“Speak Your Truth Even If Your Voice Shakes” by Whitney Connor Clapper, Senior Global Environmental Activism Marketing Manager at Patagonia

– Maggie Kuhn, human rights activist who dedicated her life to social and economic justice.

The first time I saw this quote, I wondered if this should become my next tattoo. It covered my body in chills and pierced any doubt around voice I’ve ever had.

I grew up in a community where I learned how to survive by using my voice only for good. To share healing, positive emotions and joyous occasions. I discovered it was not ok to talk about pain, hurt, struggle, sickness – anything that was deemed negative. Spoiler alert – using voice only for good and happy things doesn’t always work. Since childhood, I’ve had a full life of love, heartbreak, death, grace and privilege, riddled with job after job that has pulled my voice forth with each experience.
I’ve had to learn over decades that using my voice may not always yield positive emotions for all, like the time I recently emailed my aunt, who is the only black woman in my family, to check in to see how she was doing with all of the social injustices happening around black lives right now – only to get an email back from my white uncle titled: “BLM – you are being played.”
The body copy of the email wasn’t much better and began “May we suggest that your priorities are off” – making me wonder why I felt the need to even send that email in the first place? I wasn’t aiming to cause familial strife, but apparently, I did. 

For me,
voice is
with truth. 

Using my voice means standing up for justice. Doing and saying what I feel I need to do and say, even when it causes pain.

When I was young, I watched my dad use his voice through his writings. I remember the time he wrote an email to the President of the Christian college where he taught, sharing his disgust with the school for its swift action in kicking out students who were “misbehaving” rather than truly addressing the issue. Just removing the “problem” without addressing the issue is a short-term solution.
I remember my mom, the kindest woman in the world, who played piano for the school choir finally telling that touchy tenor that she didn’t want any more hugs from him. So yes, I had role models growing up who showed me that we each have a voice and need to choose how to use it, for big and small events.

However, it wasn’t until I entered the corporate world that I really began to comprehend that my voice matters. 

Another tool in my childhood survival kit was humor and politeness, if I could make people in my community laugh and also behave well, life felt a little easier. I unconsciously lived by this mentality in my early years in business. I worked my ass off, made colleagues laugh, turned in reports on time, remained positive even when I wasn’t totally feeling it and did my best to go above and beyond – so as not to disappoint my boss. As a result, I began to climb the corporate ladder and also found myself more and more unsettled with leadership’s actions.  

At one point, as a manager of a team of fourteen field reps across the United States, I found myself writing an email to the President of the corporation in protest of a new mandate that the company had put on my team. This mandate forced all of us to do away with our previous company cars, which the company had supplied us with, to personally purchase a Honda Element for the same work.  We were also instructed to wrap our cars with the company’s logo in bright, bold orange letters. This was not ok, nor was it just. Many of us were fresh out of college, young and had never bought a new car, nor would we ever have chosen to buy that particular make and model of car. In my letter, I not only stated that this was not right, I also was completely transparent in stating that I would not enforce this with my team.  

For me, voice is not only synonymous with truth and standing up for justice, it is a full body experience. 

For people to truly hear my voice, it must come from a heart space, not from my head.
When I sat down to write that letter to the President of the corporation, I had no idea how it would turn out. Would I get fired?  Would I be asked to step down and out of my position?  The outcome didn’t matter. Using my voice for justice, because my heart was guiding me to, was the only thing that mattered and there was no stopping the words that burst from my fingers and onto those computer keys.  

Despite all the challenging emotions and questions that came, I spoke my truth. Rather than getting fired, they promoted me and less than a year later, this mandate was dropped.
Now, I am also someone who tends to always side with the underdog. I’ve had a different boss tell me that I can get wound up too easily by others, and he’s right, sometimes. If I’m not careful, it is during those times that using my voice backfires, hard. So, a word of warning – it’s really important to pause to check your motive before waxing poetic. This is why dropping into my heart before acting has become so important – to make sure I am not just acting on an emotion.
We are in a time and space where words matter more than ever – “Black Lives Matter”, “Make America Great Again”, “Dump Trump”, “Pollution is Racial Violence”We are also living in a moment where emotions are high, reactions are unconscious and impulsive, and violence is rampant. So how do we show up? 

There is no formula, or step by step guide. The only contant is your choice within each moment. I worked with a small team on an acknowledgment for Patagonia that we recently released on social media. While we could have edited that piece for many more weeks, the process was pretty dang strong. Words were carefully written, re-written, thought about and re-written again. It took us weeks of working on this acknowledgment before it felt worthy of sharing. 
The motive for this acknowledgment was pure – as a leader in the outdoor industry it felt important to own up to and publicly acknowledge our challenges and shortcomings for racial justice to our Patagonia community and greater outdoor industry. As a result of consciously choosing the words, doing the due diligence internally before the post went live externally, and listening for the right time to share publicly – the acknowledgment was heard, felt and landed well. I realize that not everyone has weeks to prepare the right words to speak, share or write. But everyone has the time to take a deep breath in between trigger and reaction, or stimulus and response (as Viktor Frankl coined it). So, take that time to drop down into the heart space before responding to the next crisis – whether it’s your screaming child, angry co-worker, frustrated partner or challenging President. 

The world is already on fire, through our pause to hear how to use our voice we will either choose to fuel the flames or smother the embers. For me personally, amidst the chaos, I am doing my best to pause and only use my voice when it feels appropriate. And even then, my voice may shake mid-sentence. But when I’m speaking for truth and for justice, I know that those who need to hear my message will hear it.

Will you join me?

Whitney Conner Clapper:

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