Hetal Jani, the founder and executive director of SPEAK Mentorship, used to let others mispronounce her name — but not anymore.
Jani (whose name is pronounced Heh-thul Jah-nee) experienced first-hand how often times people wouldn’t even try to say her name properly from an early age. In order to correct this behavior in all aspects of life, from graduations to work meetings, the Flushing native created the #SpeakingMyName campaign to help raise awareness about the importance of name inclusion.
“All of us have been told our names when we were younger. That’s what happened with me with my first grade teacher, that instant when she told me what she’ll call me because she couldn’t pronounce my name,” said Jani, who is of Indian descent. “We all do so much great work and our names just don’t get recognized, and the importance of even trying to say our names properly doesn’t get recognized.”
Jani, who was recognized at the 2019 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awards for her impactful work mentoring immigrant girls, was inspired to create the campaign after speaking on a panel about cultural awareness for educators. She began by correcting her name after she was introduced — something she’s far too familiar with doing.
“People with ‘uncommon names’ have had to do that, or we have to make our names easier to pronounce,” Jani said.
But Jani noted that this isn’t the case for everyone who has names that could be considered “uncommon.” She said a friend brought up the example of Daenerys Targaryen, the fictional main character of the widely popular book and TV franchise “Game of Thrones,” as having an unconventional name that people from around the world have learned to pronounce.
It was at that education panel where she met one of her campaign co-leads, HuyenTran Vo (pronounced Hwin-Jun V-Ahh), who was surprised that Jani took the time to correct her name.
“She said, ‘wait a minute, you can correct people?'” Jani said, adding that Vo went by her last name for a long time because so many people refused to say her first name properly.
Thus, the #SpeakingMyName campaign began. Jani, along with her two fellow campaign co-leads, Vo and Yodit Haile (pronounced Yo-deet Hi-leh), shared their videos with stories of their name experiences.
“Throughout my life, I have been called by many names … none of [which] are even close to my real name,” Vo said in her video. “Has your name been mispronounced, changed, made fun of or even ignored? Well, I am here because I want to hear how your name is pronounced because that’s an important part of your identity and your identity is important to me.”
Haile, who was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and grew up in Ottawa, Canada, said that while she grew up in what is considered a pretty diverse place, her name has always been a challenge for people to pronounce properly.
“I never felt the need to correct them, simply because I either felt embarrassed for them or even myself,” Haile said in her video. “The older I got, the more I realized the importance behind my name and why my parents gave me such a beautiful, unique name.”
On June 16, they are encouraging people everywhere — students, graduates, essential workers — to share their own videos of their names being said proudly and properly using the hashtag #SpeakingMyName.
Jani said it’s important to bring attention to this, as saying someone’s name properly or even trying to do so, is the first step in “making someone feel as if they’re seen, valued, and belong.”
SPEAK will also hold a free virtual Summit about the campaign on June 16, which will feature different panels with individuals sharing their name stories as well as workshops to help individuals say their own name and say the names of others properly.
“You have agency to correct people even when you’re younger,” Jani said. “Stand by your name because it’s important. It took me until I was in my mid-20s to start correcting people, or at least trying to. Your parents gave you a name for a reason. Have the agency to do it, so that people can say it fully and properly, and you don’t have to be caught between two worlds.”
For more information, visit the campaign’s page at www.speakmentorship.org/