Turning the Defined Into Definers

I wrote a blog about Yee Won Chong and his invention Say This Not That for LightBox Collaborative’s blog. This is the extended version of that blog. Yes, it is long, but I think Yee Won’s life’s journey up to the point of coming up with STNT is interesting and insightful and I thought others might as well.

We all have them. Those “wouldn’t it be great if…” moments while chatting with friends about some wild idea that would make our lives easier, more connected or fulfilling or fun. Yee Won Chong had one of those moments right about this time last year. But Yee Won’s moment is now well on its way to becoming a real-life amazing invention that will help all of us become more inclusive, compassionate and accurate communicators.

So here it is: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tool — like spell and grammar check — where, instead of checking for typos, you could check for offensive or implicitly hurtful language? This is Yee Won’s idea and it’s called Say This, Not That (STNT).

At NTEN’s Leading Change Summit last September, Yee Won got inspired to throw the wild idea that had been floating in the back of his mind into the LCS Idea Accelerator pitch competition. “I wasn’t planning on entering the pitch, but during the conference I was talking to several people about how nonprofits use ablest (such as lame) and militaristic language (like war room and boots on the ground) for social justice causes. I’d been asking myself for a while, as a person who communicates for social justice organizations, how do I avoid perpetuating this harmful language and increase my consciousness about it? I may not always know, especially words with implicit meanings. It would be so cool if there were a tool to help me as I write,” said Yee Won.

After receiving much encouragement from folks at the summit, Yee Won entered the pitch and won first place as well as the community choice award, which provided resources for strategy and web development. Say This, Not That was on its way to becoming a reality.

Like most inventions, Yee Won’s personal story formed the seeds for STNT. “I grew up in Malaysia and came to the U.S. with very little frame of reference for going abroad or going to college. I’m the first person in my family to do these things,” said Yee Won. “Didn’t have any language about being queer. All I knew was that I was miserable.

“So I worked really hard to make my way to U.S. and go to college in rural Minnesota. I surrounded myself with social-justice minded people, which helped me create the space to explore who I am. It was there that I got started in queer activism, but there wasn’t an organization on campus doing that work. I wanted to organize a week of coming out events, but the student government gave me zero dollars to do so because there was no track record for it. At that time (1994), there were very few out faculty and students and I had to come up with creative ways to raise money. That’s how I got into fundraising,” recalled Yee Won.

And fundraising is was brought Yee Won to communications and to the SPIN Academy. “I discovered that telling stories and thinking about communication is a huge piece in being effective at fundraising. I took a lot away from SPIN, especially about working with the media. And it was great to connect with people working in immigration.”

What Yee Won and his collaborators are building is much different than the political correctness movement of the 90s and it’s not about protecting or coddling people. “We are very intentional about not being language police,” said Yee Won. “A lot of words have implicit meanings that can cause unintended consequences. The intention of STNT is not for passive usage but to spark deeper thinking and mindfulness about how language can actually change our behavior.

“I envision a platform where collaborators will keep the lexicon relevant. Less urban dictionary, more Wikipedia and much more responsive to communities that are on the receiving end of problematic language — communities of color, people with disabilities, and targets of sexism, transphobia, homophobia,” said Yee Won. “I’m hoping that this platform will cover all the intersections of oppressive language and militaristic language and also be a place where people will come together and scan their world for problematic language, especially implicit language. And people who are part of a community can come up with their own alternatives.

“An example that I often use is the ‘achievement gap.’ More and more organizations are now using ‘opportunity gap’ and that term didn’t come from communities experiencing educational disparities. It came from someone else,” said Yee Won. “One of my favorite quotes is from Toni Morrison’s book Beloved: ‘definitions belong to the definers not the defined.’ Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where we can shift this and be proactive about coming up with more positive language?”

I asked Yee Won how will STNT make sure these communities are tapped into and able to contribute. “That’s where my experience comes in. I have a lot of experience working with social justice organizations for over 18 years. I know the technology part is possible. Community engagement is the tougher challenge, but luckily I have experience with that,” he said. Yee Won has enlisted several Portland community-based organizations to help contribute and at a recent Western States Center’s Activists Mobilizing for Power conference, received over 100 submissions. So far, the STNT lexicon has over 200 words and phrases and is receiving more every day.

So how and when will the average web surfer seeking a resource be able to use STNT? “We have two basic prototypes, one was developed at the February Social Good Tech Week Hackathon. The second is a Google Docs add-on. I just recruited linguist Katie McCormick as a co-founder and am hoping to also recruit a tech co-founder (know someone? Let Yee Won know). We also hope to enter into accelerator/incubator programs. We’re now depending on volunteers,” said Yee Won.

Want to contribute to STNT? Submit harmful words, terms and phrases here.