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Words Matter

People, language, and justice

Zachary McCoy, Mount St. Joseph University
Zachary McCoy, Mount St. Joseph University

Words have always been my life. I have studied them thoughtfully and carefully with some of the best minds in literary study thanks to Mount St. Joseph University. I am constantly improving the ways in which I am able to use language, and I consistently search for a way to pinpoint exactly what I want to say with the word that makes the most sense to say it. Working at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center was a great way to improve this skill.

My vocabulary when discussing law has always been a little wonky at best. I am not well-versed in legalese, and as far as social issues go I am, more often than not, in the dark about what is going on currently. Well, at least I used to be. OJPC changed a lot about how I speak about criminal justice.

One day I was reviewing a draft for something a lawyer was sending out to our supporters when he said something that surprised me. He said that what I was saying was incorrect. Now, I have studied English for almost five years and also almost have a minor in written communication. It is not often I hear that what I am saying is wrong, so I jumped at the challenge.

“What do you mean it’s wrong?” I asked. And what he replied changed the way I talk about criminal justice. He said that I kept using the word convict when talking about the people that we serve. He informed me that these people are not convicts, but instead returning citizens. That though convicted of a crime, these were people first and foremost. That they should not be referred to as the mistakes they had made in the past, but instead of who they were and who they have always been: people.

That moment changed a lot about the way I speak and write. The funny thing about the way in which people speak and write is that it is the way in which they most often think. Changing how I talked about the issues and those affected by them not only helped improve my communication skill within a non-profit, it helped to make me a better person; it helped changed the way I think.