I believe we are all born as really great advocates. Despite mobility & language limitations, babies are the best advocates. There is no doubt in anyone's mind when a baby needs or wants something. Typical babies in loving happy homes scream and cry until their need gets met. If they don't like how you respond, they let you know with more screaming until you get it right. But something happens along our journey and we lose these advocacy skills. Adults told us to sit down, be quiet, stop asking for things. People said "that's just the way it is". Those who have all the power and resources showed us over and over again how small we are and how little we can influence the world. And after being worn down for years in so many ways, we just stopped trying. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) eventually life presents all of us with a situation that forces us to become advocates again. A loved one becomes disabled, we get caught in a toxic job or relationship, we are awakened to some injustice in the world. When that time comes for you, how will you reclaim these lost skills? Whether you are self-advocating, advocating for a loved one, or advocating for systemic change...here are a few things you can do to get started or be more effective:
- Gather information & learn the rules of the game. It doesn't take long for babies to learn that when they cry, somebody comes to attend to them. How many toddlers work the "fake cry" in an effort to get some attention? Whatever you are advocating for, learn how the systems already work. Read books, talk to people who are involved, try to find out what's working, what isn't, and what has been tried before. In order to be a super effective advocate, you have to know where you are starting before you can ever get a sense of where you should go.
- Make a game plan. Truly effective advocacy work is strategic. It isn't haphazard or always coming from a defensive place, it's proactive and deliberate. Plan for the short term and the long term. As an advocate for my son my "big goal" is to see him live a fulfilling and happy life in adulthood, but that won't just magically happen. It means we have stuff to work on now, even at six years old, to ensure that happens. A couple of additional notes about your game plan:
- Have a clear & simple message/goal. Don't over complicate what you are trying to do. You (and anyone along for the ride with you) will get bogged down in the chaos if you overcomplicate it. It needs to be hella clear what you are trying to accomplish. My goal in advocating for J in the school system is to help create the most effective learning environment for him. That's it. It's a big goal with a lot of moving parts, but it's a really clear and simple idea I can cling to and communicate to others. Every issue I tackle in the school environment comes back to that one goal.
- Focus more on what is possible than what is impossible. People are drawn towards things. People want to hope for something, believe in something. It can be terribly immobilizing to hone in on the things that are not possible or the things that are beyond your control. Your plan should focus on all the possibilities in the areas that you can control or influence.
- Start where you are with what you have. You may not have a million dollars or a huge audience or even be the most knowledgable about a topic. That's okay. Take what you have, what you know, and what you can do and run with it. You don't have to be an expert or have a huge platform to effect change in the world. Making a difference in one life, in one classroom, in one doctor's office...whatever...that matters.
- Partner with others. There is power in numbers. Not only does the message seem a lot louder when more than one person is saying it, you can accomplish more when there are multiple people with a variety of skill sets and experiences working on an issue. You can also lean on each other when things get hard. Advocacy work can be so life giving, but it can also feel very draining and overwhelming. Having people who can help carry the torch when you're drained or feel lost is so important. Those partnerships might be other people or they might be other agencies depending on the work you are doing. You don't have to be the one stop shop tackling all the issues and you don't have to go it alone. Find people with common passions and experiences and go together.
- Get some quick wins and build some momentum. If you are just getting started with advocacy work, get some quick wins under your belt. Find some "low hanging fruit" and grab it. Effecting change, even if it is seemingly small and insignificant can feel super empowering, can boost your confidence, and can help get the ball rolling. After accomplishing something, you will likely feel empowered to tackle bigger and harder issues.
- Play for the long game. Advocacy work is rarely "finished" and it rarely happens quickly. Don't get so bogged down in more minor issues that you lose sight of the bigger picture. When you experience set backs, because you absolutely 100% will, remember your why. Why did you get started in this work? Why is it important to keep going? What are you working towards? Cling to that why for dear life and remember that change takes time and tomorrow is a new day.
Remember, you were born an advocate. All you need to do is reclaim the advocate that is already in your bones. Over the next many weeks and months, I plan to share some more practical tips that you can apply to your every day work...so stay tuned! Here's to becoming the advocate you were born to be!