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"The Advocacy Institute (Board Member Reports),"

by David Cohen November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

Around the world the passion for advocacy intensifies. People everywhere recognize the value and necessity of having their own voices amplified so that they are heard against the din of globalized and powerful interests.

PRRAC works effectively at supporting progressive solutions to the problems at the intersection of race and poverty. PRRAC’s primary focus is on the United States. It has a converging interest with the Advocacy Institute (AI). AI works to strengthen social movements that concentrate on justice and equality issues in the United States and outside of it. Our experience outside of the U.S. has made us aware of the creativity that exists in southern hemispheric countries around questions of participation, learning from experience and creating information. In turn that helps create new understandings of democracy and new angles on how to address immediate public issues.

AI’s vision, mission and programs all flow from a core set of values.

These values embrace equity, inclusivity, respect, hope and pragmatism. Our working definition of advocacy attempts to reflect our values and, most importantly, comes from the diverse issue advocates we work with. The issue advocates we work with in the USA cover a variety of issues: civil rights, rural poverty, urban poverty, environmental justice, gender, public health, immigrant rights, public education, children’s issues. The prime focus is working with organizations that have few financial resources but have an abundance of spirit, creativity and ingenuity. The AI constituents, those we feel accountable to, played a major part in shaping the definition of advocacy that follows:

Advocacy is a process in pursuit of influencing outcomes — including public policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, social and policy systems and institutions — that directly affect people’s lives. Advocacy consists of organized efforts and actions that influence public attitudes to enact and implement laws and policies that will create a just and equitable society centered on the dignity of the individual. These efforts draw their strength from the people to whom advocates and organizations are accountable.

Advocacy has purposeful results: to enable social justice advocates to gain access and voice in the decision-making of relevant institutions; to change the power relationships within and among these institutions, thereby changing the institutions themselves; and to bring a clear improvement in people’s lives.

The U.S. social justice advocacy world can be divided into three necessary parts:

1. It defends worthy and established ideas, policies and programs that are under attack from Yahoos and rock-ribbed conservatives;

2. It works with progressive elected and appointed officials to create policy and program advances;

3. It organizes and builds public and political acceptance for long-term systemic change.

Each of these efforts is to be valued. The AI emphasis is on long-term change. For us, advocacy navigates with the reality of what is, too often a harsh one, to that vision of justice and equity which is the world of what should be.

For an insight into the greater acceptance of social change, recall the crowds that cheered the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. The excitement and enthusiasm of record crowds in major stadiums across the U.S. highlighted the historic nature of what happened. The successes of women’s professional team sports, such as basketball and soccer, meant that for the first time in U.S. history girls and women of all ages and classes, all across the country, saw people who looked like them on the courts and fields, and realized that women could be outstanding professional team athletes. The men and boys who became fans witnessed that women could play as hard as they do. This marked one major shift in gender equality.

Think back. The Title IX legislation that equalized funding for girls’ sports in schools was passed in 1972. The story is a familiar one but too often forgotten. Years of consciousness-raising and the building of the second wave of the U.S. women’s movement preceded the proposed legislative remedy. Passage of the legislation — no easy task — required enforcement efforts and persuading school administrators and coaches that giving girls an equal opportunity to play sports is a worthy idea. The battle continues to this day.

Significant and systemic change takes a long time. Ask advocates in southern hemispheric countries that we have worked with. They have a deep appreciation of issue campaigns and the value of gaining incremental changes. They do not delude themselves into thinking that incrementalism accomplishes the completion of their vision, although they celebrate the limited gains that are made.

Working with diverse groups of advocates, and bringing them together across issue lines, AI learns why transformative long-term advocacy is essential to sustain the work of social justice advocacy. Just as good governance is important, so are good organizational skills. But even more is necessary.

Advocates are more than the organizations they represent. They are part of a community of advocates working for social change that advances equality and equity. They need to be able to have safe spaces, develop relationships and exchange with peers within their institution and outside of it. These are the necessary ingredients for creating change that initiates and sets public agendas and gets beyond merely reacting to them.

PRRAC research provides important documentation to various policy efforts that protect gains and initiate policies. That must continue. What would be helpful in the longer term is to have a research strategy that captures the stuff of advocacy in initiating policies, in getting beyond the incremental and in understanding how leadership is exercised in ways that are part of social change advocacy. Such an effort would only work if the relationship between the research and the subject studied operationally recognizes that participants have much to offer researchers and , most important, command respect for the work they do. What so often drives academic research is that the groups, and people in them, are treated as objects of the research and researchers. That relationship has to be changed.

PRRAC, by helping advance a changed relationship, built on its experience, could create a valuable design in three parts:

1. It could find ways of testing how patterns of leadership (including shared leadership) work in social change settings. Safe space enables leadership to reflect on what works well and dealing with mistakes made.

2. Such an approach would help design practical approaches that capture the advocacy resources (other than money) used to wage campaigns.

3. It would design an approach that enables others to examine what organizational and systemic obstacles advocates face.

The Advocacy Institute welcomes finding ways of working with PRRAC to advance an understanding of strategic advocacy where race and poverty intersect. That is a journey worth attempting.

David Cohen is Co-Director of the Advocacy Institute (1707 L St. NW, #400, Washington, DC 20036, 202/659-8475. dcohen@advocacy.org
 
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