October 10, 2019

The Power of Speaking Up: Thoughts On Ombuds Day (Guest Post)

Submitted by Reese Ramos, CO-OP, Director and University Ombuds at Virginia Tech.

My heart, and spirits, sank a bit as I sat down at my typewriter laptop to draft a little something to commemorate the second ever Ombuds Day*. Why? Because, in preparing to write this article, I looked at what I wrote last year; I spoke then about how there is much in the world that divides us.  And it struck me that the events I alluded in last year’s article are still headline news – every single one. I guess that sometimes, not much changes in a span of a year. 

But here’s something that is changing in the headlines – the rising voice of people.  Take Greta Thunberg for example. She is a teenager from Sweden (how poetic is it that she hails from the nation that originally gave us Ombuds?), that only about a year ago decided to raise her voice, go on a school strike and raise awareness about climate change. What was just one voice back then has now - over a year later - been amplified into millions, as many throughout the world are marching in solidarity with her, speaking their truth.  Similarly, there has been an increasing trend of tech workers throughout the nation uniting, walking out and speaking against how little their companies are doing to address global warming, sexual harassment, contractor pay, and how companies utilize their technical talents. There may be some of us that disagree on the ultimate solution to these topics, or even whether there really is a problem that needs to be addressed, but one thing is clear – their collective voices remind us about the power of speaking up. 

One thread that I believe unites us all that practice as Ombuds: we all have a Commitment to Speaking Up. When we see problems in our institutions that, like a virus, are so pervasive that they pose a threat to the greater organization – we Ombuds must speak up for the sake of the community we find ourselves in.  Sometimes problems don’t just impact one or two individuals; sometimes problems transcend teams, departments and entire communities. Systemic problems impact all of us in one way or another and offer us an opportunity to choose between ignoring the challenges that appear to be happening, or stepping out of the circle of cloudiness and speaking up. 

Remember the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes?  In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale a vain Emperor desires the finest clothes money can buy. Upon hearing this, a couple of swindlers decide to take advantage of the Emperor’s vanity. The swindlers, posing as weavers, promise the Emperor a set of clothes so marvelous that only the great and good in the kingdom will be able to see those clothes.  When the Emperor goes to see the progress of the work of the weavers, he doesn’t see any clothes.  So as to not appear stupid or unfit for his office, he pretends he sees the marvelous clothes being created. As the weavers continue to work, word of these magical clothes spread throughout the kingdom. When the Emperor finally tries on his new “clothes” and walks amongst the kingdom, his ministers and subjects – wanting too to appear great and good - all claim to see them.  But one small child courageously proclaims, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”  Upon hearing this, the townspeople awake from their voluntary slumber and speak truth to power.  Sadly, the Emperor, and his ministers, for fear of appearing foolish, continue to pretend he wears the finest of clothes.  

The moral of this story appeals to us, doesn’t it?  We all applaud the courage of a young kid to stand up to those in power. 

In organizations, the Ombuds can function as the child in the story, speaking up and acting in the interest of the community.  As I often say when sharing systemic issues that are surfacing to leadership, the words I utter are not necessarily the way I personally see the situation, but what I hear from people in the community.  In other words, I’m simply telling a communal story, the collective story of many. I’m speaking up on their behalves.

As Ombuds we speak up for others because others are sometimes afraid. 
As Ombuds speak up because others can’t speak the unspoken.
As Ombuds we speak up to tell a story – about the basic human needs of respect, appreciation, community and/or fairness that others perceive may be missing. 
As Ombuds we speak truth to power within our respective organizations because perhaps at a systemic level, we truly do advocate for a better institution. 

And so as we celebrate Ombuds Day, let us celebrate. (after all – the origin of the word celebrate, celebratus, reminds us “to go to in great numbers.”) Let’s raise our voices in as Ombuds in great numbers so the world might just stop, listen and speak up.  

*as recognized by the American Bar Association’s Resolution 103.

Related posts: Today is the First Ombuds Day!; Guest Post: The Thread that Unites Us All – A Celebration of Ombuds Day*Virginia Tech Names First University OmbudsOmbuds Day 2019 Gathers MomentumParticipation Surges for Second Annual Ombuds Day.

1 comment:

  1. Correction: As the writer of this article I misstated that the ABA Resolution 103 recognizes Ombuds Day. The resolution does not actually per se establish Ombuds Day - which was the brain child of the ABA Dispute Resolution Section Ombuds Committee.