Getting your voice heard

This article is featured in Issue 2 of Dysfluent Magazine.

CONOR <span class="interviewee">Maya Chupkov is the founder of Proud Stutter, an Ambie Award-nominated podcast and advocacy organisation. She lives in San Francisco and in her day job strives for a stronger, freer and independent local news and ethnic media sector in California. Her work highlighting stammering pride, empathy and understanding has been featured in the likes of The Guardian's Top 5 Podcasts of the Week and Apple Podcasts' New & Noteworthy list. Off the back of her appearance at StammaFest, I spoke to Maya about how she intertwines politics, activism and stammering, using her platform to get her voice heard.</span>

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Your interest in advocacy and social justice is present in all aspects of your life. Could you tell me a bit more about this?

<sup>Maya</sup> I started my <span class="repeat">c</span>areer in marketing and PR. It didn’t, I didn’t really feel right about it. Then I went to grad school and I started studying local <span class="repeat">p</span>o-politics and <span class="repeat">p</span><span class="stretch2">u</span>blic affairs. That’s when I started doing nonprofit work and I was so much happier because it totally aligned <span class="repeat">m</span>ore with my values. I think the reason it worked for me is because you can see the difference you’re making——sometimes right away, sometimes it takes a while. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I think policy advocacy and empowering people to get involved in the political process is the best way to to help the world and to <span class="repeat">t</span>o help people.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Is this <span class="repeat">h</span>ow you helped make the first Stammering Awareness Week in San Francisco happen?

<sup>Maya</sup> Proud Stutter is a podcast first and foremost, but it’s also about combining storytelling and action. I thought a great strategy for the action part is through local resolutions. It’s a really wonky, boring term, but it’s really powerful because you can work <span class="repeat">w</span>i-<span class="repeat">w</span>i-<span class="repeat">w</span>i-<span class="repeat">w</span>i-<span class="repeat">w</span>ith your local government on passing a resolution that recognizes stuttering awareness in that city. It’s a pretty easy pr<span class="stretch2">0</span><span class="repeat">c</span>ess. It just takes some planning.

I knew that this could really help get more media media coverage around stuttering. It could allow for the experience for people who stutter in the Bay Area to actually come on stage in front of City Hall and share their story. So it really wasn’t about the local resolution itself, but what could come from it——the impact of it.

Now, the second week of May is National Stuttering Awareness Week and it’s in San <span class="repeat">F</span>-Francisco law, which is amazing. It’s it’s just a really good way to like help people who stutter get out of the shadows and realise that there is a community. So so it might seem like a very boring law, but what can come from it is super powerful. One of my missions as Proud Stutter is to is to pass as many local resolutions as possible globally. I want to do this in the UK too. I’m already partnering with STAMMA on how we we can get get it done. I’m also working with someone in Australia. There’s also two cities in Colorado that are going to be passing a local resolution for international stuttering a<span class="repeat">w</span>-<span class="stretch2">a</span><span class="repeat">w</span>areness day. As Proud Stutter, I’m offering technical assistance to any person that wants to do this in their own city. Even if it’s outside the the US I will do my best and help people get in contact with the right person.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> How do you think <span class="repeat">p</span>odcasting can help the cause for stammering pride?

<sup>Maya</sup> There’s so many stuttering organisations doing amazing work. They have the, they are <span class="repeat">c</span>reating spaces for people to bond and find each other and that’s great. But I feel like the stuttering movement has kind of stalled for a while. I haven’t really seen changes in policy or changes in the media. There’s all of these shifts that are happening around the the racial justice <span class="repeat">m</span>ove-movement and the disability movement but I don’t see shifts happening around stuttering. I’m seeing the same jokes being made on TV over and over again. With Proud Stutter, <em>I wanna shift societal views around stuttering.</em> And the two ways that I see the the most shift happening is in policy and in the media.

I’ve always wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I grew up watching the Lakers with my dad and I would always want to interview the players. Even though I had it in me, I just never followed it because I didn’t think it was possible as a person with a stutter.

So I think that’s why podcasting really appealed to me because it is such a new and un<span class="repeat">d</span>efined i<span class="repeat">n</span><span class="repeat">d</span>ustry. It is kind of an experimental form of radio where you don’t have to have like the most ‘perfect’ voice. It does take a lot of work, but you can also do it on a fairly tight budget. My best friend Cynthia is on season one. She she really wanted to be a part of it with me and having her as someone I can bounce ideas off of is amazing. We split a lot of the work. That was the only way that I was able to really do season one is because I had her as a partner and a friend.

An A3 poster sits on a wooden table. Small blue typography is dotted around the light green paper.
Maya Chupkov’s typographic illustration is based on her covert stammering and mid-word stretches. Riso printed poster by Bart Rzeznik at London Centre for Book Arts. October 2023.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Why do you think the the <span class="repeat">m</span>edium of podcasting is so popular with with like with like with <span class="repeat">l</span>ike people who stammer?

<sup>Maya</sup> Speaking from my experience, I’ve always had <span class="repeat">t</span>h-this hunger to use my voice and for people to listen. And podcasting is such a it’s such it’s such a cool way to be able to tell stories on your own terms. You don’t have to have the most ‘smooth’ speech. You can really just kind of tap into that part of you that’s always wanted your voice to be heard.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> As a podcast host, do you ever feel like there’s times where you are conscious of the language you use around stammering?

<sup>Maya</sup> If the guest ends up describing their stutter a certain way, I’ll refer to it like that throughout the episode. Mainly the language and phrases I’d use are ‘verbal diversity’, ‘speech speech diversity’ and ‘speech differences’.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> How important do you think language is in spreading and feeling stammering pride?

<sup>Maya</sup> I’ve always been very <span class="repeat">i</span>nterested in language when it comes to reframing narratives. I wanted to explore other ways we could label stuttering that’s more empowering because while I’m okay with the word stuttering, I know sometimes it becomes a trigger for people. I think because stuttering gets so misrepresented in the media people often equate stuttering to something negative. A while ago I was on a Zoom event and there was a discussion around the different terms people have heard or used around stuttering. <em>Someone mentioned “verbal diversity”. I <span class="stretch2">I</span> loved that phrase so much.</em> From then on, I put it out there as much as possible. I started using it in my interviews with the media.

Nina Reeves, the woman who coined it, actually emailed me. She was so glad I was using it on my podcast. We haven’t gotten a chance to chat yet, but I did learn that the term “verbal diversity” largely draws on the social model of disability, which centres on disability as a difference, and society as a barrier for these differences. In the social model, stuttering is considered a “verbal diversity”——a positive difference——and society is the barrier for people who stutter.

If you Google “verbal diversity” and you put in the search the date before my podcast launched, that phrase went from being nowhere in the media and now it’s there in several ways. I love that because you can really see the shift in narrative when you measure impact in those ways.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> It also adds to this power of a shared experience, especially with the disability community and other forms of speech differences. It’s it’s like even though those experiences are unique by themselves, it’s knowing that stammering can be talked about alongside aphasia, tourettes, etc.

<sup>Maya</sup> Yeah, exactly. I wear my tote bag that says ‘embrace verbal verbal diversity’ everywhere I go. I was at this one networking event last week and I was talking to this guy about stuttering and his eyes just lit up. He didn’t have a stutter himself. But it’s something he’s always noticed that it just takes him a little longer to form his sentences. So there’s all these grey areas in speech and people don’t often feel like part of something because there’s not a label for it. So what what I love about “verbal diversity” is that it really brings so many <span class="stretch2">d</span>i-different experiences into the the the frame. And it allows people to create their own sense of community.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Proud Stutter is one of the only stammering podcasts that I know of that is made by a woman. Does that kind of <span class="repeat">k</span>ind of kind of influence the conversations you have on the show?

<sup>Maya</sup> It’s it’s always in the back of my mind. There’s a kind of focus or like desire to feature more <span class="repeat">w</span>o -more women on my show. In the the media and in pop culture, most of the characters we see stutter are men. There is an urge for me to tell more women’s stories, but it’s definitely not the <span class="stretch2">I</span>o- like the focal point of Proud Stutter because I wanna tell all stories.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> And as a a woman who stammers in the public eye, does that impact your sense of stammering pride?

<sup>Maya</sup> Yeah totally. I’ve spoken with <span class="repeat">N</span>-Nina G a lot about this topic. In her memoir, “Stutterer Interrupted”, there’s a lot of themes about this. As women we’re kind of already viewed in a certain way, and to layer on top having a stutter, it’s even more of a challenge for us to speak up and be taken seriously.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Intersectionality is something a lot of people in the stammering community are talking about. So maybe it’s not just about stammering, it’s not just about pride. It’s about stammering in addition to other identities.

<sup>Maya</sup> Yeah, I think intersectionality is super important and that’s why I formatted season two of Proud Stutter the way I did. All the guests are people who stutter. But then I invite co-hosts from different areas outside of stuttering. One example is an episode where we have a guest who stutters and then the co-host is someone who advocates in the adoption and foster care system. Even with those two things we found so many intersections. I’m trying to tease out that <em>stuttering isn’t this thing that’s separate. It all relates to us as as as human beings.</em> I try to be very intentional about the guests I have on the podcast. <span class="repeat">I</span> I want the stories to intersect in interesting ways because for stuttering it’s so easy to talk about the same things over and over again. There are so many experiences that we share.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Intersecting these different identities and experiences, especially if we we consider stammering pride, helps brings stammering into new spaces so it can be discovered by other kinds of people. I’m thinking here of seeing Proud Stutter featured on The Guardian and Apple Podcasts New & Noteworthy.

<sup>Maya</sup> The Guardian feature totally caught me by surprise, I was so shocked that that happened because I hadn’t even reached out to them. And usually when I appear in things, it’s like months in the making of me pitching and trying to get a reporter to cover <span class="stretch2">s</span>omething. But with The Guardian, it was probably just like very serendipitous that they might have seen my announcement around season two.

With Apple Podcasts, that is so that is such a big deal! <span class="repeat">I</span> I I was attending a podcast conference and one of the speakers had been trying for ten years to get on Apple Podcasts. She has literally thousands of listeners and she’s like very well known. I pitched to them a few months ago and I guess something just stuck with them.

Probably my biggest accomplishment to date is being nominated for the Ambie Awards for Best DIY Podcast category. The Ambies is like the Oscars, but for podcasts. It was such an honour.

Another big highlight was getting coverage around San Francisco recognizing National Stuttering Awareness Week (NSAW) for the first time in the city’s history. I’ve never received so many emails in the span of one week after getting that coverage. We are working on another resolution for this year to recognize the 2nd Annual NSAW.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Do you think the concept of stammering pride is almost dependent <span class="repeat">o</span>n on people who stammer putting themselves in these vulnerable spaces, where stammering hasn’t ever been before?

<sup>Maya</sup> For me, reaching stu-stuttering pride was kind of like flipping a switch. I spent my whole life avoiding my stutter. And if I saw a podcast called Proud Stutter, I’d be like, ‘What? That makes no sense’. I feel like sometimes it takes different switches for different people to enter that space of of stuttering pride, whether it’s like listening to an episode of Proud Stutter or reading a book or another thing. But for some people it’s just they’re not ready yet. And that’s okay. I think there is also a balance, because I know stuttering is such a, it’s such a personal, emotional experience. Inviting people into that space can be really scary and uncomfortable. I totally get why people just wanna like stay in their stuttering space be<span class="repeat">c</span>ause it’s safe. And I think that’s fine. But for me, I’ve reached the point in my stuttering journey where I’m ready to start taking it outside.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> What things do you <span class="repeat">c</span>onsider when you think about including non-stammering or fluent people onto the podcast?

<sup>Maya</sup> Every month I have a virtual Proud Stutter gathering. It’s open to all, and there’s a few people involved who don’t stutter but they just want to be there and learn. I have this one woman who’s donated to me——she doesn’t have a stutter, doesn’t know anyone who stutters, but just believes in it and just wants to help in any way she can.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee"> Sounds like the most amazing patron ever!

<sup>Maya</sup> Yeah! And so for me it’s just about being inclusive. It’s so powerful to include people who don’t stutter into the movement. It’s about showing up in spaces outside of stuttering. That’s the way we build.