OCTOBER 06, 2017

In the social justice lexicon, inclusion is defined as “authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power” (H. Thomas and A. Hirsch, The Progressive’s Style Guide).

As grant writers and nonprofit professionals, we understand that language is a powerful tool when advocating for positive social change. In pursuit of this goal, it is critical that we understand the role of word choice in conveying a broad range of identities and perspectives. Various terminologies can be packed with assumptions— economic, social, cultural, and educational. It is essential when writing for social justice causes to be aware of these assumptions, which in turn helps us to embrace writing that combats discriminatory language and conveys an authentic sense of inclusivity.

Writing in a style that is inclusive and ethical is a skill. Like any skill, gaining facility and comfort with using inclusive terminology requires thoughtful, consistent practice. Though there are many approaches and schools of thought when it comes to inclusive writing, two core principles include:

1. People-First language

People- first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. People- first language views other descriptive social identities that people may hold as secondary and non-essential. Though adhering to people-first language can lead to awkward sentence constructions, it is critical to center people rather than their circumstances as the heart of your storytelling.


  • “Children from low-income backgrounds” vs. “low-income children”
  • “Formerly incarcerated person” vs. “ex-offender”
2, Self-Identification

Inclusive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that respects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. By using language that reflects how people self-identify, you respect aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit and lend power to their voices. If you are unsure of preferred terminology, research the most current discourse on the topic using such resources as the Disability Style Guide and An Ally’s Guide to Terminology.


  • “Individual with a physical disability” vs. “handicapped”
  • “People of color” vs. “minorities”
  • “Transgender person” vs. “transgendered”

Understanding and committing to these principles is the first step in working towards writing in a style that consistently incorporates inclusive language. Of course, language evolves and appropriate terminology is shaped by the continued larger conversation around social justice, intersectionality, and what authentic inclusivity entails in practice. As much as using the “right” terms or words is something we all work towards, it is equally important to foster a climate of open communication and demonstrate a willingness to learn.

As you work towards developing a writing style that features inclusivity, remember to keep an open mind, keep resources close at hand, and – most of all – keep learning!

Suggested Resources

The Progressive’s Style Guide

Racial Equity Resource Guide Glossary

An Ally’s Guide to Terminology

The Disability Style Guide

The Social Justice Phrase Guide

About the Author:

Helen Bryant