Editor’s note: February is Black and African American History Month. Take a moment to read and learn more about Black and African American history and voices. Here is one website: Black Youth Project. h/t Kaleb G. for sharing this website.
In my job, I spend a lot of time advocating. My advocacy doesn’t always look like traditional advocacy of being in legislative bodies, testifying, or rubbing elbows in the grand halls of the state capitol or city hall. I do this sometimes, admittedly not as much as I sometimes feel I should, but I don’t think we all need to prescribe to the same methods of advocacy that works for white people or white communities.
In our current system of advocacy loud voices that show up and repeatedly show up gain attention. This is a time-proven model in our US government. Persistence and numbers pays off. We currently know which communities benefits – privileged (I use this term loosely) communities who can afford time, resources, and voice to their causes. Who is left behind are communities furthest from justice – People of Color (POCs), people with disabilities, non-English literate/speaking, etc. The traditional systems of advocacy are not built for, designed for, nor even remotely tries to accommodate people of color.
Many POCs know how to navigate the system or we can easily learn the rules of the game. With a little reading, asking around, or watching others we can figure out how to sign up to testify, how to read bill summaries, how to reach our legislators. There are training programs that teach people how to do this, my organization even runs a successful train-the-advocate like program. But this doesn’t mean we are treated well or even heard.
Recently several friends, who are parents and seasoned advocates at the local level, decided to advocate against a Washington State bill that would privilege mostly white upper-class students. To prep for their day in Olympia (Washington’s state capitol) they did their research, I reached out to a friend who is a policy analyst and knows Olympia processes better than I do to find out how to sign in to testify, where to find the committee hearing room, and other tidbits of info. My friend even shared her cellphone number so they could text if they needed help navigating the capitol. They were set and eager to advocate.
They made the trek from Seattle to Olympia, about an hour to two hour drive, depending on traffic. The group found the room, signed in to testify, even found my friend who helped us prep. The legislators didn’t allow the public to testify, they said they ran out of time. They spent a lot of the committee meeting time hearing from other policymakers and professionals – all valid, but it was deeply disappointing for this set of parents who invested time and energy to show up. Their lived experiences and beliefs weren’t heard, they were told they could email in their testimony. They played the game and the game shut them out. Will they want to show up again in Olympia, I don’t know.
Policymakers of all sorts (this includes principals, administrators, executives, etc.) preach “come we need to hear from you,” “we want to know what you’re thinking,” those who show up get what they need, etc. Yes, AND when the game doesn’t love you back or hear you, how willing would you be to show up again and again and again if you’re constantly shut out.
Why I don’t play the advocacy game
Today over breakfast, I was telling a colleague, there are many times I refuse to ‘advocate’ or send people into advocacy situations where I know they won’t be centered, cared for, or will generally be uncomfortable. My street cred and reputation won’t last forever. There are many times I know we must be uncomfortable to create the changes. But at the same time, it is difficult for me to ask others to voluntarily put themselves into positions where they could be dismissed, have to fight to be heard, or tokenized. We need to change the way systems work to allow advocates, especially advocates of color, to be heard.
A while ago I told a friend I often decline to sit on task forces, nor will I ask people in my network to sit on most task forces. There is a predictable formula for task forces – they are over stacked with special interest (who fought to get a task force and issue raised), racial equity practices are not infused nor operationalized, and privilege takes over. I also tell people to take their expectations and lower it by 2/3, that will realistically be about what will be accomplished by the task force.
For POCs serving on mainstream task forces the burdens are even greater. We are often expected to serve as representatives of our communities and we are the token or ‘twoken’ voice of pocs. While serving on task forces is a great way to advocate for specific changes I’m not convinced it is the most effective way for pocs to make change. The current structures are not designed to support poc voices.
How to be advocates
In order to be more effective advocates, we need to change the structures and rules of engagement and bend them towards being poc friendly. A few months ago, I told a colleague-friend about my past task force experience and how I am very careful with who I suggest serve on task forces. I forgot about this conversation, but my friend was listening. When we caught up recently over a Korean deli lunch, she told me she recently put together a task force and purposefully reworked the recruitment mechanism to more fairly balance voices. She wanted to ensure poc voices would be included and to keep loud special interest groups from taking over; to achieve this she didn’t use traditional recruitment mechanisms and is testing having people apply in mix-cohort teams. By changing the system she’s creating new ways for advocates to enter the system. My advocacy without being an ‘advocate’ created a structural change – relational advocacy is important to create long term changes.
We also need our allies to realize the mainstream systems suck. Showing up and testifying for two-minutes at a board, committee, council meeting isn’t comfortable for many – nor is it a meaningful way to build dialogue and relationships. Being in relationships with communities is important. Advocacy doesn’t always have to be testifying, lobbying, or showing up at legislative bodies – these are important, but they are just one aspect of the overall advocacy arena.
Changing structures to hear more from people furthest from justice isn’t hard when you stop to think about it. It often means shifting prioritizes and saying no to certain things and yes to others.
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