Think Before You Talk, a student-led campaign, is taking aim at derogatory and insensitive usage of words such as “gay,” “rape” or “retarded” in everyday conversations.

The campaign was initially conceived by freshmen Anuj Chhabra and Yang Wu in a Focus program class about leadership and civic engagement taught by public policy professor Tony Brown. After designing the project as a class assignment, Chhabra and Wu decided to develop it into a fully-fledged campaign and expand its reach to the rest of Duke’s campus. The campaign has partnered with Blue Devils United as well as the Center for Multicultural Affairs in order to increase awareness among students.

“We want to let people know that the vulnerable groups of people are not just a minority, but are all around us,” Wu said. “They may be your friends, or your friends’ friends or people related to you.”

Sean Novak, program coordinator for the Center for Multicultural Affairs, helped Wu and Chhabra as they prepared the campaign. He said real change often comes about only when people are able to personally understand the negative effects of using derogatory language.

“If they can personalize the issue—put a face to a name or a word—then [the campaign] definitely will have an impact,” Novak said.

The campaign advocates a “step-by-step” process to reduce the use of sensitive language, Chhabra said.

“If someone says, ‘Those shoes are so gay,’ first of all, that’s incorrect because shoes can’t like other shoes,” he said. “Secondly, here at Duke you’re meeting 10 people every single day, so you can’t really be sure whether you can use those words. You could be alienating people just by saying things like that.”

The campaign’s activities have included the hosting of a number of open discussions as well as the distribution of stickers, bookmarks and flyers around campus. In addition, the campaign was able to get 150 signatures on a pledge to reduce the usage of derogatory words. In the upcoming months, Chhabra and Wu hope to increase their presence via social media.

Wu, an international student, noted the surprising prevalence of derogatory language among the international community at Duke. Wu suggested that international students often pick up such words in an effort to appear more fluent in English, thus allowing them to more easily fit in with their new environment at an American university.

“People might think this is just American culture,” Wu said. “But in China, where I come from, people use these words in Chinese also—it’s a worldwide topic.”

To counter this trend, Wu said that the campaign will try to host an information session on the issue during International Orientation Week this Fall.

Think Before You Talk originated when Chabra and Wu noticed the prevalence of derogatory language among their peers. Chhabra and Wu informally polled 42 students who currently live with them in Randolph Dormitory, and 95 percent responded that they hear words like “gay” and “retarded” in casual conversation on a daily basis.

Freshman Julie Hong said she was impressed with the direction taken by the campaign, given how widespread the issue seems.

“I know my gay friends aren’t terribly offended by it,” Hong said. “They’re so used to it now, which is just wrong in so many ways.”

Novak said he had seen similar student-led campaigns during his time at Central Michigan University. Although these campaigns provide an excellent spark for student dialogue and awareness, Novak said, true change must come from the individual.

“Young men and women who come into a college environment have 17, 18 years of prior life experience where that kind of language may or may not have been acceptable,” Novak said. “When you’re talking about deconstructing 20 years of socialization, one campaign can’t do it all. One class can’t do it all. It’s really a lifelong process.”