Wizards and muggles: finding our way with terminology

Cartoon 'magical potion' bottle in BCM colours, with stars coming out the top

Birmingham Community Matters is a small charity and, as a team, we’re learning as we grow. One of several challenges we face is effectively communicating what we do.

When we commissioned a review of our pilot phase last year, one of the areas flagged up for improvement lay in helping people to understand our approach more easily. This was no surprise. We had long been grappling with the language we were using – particularly around our surgeries and the people who attend them.

Let us explain . . .

Surgery comes from the tradition of face-to-face consultation: seeing one’s GP or MP to raise an issue. We borrowed it from social media surgeries, upon which BCM’s approach is based.  Maybe surgery sounds a little clinical, but we think it conveys the idea that people can drop in to get support, and that someone knowledgeable will be on hand to talk to them.

We wrote a blog post to explain what happens in a Birmingham Community Matters surgery. We hope it helps people who have never attended one before.

Where we feel we didn’t find the right words was in surgeons and patients, describing the people who attend our surgeries to give help and those who attend our surgeries to get help. Not only do the two words have medical connotations, they also imply an unequal relationship between the two groups of people. This conflicts with the idea that BCM nurtures peer-to-peer relationships; that everyone who attends a BCM surgery, in whatever capacity, will benefit.

We believe everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach.

Nevertheless we’ve always needed, for practical reasons, a way to distinguish between our more experienced volunteers who are offering their expertise, and people seeking support as they start out on their community journeys. So surgeons and patients stuck for a while, although – believe us – we have really wracked our brains for better alternatives. Suggestions included peers and helpeers; helpers and helpees; even wizards and muggles.

We still haven’t struck upon the perfect pair of words (your ideas will always be welcomed) so for now we’re talking about people who come along to give help and people who come along to get help. Not very catchy, perhaps, but it’s working.

We’d love to know: what are your thoughts around terminology in your community group? Have you, like BCM, been finding your way as you go, or did you set out formal guidelines from the outset? Are you bogged down in acronyms and jargon? Tell us your thoughts – join in at Twitter or on Facebook.


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