Welcome to the Youthlinc Impact Modules. All participants will complete monthly impact modules that will address issues of bias, white saviorism, and mental health. These modules will help participants to understand themselves and others before traveling internationally. These modules help us become better humanitarians and set us up for sustainable best practices while we are serving abroad.
FEBRUARY MODULE: INTENT vs IMPACT
For the month of February, this module will focus on the difference and importance of Impact vs Intent.
By the end of this module, you should know:
SECTION 1: Introduction
What is Intent?
Intent is the idea or desire behind an action. It’s what you had in mind or what you were hoping to achieve with a particular way of acting. Intent is what we mean by our words or actions.
What is Impact?
Impact is the effect an action has on a person or a community. Although you might desire a specific outcome, the outcome that occurs might not be what you had in mind. Impact is how words or actions are experienced, felt, or understood by either the person they are directed to, or others.
Intent vs. Impact: What is the Difference?
Intent is what you want to achieve through an action, and impact is how a person or community receives that action. The effect does not always match the intent. Good intentions do not always result in a positive impact. Understanding how and why this happens is a significant step in individual and collective growth, affecting everything from social policy to mental health. When it comes to biased language or actions, we often prioritize intent over impact. This means that when harm is caused, we tend to emphasize what we meant by our words or actions- rather than how our words make another person feel or the consequences of our behavior. We might also excuse, or sweep under the rug, what is said or done if we perceive them as unintentional. In talking about a biased incident, we might focus on a person’s intentions (i.e., “I didn’t mean it like that”), rather than focusing on the impact of the person who has been harmed. We tend to view ourselves through the lens of intent and other through the lens of impact.
Examples of Intent and Impact:
Imagine you are at a restaurant with your friends. In the middle of dinner, as you take a sip of your favorite drink, a waiter bumps into you and knocks your drink out of your hand. The contents of what was in your glass spills all over you and then the glass shatters on the floor. You look at the waiter, who looks at you and says, “I didn’t intend to bump into you. It was never my intent for your drink to spill.” You ask for an apology, or part of your meal to be comped and the waiter laughs, “You’re overreacting. It was an accident. Calm down.” and starts walking away. “What about my drink?” you ask. The waiter turns around, rolls their eyes and says “Seriously? You need to get over it. This kind of stuff happens all the time.”
How does this scenario make you feel? Your pants are drenched, you don’t have another drink, and the person who is responsible for this refuses to apologize.
In each of these examples, there is a disconnect between intent and impact. Those using biased or offensive language excuse their behavior by pointing to being unaware, their ignorance or a lack of “bad” intentions, instead of acknowledging the harmful impact of their offensive words and actions on the people around them.
In these situations which is more important, the Impact or the Intent?
SECTION 2: Why is it important to prioritize Impact?
Regardless of intent or whether actions and words were purposeful, the targeted or affected person is still harmed. That’s why it is critical to prioritize impact and acknowledge the harm that was caused.
Using the example of the racist “joke”, the person who told the joke may not have realized it was racist. Perhaps they wanted to make everyone laugh, or build camaraderie. Or maybe humor is their usual way to connect with others. But their “joke” caused harm to others, particularly those who are experiencing racism in other aspects of their lives. The joke made them feel even more excluded and marginalized than they already feel. Instead of saying “I was only kidding,” the person who made the comment should have focused on the harm they caused. For example,
Whether intentional or not, offensive and biased words—even jokes—cause harm. That harm or impact can take many forms. It can feel like a direct attack on the identity of a targeted person—on a core part of who they are. It can cause a person to feel they don’t belong, that their feelings aren’t important, or that they aren’t respected or valued. It can cause the targeted person to stop participating in an activity or group. They might even leave a job or start skipping school. The harm can result in making the targeted person feel uncomfortable, scared or threatened because they fear that comments could be precursors to more consequential acts of bias (e.g., discrimination, violence). The harmful and offensive words and actions can also target others who identify in that same way, or other marginalized identity groups who feel their group could be next.
Why can it be difficult to prioritize Impact?
Think about Lizzo for a minute. Recently Lizzo released a song with an ableist slur in it, and disability activists brought the hurtful nature of the word to Lizzo’s attention. She did not know it was a slur and her lack of knowledge of and sensitivity to ableist language caused her to use it unknowingly and as a result, cause harm.
It’s not always easy to prioritize impact over intent. Like Lizzo, we may not be able to anticipate the harm we cause others because we lack the knowledge or understanding of offensive words and language, be they subtle or overt. We may not know or understand the history, experiences and perspectives of other people. Not having this background information can cause us to harm them unintentionally. As a society and as individuals, we tend to see things from our own points of view and often lack the ability to see and understand things from others’ point of view. That is what we need to change.
Privilege can also be a factor. It is a privilege to not have to be concerned about or consider the impact of our words, especially on marginalized identity groups. For the identity groups for which we hold privilege, we may not see, understand or feel the harm of those in the marginalized group because it doesn’t immediately affect us or the people around us.
SECTION 3: How Can We Prioritize Impact?
How do we prevent ourselves from causing harm to begin with? What can we do to avoid negatively impacting another person by our words and actions when we don’t mean to?
First do a gut check. If you feel unsure or uncomfortable about something you plan to say or do, or if you think this could be misunderstood or harmful, take time to reconsider what you are about to say or do. Take a pause to self-reflect and ask yourself a few questions that center on the potential impact of your words and actions. It’s best to err on the side of caution, especially when you are thinking about your impact in the larger community.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can help with that:
Even if you actively work to prevent harm, your words or actions may still negatively impact another person, even if it’s not on purpose.
When Lizzo was given the feedback about her offensive lyric, she Listened, Reflected on her actions and then Took Action, and re-released the song without the slur in the lyrics. She explained, “I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I understand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally).” Lizzo acknowledged-whether intentional or not- she caused harm and then took steps to repair that harm. She prioritized the impact o f her words, rather than her intentions.
If you realize the harm in the moment (such as by observing others’ body language or facial expressions) or learn later you’ve caused harm, here are some strategies for responding.
1. Resist the urge to say things like, “I didn’t mean it like that,” “That was a miscommunication,” “I was just joking,” or “You’re reading into it too much,.”
2. If someone explains to you what was harmful, listen with the goal to understand and empathize, not to defend or explain yourself.
3. Center the person who was harmed-their feelings, experiences, and perspectives- not yourself or your intentions.
4. Apologize and/or acknowledge the impact that your words or actions had on the person.
5. Learn from your mistakes and do better. Depending on your relationship, seek to learn more without putting the responsibility on another to educate you.
6. Take responsibility for your own learning about harmful language by reflecting on those and other harmful words by reading, watching, and listening.
Our words and actions have power. Our words and actions can inflect harm. However, our words and our actions can also be used to take accountability and make amends when we’ve caused harm. The more we focus on the impact rather than our intent, the more we can learn from each other.
Nobody is expected to be perfect at these things at any given time. It is important to remember that doing better and having a growth mindset is all it takes.