Changing the way we advocate

By Erin O.

On Tuesday I had breakfast with a colleague who reads the blog. He joked that I start each blog post with a “I don’t know what to write about this week…” whine, then dribble on for a few hundred words. That assessment isn’t too far from the truth, but this week I know exactly what I’m going to delve into– advocacy.

In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about and actively working on advocacy, policy change, and community engagement. These three components are often thought of in isolation from each other, but they need to come together for smart poc-centered changes to happen.



Student advocacy at a school board meeting

Advocacy is the act of publicly supporting, trying to influence a decisionmaker, and promoting a viewpoint. All of us are advocates and we all advocate for things hundreds of times a day. As an example, I was advocated at multiple times tonight when my kids asked to watch the Emoji movie, one kid advocated for M&Ms instead of strawberries for his snack, the other advocated for just the crumble part of the apple pie leftover from Pi-day and a scoop of chocolate (not vanilla) ice cream. As the target of their rudimentary but effective advocacy strategies, I held a lot of power in those asks. I had the power to fulfill their ask or to deny their requests; I gave in to all but the M&Ms.


On the flipside, I am often the one advocating for policy shifts at work. These acts of advocacy happen at work when my organization is making an ask about a position because we believe the change we’re asking for is better for children and families of color. When I’m advocating I’m often in a lesser position of power because I need someone else to do something. Race is interwoven into this in multiple ways, especially if I’m advocating to a mostly white group or a historically white-dominated organization I’m automatically viewed in a lesser position to be advocating from.

How it Goes Wrong

Before I talk about how all of this comes together, I want to explain how I’ve seen advocacy go wrong. For advocacy to work we have to recognize there are power dynamics at play – one person or a group has something the other person or group wants or needs. The person asking for the change needs to prove their point and convince the other person to shift their position to do what is asked. This can go wrong in so many ways and for so many reasons.

I still remember my first experience providing public testimony at the state capitol. It was on an early learning related topic, the specifics of which are long expunged from my brain. I had to drive over an hour to get to Olympia, find parking, then make it through the maze of buildings on the Capitol campus, and finally find the right room while not slipping on the slick marble floors due to the winter rain. When I finally found the room, my colleagues had already signed me in to testify and I took a seat. I sat and waited for what felt like over an hour. An hour waiting to give two-minutes of testimony, on top of already having driven over an hour and invested a lot of quarters into paying for street parking because this is the system we have for policymakers to hear from the public. When I finally testified I realized those listening already made up their minds and I was simply speaking to get on the record to share a viewpoint that wasn’t super popular.

More recently I’ve seen where advocacy can go horribly wrong in listening to other people testify. The act of advocating for something is a personal belief. The belief can be race-conscious or race-blind, it can be grounded in ‘fact’ or the other person’s version of ‘fact,’ it can be informed through authentic community engagement efforts, or through echo-chambers of listening to people whom you already agree with and reinforce a viewpoint. Perhaps it is because of our democratic engrained ways we give equal weight to allowing people to formally advocate. Anyone who can jump through all of the hoops to testify at a public meeting has the same amount of time and the same access to the podium. The problem is in the equality of the experience. The barriers to advocacy are greater for some than others. To testify a person often has to carve out at least an hour (often more) in order to give two-minutes or less of public testimony. There is also language and transportation considerations, as well as understanding what is often a mindboggling process to figuring out what are the protocols involved to advocating in this formal way. Whenever I give public testimony I still get nervous, I can only imagine what the experience is like for someone who is an immigrant or a non-English speaker.

I’m also struck by there is little way to really unpack and delve into what people are presenting during their statements. I once testified on a topic providing my viewpoint and was followed by another advocate who’s testimony was the complete opposite. In this setting there wasn’t a mechanism to help the policy makers understand facts and to unpack what is facts versus beliefs, especially when they come to race, bias, opportunity hoarding, and the ilk. A lawyer friend pointed out there is no swearing an oath to telling the truth when we testify; maybe we should have to swear that testimony is truthful and specify what is a belief not fact. (Did you catch that subtle advocacy? I just asked for a policy shift.)

How this All Comes Together and Changing the System

At the heart of advocacy is relationships. Advocacy needs at least two people, one person to ask and the other person to hear the message. When we are working on advocacy efforts we need to build and sustain relationships to get to a place of yes and activate change. These relationships need to be diverse and recognizing and balancing of formal and community power dynamics.

We also need to create more ways for advocacy to happen in settings outside of staged events and through formal testimony. While on a school tour a school health nurse shared how students using her health clinic will tell her things about their lives while at the school health clinic because it is on their campus- their home turf, but those same students are less likely to share if they are seen at a health clinic in a more traditional medical setting. Having home turf advantage is so important to leveling power in advocacy efforts, especially with communities of color and communities farthest from justice.

We all need to do our part to push government and other formal systems to shift and bend to better meet community needs. This starts by paying attention to wonky stuff like school board meetings, City Council, and other process-driven organizations. Watch government hearings to get a sense of what is happening and then talk to a few friends or others to see if they have the same take as you, this simple act of community engagement may lead to different thoughts or the start of a movement. Get into the game and over time we can change this game to be more poc-centered.

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