part of the job. It is therefore our responsibility to be aware of what this means for those we work with and to find ways we can mitigate our own power and bias within the processes that are part of our everyday practice.

The right to be heard

Being heard is a fundamental human right, even for young children. In the Convention of the Rights of the Child Articles 12.1 and 13.1 says:

Article 12.1

Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child…

Article 13.1

The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.

What this requires is a willingness to listen and the will to use creative ways to do it - ways that work specifically for those sharing their ideas.  Article 13.1 above mentions some of these methods and while these refer to children, they equally apply across diverse peoples.

Providing creative ways to share ideas is relevant to those working in research and evaluation, and also to those working in education settings in general. It requires thinking about the ways people are able to or not able to contribute, and being willing to use modes of communication that work for different ages, abilities and ethnicities. Here are some examples

1. I was working with a teacher of four year olds. She was doing a small research project on transitions to school and she wanted to find out children’s perspectives on this. She began by attempting to interview them 1-1- which she told me was an epic fail. Determined to do better she sat with them at a table, which she had covered in paper, giving them felt pens to draw with. I’ll never forget the picture she produced, with accompanying text, of the things that were most important to these children, including one child worrying about if they could find their way home. This young teacher taught me a lot about listening to children.

2. I was mentoring a teacher carrying out research with deaf students. To ensure she could engage them and hear their perspectives she developed a game to learn about their experiences of schooling. It was designed specifically without the need for much verbal interaction - and it was brilliant. The result was a rich array of data collected in an inclusive way that allowed those involved to have a real say in what affected them.

Culturally diverse settings also require bespoke methods; approaches that are a natural part of the community, as these examples illustrate.

1. Rather than using interviews, one Māori researcher I worked with collected data on the marae while he was peeling potatoes. He told me this was the most natural way for whānau to share freely.  Another colleague of mine did this by having casual korero with kaumatua as they attended a community gathering.

2. Instead of a focus group, talanoa was used with a group of Pacific students. The researcher told me that students from Pacific families were comfortable with this method having grown up with it, which resulted in them sharing more.

Adapting the ways we hear from others so that they can speak for themselves, means that people who are typically missed out, or spoken for, can be more authentically represented.

To me, hearing the voices of indigenous and minority groups, communities, teachers and young people is essential groundwork for achieving equity in education. It just makes sense that those with first hand knowledge of the contexts and issues we are trying to address, are the people we invite to speak for themselves.

Together we can build a rich tapestry of ideas and solutions to the complex and persistent challenges facing education today.


Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Jackson, M. (2016). Decolonising education. In J. Hutchings and J. Lee. Morgan (Eds.) Decolonisation in Aotearoa (pp. 39 - 47). Wellington: NZCER.

Lee-Morgan, J.,&  Hutchings, J. (2016). Introduction: Kaupapa Māori in action: Education , research and practice. In J. Hutchings and J. Lee. Morgan (Eds.) Decolonisation in Aotearoa (pp. 1- 15). Wellington: NZCER.

Taylor, L. (2007). Re-imagining professional learning in early education. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Melbourne.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2021). Decolonising methodologies. Research and indigenous peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

2018 Talanoa Dialogue Platform. (n.d.). UNFCCC. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from

Dr Louise Taylor
01 May 2024
min read

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