The capacity for advocacy

To many efforts fail not because of the action proposed or what people want to accomplish.  They fail because organizations assume they have the capacity for action rather than realizing that capacity must be developed and grown.  Capacity must be planted and nurtured as if a flower worthy of bloom.  Many great ideas die from the inability to do, from the lack of capacity for effective action.  The development of capacity is one of our prime goals.  One definition of capacity would be to have enough people to act who believe that things can get better if their ask, their cause becomes reality, who believe that what they do makes a difference in service of that goal, who believes they have the ability, knowledge or skill to do what matters, who feel supported in their efforts and who feel like the whole effort has meaning and purpose…”

-from an earlier post on advocacy

This post might be considered a companion piece to an earlier post on “building a movement”.  In the next couple of weeks there will be a series of posts that in one way or another deal with advocacy.  We are facing times of challenge and test.  Like never before it is important that the people who want to make a difference with issues surrounding mental health are able to do so.  I claim no special knowledge or wisdom on the subject.  Much of what I think I know comes simply from watching and listening to people who I have been lucky enough to know and watch who have been able to be effective advocates.

More than one person has described much of mental health advocacy as a circular firing squad.  The goal is to straighten the line and hit targets that matter.

Advocacy doesn’t just happen.  It is more than passion and moral fervor.  It is more than wanting things to be different and committing to trying to make that difference happen.  For the most part advocacy is always a competitive sport.  Someone always loses.  There are many passionate and committed people who lost.  Despite their efforts change never happens.  They never make the difference they hoped to make.

Language matters.  The important thing is not simply how well you say things.  How well things are heard is more important and not the same thing.  You must use language that resonates with the people you are talking to.  Tying your message to values that are important to the person you are talking to makes a difference.  If your opponent “owns” important values it is hard to make the impact you want.  For example…. No politician will ever say he doesn’t want to help the “mentally ill.”  Tim Murphy tried to identify his bill with “helping the mentally ill” and any  opposition to him as just not caring and opposing him for their own selfish reason.  It is important not to let Murphy make his proposals the vehicle for core values of legislators but a proposal that should be evaluated like all proposals on how well it will work and the consequences of adopting it.  Basically something like…..”Everybody cares but lets look and see what will really work and what will really help…”

Sometimes passionate and committed people say things in ways not very likely to be heard.  If your message is only likely to be agreed to by people who already agree with you things may not go well.  You have one of two options.  Work to change what people are likely to hear knowing that may be a longer term task and in the short run you may not win very many battles or deliver your message in terms likely to be heard.

Language matters.  Speak with the intention to be heard.

Past language how do advocates develop the ability to be effective in their efforts?  How does a movement or an organization increase its capacity for effective action?  How do ordinary people come to make a difference?

Encourage- people must come to believe things can get better.  People don’t tend to get involved in things that have, in their eyes, have little hope of success.  This is perhaps the biggest problem.  We live in a cultural context that paints so many problems as inevitable and not amenable to change.

Empower- you must convince people that what they do makes a difference.  Again this is a major problem.  Sometimes people believe something might be able to be changed they just believe nothing they do is likely to help make it happen.

Educate- people must be convinced that not only can they make a difference but that either they know how to make a difference or that they can learn how to make a difference.  They can learn, they can be educated, they can develop the skills that make a difference in them making a difference.

Support-  people must know that they will be supported and encouraged in their efforts to make a difference.  That means the people around them care and can be counted upon.

Confirm- people must experience confirmation.  They need to feel like things are getting better and still can get better, they indeed can make a difference, they know how and are learning even more ways to make a difference, and that they matter to the people with them and those people will support and encourage them regardless of the difficulty of the circumstances and how they are doing.

Movements that make a difference do these things.  Everything is a matter of degree and perhaps sometimes they do them better than others.  Making a difference is so much more than the motivation to make a difference.  It is a capacity for action that must be grown, refined and expanded.

It is the way to be a difference that makes a difference.


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