Dhaka, Bangladesh
Making invisible people visible

Making invisible people visible

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Mark Twain supposedly said: "I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough." Quote-master Twain also supposedly said, "I can live for two months on a good compliment." What about well-intentioned compliments that miss the mark? One such compliment I politely reject is when people laud me as a spokesman for North Korean refugees. (I don't speak for anyone but myself, and hope there isn't anyone trying to speak for me without my direct permission, constant consultation and mountains of praise.) While acknowledging the wisdom in his admonition, I disagree with a colleague who says that "activists pass the mic." I counter with Emma Goldman's attributed statement: "If I can't dance, then I don't want to join your revolution." If someone dynamic like Martin Luther King Jr. showed up wanting to help my cause, saying he had a dream, I wouldn't tell him to pass the mic. We all have skills we can use to make the world a better place, so good speakers, activists or not, should be heard from. With apologies to my fans, my belief in empowering people to tell their own stories and find their own way runs counter to the idea that I would be a spokesman for anyone other than myself. One, I defer to refugee speakers. When I am invited as a featured speaker, then yes, I am the last man standing as I talk about my activities. When there are North Korean refugees being featured, however, then I go from King of the Stage to a glorified usher. I wait for refugee speakers to respond to questions first, then I sometimes add statistics and anecdotes. Many attendees thank me, but it is like thanking a waiter for bringing you a free beer. You are thankful for the beer, but you don't expect the guy to give you a 20 minute speech telling you about his job. Two, I enjoy creating safe spaces for refugees to share their stories as they enter the world of public speaking. It is a victory for humanity when people who were once brainwashed can now freely speak their minds. My Korea Times blog, "Voices from the North," is an outlet for North Korean refugees to share their thoughts. After interviewing them, I show them what I plan on publishing so they can maintain control of their words. At events, I often need to be a bad cop protecting those safe spaces. I remind speakers they aren't required to answer all questions from audience members, reporters or researchers. I warn audiences not to probe too deeply because even some speakers who say all topics are fine have cried when being asked about their families. I try not to go overboard, I have been so rough on some audiences that I destroyed Q&A. Three, keep the process professional to avoid manipulation or exploitation of refugees. Some internet trolls charge such things whenever it comes to refugees, but that isn't possible with our approach. I guess they are projecting what they would do if refugees were seeking their assistance. Our process has refugees in the role of executives and our language helpers as advisers. The process is empowering from start to finish, as the handful of refugees who apply to engage in public speaking choose the tutors, coaches, education path, topics, and contents of their speeches. Refugees draft their speeches in Korean, volunteers translate them into English and others proofread the translations. We share speeches with volunteers who are instructed to include us in all digital communications they have with refugees, to fill out reports, and for us to work together to keep a draft history of speeches from start to finish. I went into detail to make the point: deferring to refugee speakers, creating safe zones for them to develop themselves, and having a transparent professional process all run counter to the idea of being a spokesman for refugees. While I reject being called a spokesman for refugees, I do accept a touching compliment from a South Korean lady named Cecilia (her father, Hwang Won, was abducted to North Korea in 1969). She said: "You are the person who makes invisible people visible. You listen to people, find out what they need, and try to find people who can help them so their voices can be heard. I finally feel that I have the power for my voice to be heard." Mark Twain said he could live for two months on a good compliment, but I guess he never got a compliment as good as that one from Cecilia. I'm not a spokesman for North Korean refugees, but rather, an advocate and activist for educational freedom who enjoys when people can find their own way and tell their own stories. You are hereby invited to compliment me about that.

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