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Bridging a Language Barrier

When I was in Naples, Florida, last week for the Florida Municipal Electric Association’s annual meeting, I was reminded of the incredible work done by the state and regional associations for our mutual members. I also had a brief flashback about what it was like to be in college. Let me explain.

The executive director of FMEA, Amy Zubaly, has a lovely daughter who just completed her freshman year of college. Despite COVID restrictions, I found out that she was able to engage in sorority rush. As we were all at a casual dinner at the beginning of the conference, I discovered that she had not only rushed but that she had pledged my sorority. Back in 1991, I had pledged Chi Omega at Vanderbilt (the Sigma Epsilon chapter). Once we realized we were sorority sisters, the 19-year-old co-ed leaned over to this 50-year-old alumnae and said, “Do you know the Chi Omega secret handshake?” I briefly panicked and then said, “I think so…”

…It turns out that I did. The handshake involves a phrase initiated by one person and completed by the other. Once my 19-year-old sorority sister said that initiating word, the cobwebs in my brain melted away and I responded correctly. Such fun, but why does it matter? Well, it was first a reminder of these small interactions that really only happen in person. But it’s also a cool depiction of how we can bridge generation gaps with common experiences and language. Every Chi Omega — from the 19-year-olds newly in college to the great grandmothers in their 90s — know that secret handshake (it intentionally hasn’t changed) and it immediately creates a bond. Chi Omega has a long tradition of academic excellence, community service, and social engagement. Despite what your opinion may be about sororities and fraternities, the perhaps obvious point I am trying to make is that we can create bridges when common language, tradition, and service are emphasized.

Sorority sisters!
Sorority sisters!

The FMEA event, and the meeting I attended the previous week hosted by the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association, incorporated these qualities into their activities and programs. But there is still a challenge in our public power community writ large with finding the next generation of our workforce, as well as continuing to attract people with a variety of skills, backgrounds, and viewpoints. (See our recent Public Power magazine article, Building a Strong Utility Workforce: Developing People First.) Yet we have some of the building blocks to do so. We have an incredible tradition and history and a superb mission. Perhaps (mayhap?) our language is the piece that could use some work. We tend to default to technical jargon, acronyms, and our unique “public power” language, which can come across to newcomers as a strange dialect or even a foreign language.

Maybe we can think about how to bridge the initial “public power language barrier” for young and old, amateurs and experts, and everyone in between. It wouldn’t need to go as far as a secret handshake like that exchanged between my much younger sorority sister and me (and, no, I am not going to reveal the handshake), but it could have the same effect, which is to create an instant connection and common understanding. I don’t have the answer now as to what that “bridge” language could be, but it’s worth considering. As I continue to get out and about with our members at state and regional meetings, I hope to spur some thinking around this. And, I may see some of my other fellow Chi-Os, too!

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