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Language and the Way We Think About Stigmatized Groups: Q&A with Esther Uduehi

LISC’s Emerging Leader Council member Esther Uduehi is a doctoral candidate at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where her research focuses on the language associated with stigmatized groups and marginalized communities. Uduehi recently sat down with LISC to discuss how nonprofits and practitioners can put her findings to use, and the need to create more conversations using person-centered language.

Last summer, LISC launched the Emerging Leaders Council (ELC), a group composed of rising professionals and leaders from a variety of industries and backgrounds, from financial services to arts and media to public health. ELC members have been charged with serving as ambassadors for LISC to their respective networks.

At the ELC’s recent quarterly meeting, the group discussed the role of language and narrative in communicating LISC’s work. The discussion was led by Mona Mangat, LISC’s director of Safety and Justice, and ELC member Esther Uduehi, a doctoral candidate in marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The group explored the challenges and opportunities that organizations like LISC face in the language choices we make when describing our work. Mona shared her team’s efforts to use humanizing language to describe the groups that we work with (for example, “opportunity youth” rather than “at-risk youth,” or “returning citizens” rather than “ex-convicts”) while at the same time maintaining clarity when communicating with broader audiences. Esther grounded the discussion in her empirical research, which illustrates how language framing impacts the way we think about stigmatized populations. 

LISC’s Strategy & Innovation team caught up with Esther to discuss her research and involvement with the ELC.  

How did you become acquainted with LISC and why did you decide to join the ELC?

I wanted to join the ELC because much of my work revolves around stigmatized and vulnerable groups. Many of LISC’s partners work with these populations, and I want to understand how non-profits make lasting impact for stigmatized groups. I study organizations from an academic perspective and I want to understand them from a practical perspective. It is a point of view that I am not currently exposed to from the research side.

Can you elaborate on what your research entails?

My current academic focus ranges from looking at homelessness to different types of substance abuse disorders and addictions, and the language associated with those issues. I also explore the role of language with respect to the criminal justice system, as well as to race and gender. I investigate how language constructions can lead to marginalization within those groups.

Person-centered language is language that focuses more on the humanity of a marginalized or stigmatized group versus whatever identity that is stigmatized.

What are the basic questions that you're trying to answer?

The questions that fascinates me are how do we label stigmatized identities and how do those labels affect the way we support these groups?  How we view these groups and how do people within these communities view themselves based on these labels?

What are some highlights of the research findings that you have come away with?

We have found that when you view a stigmatized condition as being changeable, you're more likely to use language that centers that identity to the person. For example, if people believe that obesity is a changeable condition, they are more likely to say an “obese person” instead of “a person with obesity.”

I also study the policy implications of language use. For example, my research has found that when language that centers identity to the person is used when describing individuals – so, for example, “drug addicts” rather than “people with a substance abuse disorder” – people are more supportive of punitive policies with respect to these groups.

Can you describe what person-centered language is and how you came to see that as a point of focus in your work?

Person-centered language is language that focuses more on the humanity of a marginalized or stigmatized group versus whatever identity that is stigmatized. For example, instead of calling someone homeless, you would call them a person experiencing homelessness. When you use person-centered language to refer to an individual, you're creating space between the stigmatized identity and their personhood.

I became interested in these types of language choices because I noticed there had not been a lot of work linking person centered language and outcomes. If we are going to advocate for certain language choices, we need to understand the impact they have on the way we think about people.

What are the implications of your research for practitioners?

What’s interesting is we can adopt person-centered language at a fairly low cost. It can be as simple as changing the language on a website or changing the language that we use when we speak about these conditions within organizations. Making sure that memos or guidelines that are public facing use person centered language or use language that focuses on the personhood of marginalized groups can make a difference in how the broader public reacts to initiatives and policies put out by practitioners and organizations working with stigmatized groups.

How do you believe that nonprofits like LISC can benefit from research findings like yours?

By creating more conversations around using language that is more person conscious. Humanizing vulnerable groups in ways that have not been previously done can make a substantial difference in the way we view vulnerable populations.

Do Words Matter?

In this episode, Maurice is joined by Esther Udehi to discuss how language choices affect our interactions with people and the communities where we work. 

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