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Why We Should Use Empowering Language

Posted on March 7, 2024
Empowering Language Speech Bubbles

By Lily DeSimone, Drexel Undergraduate Student

Using empowering language builds an inclusive and welcoming space. It supports healing previous traumas and addresses the systematic oppression that violent language perpetuates.

What is empowering language?

Other than the obvious definition - language which may leave you feeling empowered - it is language that is non-violent and people-centered. Essentially, selecting words which focus on the people themselves and maintaining a positive perspective surrounding the tasks or subjects which they are used to describe. Using empowering language builds an inclusive and welcoming space; empowering language focuses on healing previous traumas and addresses the systematic oppression that violent language may place on certain individuals.

The below tables shares comparative examples of non-violent and people-centered language.

Violent Non-violent
Suffers from/Struggles with Lives with
Weakness Barriers
Cutting edge Innovative
Level up Progress
Drill down Research

Object or Task-centered People-centered
Mentally ill Person experiencing mental illness
Disabled Person living with a disability
You need... May I suggest...
Illegal immigrant Undocumented Person
Convict/Ex-felon Returning resident/Person impacted by the justice system/individual previously incarcerated

What is non-violent language and why does it matter?

Let’s delve deeper into the chart together to understand the categorization of these phrases and words. In the workplace, we may encounter phrases such as “level up” (indicating progress), “drill down” (suggesting that more research or dedicated time is necessary for a specific task or project), and “cutting edge” (signifying innovative or transformative for a specific industry). While these expressions may be commonly used, their unintentional violent implications may cause heightened anxiety or remind individuals of previous trauma.

To avoid unintentional harm and encourage a supportive and healing environment at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, I recommend using phrases such as “progress,” “research,” or “innovative.” These alternatives are non-violent and maintain a positive outlook on tasks which need to be completed. Utilizing non-violent language enables individuals who have experienced multi-generational trauma to remain empowered because they will feel support from their community around them.

What is people-centered language and why does it matter?

Similarly, we can also identify the reasoning behind selecting people-centered language. Object or task-centered language takes humanity away from the subject through the specific wording used. Phrases such as “illegal immigrant” or “disabled” are often used to identify individuals based on potential bias or specific characteristics rather than recognizing their humanity. Instead of labeling individuals as “illegal immigrant,” recognizing that a person cannot be illegal, I recommend terms such as “undocumented person” instead. This choice not only works to identify the individual as a person but moves away from the harmful and potentially violent mindset when saying they are illegal.

Another example of a people-centered approach is an individual living with disabilities who may be referred to as “a person with a disability,” which is empowering because of the focus on the individual. It is important to note that not all individuals in certain communities prefer people-centered language and may choose to self-identify using different language. Some individuals may prefer the term “disabled” as a method of reclaiming the term and using it to empower themselves. Therefore, it is considerate to use people-centered language unless individuals express comfort or preference for alternative terminology.

Using non-violent and people-centered language is an essential part of creating a welcoming and trauma-informed space for both participants and staff of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. Positive, healing language is vital to breaking cycles of multi-generational trauma and providing necessary emotional support to communities. Through our use of language, we can empower.

Additional Language Resources


This Voices blog was written by Lily DeSimone, a graduating English major at Drexel University, as a final project for Writing for Social Change (WRIT 315) instructed by Dr. Elizabeth Kimball in collaboration with Natalie Shaak at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. Throughout the term, the class engaged with concepts surrounding how writing can be used to advocate for social change. Lily’s focus on language use in community settings aims to provide insight on culminating an inclusive and empowering environment.

Posted in Oppression and Discrimination