Dichotomy of Advocacy

Sympathy to Solidarity Part II

Last week we started our Sympathy to Solidarity series with "when the tears no longer move you".  This week we are talking about advocacy!  Its an interesting topic because of its complicated layers. Advocacy can serve as a launching pad or a tar pit. Its dichotomy lies in its ability to be waged for common good or coddled for self-serving means. 

When we find ourselves so broken by the issues around us that doing nothing is no longer option, we are immediately launched into the advocacy stage. We are finding our voice. We are synthesizing all the information we gathered in the sympathy stage and linking it to real work, real stories, real experiences. We are testing the waters- attempting to discover if we can truly make a difference. We are writing. We are speaking truth to power. We are marching. We are fundraising. We are traveling. We are taking increasingly larger risks to speak truth to power. In many ways this is a stage of transformation- you are now an advocate, linked to a cause, specializing in a particular area, known for speaking up and speaking out. You are in a word- credible. And it feels good. 

Advocacy is an uplifting process, a collection of meaningful successes that outweigh experiences of resistance. Advocacy requires a sense of longevity because trust and credibility are not easily won. But. If advocacy does not become a launching pad into solidarity, it easily morphs into seductive self -promotion. 

[By self-promotion I don't mean what we do to sell books, tweet our posts or giving commercials when we speak. I don't mean that our work should never be discussed or our story told. By self-promotion, I mean that advocacy work can become more about ourselves than the people we're supposed to advocate for.] 

We've all heard the phrase 'knowledge is power'... Well, knowledge also gives power. Consider, it used to be that when you spoke, folks would correct you, or add to what you said. You would write a piece and then be pulled aside, told how it could be better. You would work all day and intentionally ask the experts how you did. But then you became the expert. You gained the acquired knowledge to be credible and as a result you are offered power and position. Few things are more seductive- even in social justice circles. And this is when the dichotomy of advocacy becomes real. Following are just three ways advocacy can quickly become about the promotion of self:  

1. The Savior-Complex: believing that the reason things got done is because you were part of the efforts. Instead of being an advocate for the people, you slowly become a paternal dictator- explaining to the people what must be done and how, inserting yourself into every decision making process, all thanks to your expertise and experience, of course. 

The one who stands in solidarity lives in humility. Happy to be a part of the group, the process, the planning, the executing, but resists individualizing their work. They are vigilant to remain aware of how their contribution is connected to the group. Without the group, their contribution would be null. 

2. The Voice of the People:  The seduction of power easily leads to the belief that the marginalized cannot or should not speak for themselves. They might mess up, go too far, ask for too much. They might undo all the work you've been doing on their behalf (behind closed doors). You must be the spokesperson, the bridge, the translator, the center that brings both sides together. <--- 'danger, will robinson, danger' if you find yourself the center. 

The one who stands in solidarity is constantly determining how the marginalized can speak truth to power themselves. They seek positions of power for others- creating new positions on the board, the leadership, the panel, the committee, the speaker line up, the acquisitions list, etc. Or give up their own position. They use creativity not to speak on behalf of the people, but always with. Always with the people. 

3. Resting on Your Laurels: Achieving position and power sometimes makes it harder to participate in the work of the people on the ground in the trenches. Position and proximity to power can color how you interpret what's happening in the lives of the marginalized. This removal from the work is dangerous. Losing touch with the people means losing credibility. The expectation that work done in the past earns the right to be trusted in the present will eventually prove to be unreasonable. What have you done for (others) lately?

Solidarity is important because its forward looking. Accomplishments of the past are to be celebrated for sure. But there is more work to do. Solidarity seeks connection- not from the past but always in the present.  

Advocacy is not inherently bad. It is an exciting time of gaining confidence, trying out your voice, synthesizing and applying the information you're learning to the world. But if you find yourself rising in power, being seduced by the savior complex, needing to speak for the marginalized, or resting only on endeavors of the past... You might be stuck. 

Getting yourself unstuck requires a great deal of humility. it requires love of neighbor as much as you love yourself. It requires being a lifelong learner and collaborator. As advocacy begins to uplift us into positions of power, solidarity asks us to choose the downward path. The path that leads to the oppressed. 

Talk to me. What have you gained from your advocacy work? And what dangers have you discovered?