It turns out the old saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” is wrong.
“Words can hurt,” said Nicole Jordan, facilitator of a public-information campaign called “My Language, My Choice” — a campaign that recently has become visible on local billboards.
Jordan, 22, graduated this spring from Pacific Lutheran University with a social-work degree. Working with students at nearby Keithley Middle School in Parkland, she set out to “debunk the fundamental belief that only sticks and stones can hurt,” but not words
She said she saw an opportunity to help students boost their self-esteem and build community within their school and their classrooms, and to care for themselves and others.
Work with the students took place over three weeks, culminating with two billboards. Funding for the school program came through a $5,000 grant.
Student Xavier Tucker appears on the billboard at 143rd and Pacific Avenue with the word “stupid” written on a piece of paper he is tearing.
Student Faith Brantley appears on the billboard at 116th and Pacific Avenue. She is tearing a piece of paper with the phrase “poor ghetto kids.”
Jordan said these words, and others like them, are harmful and take the form of what some sociologists call “microaggressions.”
“Microaggressions are little instances of invalidation — intentional or unintentional —that devalue or harm people,” she said.
For example: “You speak good English for an Asian” is a backhanded compliment, she said.
“Words like this really start to take a toll, and studies show that it impacts school work, and the feeling of not being a part of the community, especially in college and for people of color and marginalized groups,” she said.
Faith said the words she used in her billboard picture, “Poor Ghetto Kids,” were coined by a rival middle school using the initials of the full name of her school, Perry G. Keithley.
“It’s what they call us — PGK — poor ghetto kids,” she said. “I don’t like it when they say it.”
Faith said Jordan and other facilitators in the program encouraged her to talk with her family about the words people use and how they can be hurtful.
“They had us take a piece of paper and write a hurtful word on it and then crumple it up,” she said. “Then, when we uncrumpled it and tried to flatten it out, we could see that no matter how hard we tried the wrinkles stayed in the paper.”
That exercise was one of the workshops Jordan designed for the students.
She said she tries to help them identify hurtful words and create conversations around them by saying to the kids: “Hey, if you hear it, let’s talk about it and let’s talk about why not (to use this language).”
Zach Powers, media and content manager at PLU, said the program has been successful. The university has had a long relationship with elementary and middle schools within a mile of the campus, he said.
“The ‘Words Can Hurt’ images (on the billboards) are really powerful,” Powers said. “We have received a great deal of positive feedback from local educators and advocacy groups.”
Jordan said she was proud of the kids involved. She said she wanted to work with middle school students because, “for me, personally, it was a really challenging time, and I know that a lot of students go through bullying — there is a lot of name calling, and it comes from insecurity.”
With the billboards she hopes the message will spread to the larger community.
“We don’t want it to be just a passive poster campaign,” she said, “but we want it to spark conversation and to really create change.”