I was riding the King streetcar a year ago on the way to school. It was a busy car, filled with business people clutching briefcases, mothers and children, and fellow students with earbuds in drowning out the sounds of traffic. I was staring out the window looking at the passersby, when I spotted an elderly street person lying in a large Tim Horton’s windowsill. His sleeping bag was bunched up around him, a cup of coffee close by his hand. This wasn’t an unusual sight; I had seen him before sitting in the same windowsill, me in the same streetcar, both of us minding our own business. But, what I saw next was new – a young window-washer raised his pole and shoved the street person forcefully to evict him from his spot. The elderly man stood up, the washer shoved him again, hard; the elderly man threw his cup of coffee in the young man’s face, and the altercation continued. I shouted out in horror, my blood boiling- how dare he treat that elderly man in such a way? The people beside me were watching, too – I tried to get out the door, but could not, as the streetcar was moving. The lady standing next to me spoke, also outraged at the sight. We were all mumbling about it, cursing, clenching our fists. When I finally got off, I had half a mind to go back and have my own altercation. “But it’s over,” I thought. “There is nothing I can do now.”
It still pains me to think about that incident; I wish I could have busted out of the streetcar and protected that old man. I still wonder if I should have gone back… or called the police? Did I do the right thing? I don’t know – but I do know I felt a call to action in the depths of my soul.
Do you know what I’m talking about? That moment when nobody has to tell you that what you are seeing is bad or evil… you just know.
C.S. Lewis made an interesting observation when he stated that humans have been “haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality.”
Think about it: despite the many differences between all the people on my streetcar (age, race, language, economic status, etc.), we all knew that the window-washer was acting deplorably. I’m guessing we have all encountered situations where we know something is wrong on a deep level. It might have been at work, or school, on the Internet, even walking down the street…something that affected you so deeply, you knew you had to step in.
If you have been following Brave Women, you may know the A in BRAVE stands for Advocacy. The power of advocacy has been deeply important in my journey. Having learning disabilities, I have had people advocate for me in the classroom since I was 14. Being a young woman, I have found myself in disheartening situations, where I have had to advocate for myself to be taken seriously…and as a girl with considerable privilege, I have been put in the position to advocate for others at a disadvantage.
We talk a lot about advocacy and action, but do we actually know how to be a good advocate?
What does it mean to advocate for someone, or something, in a way that actually inspires change?
Looking at the word in a broad sense, there are two types of advocacy:
- Public Advocacy aims to change big issues in society. We see lots of this on the news, or covering our Facebook pages and history textbooks. Prominent examples include the Civil Rights Movement, efforts from PETA, the Times Up campaign, etc.
- Everyday Advocacy are small scale efforts that may not change society, but could change someone’s life. Actions such as standing up against bullying, calling out racism, or addressing sexism in the workplace are some examples. No matter what kind of advocacy you engage in, all advocates are working towards some kind of important change. The most basic goal of a good advocate is to work alongside the disadvantaged (those who need change in order to prosper) to inspire change from the opposition (those who maintain the barrier to change).
Seeing it on paper makes it look quite simple. You have the “good guys” in one corner, the “bad guys” in the other, and the hero that rushes in to save them all! I’m sorry to say it, but there are some pretty dangerous traps that come out of such a simplistic view. Traps that have halted many an advocate’s ability to create change. The first we are going to look at is called the Hero Trap.
THE HERO TRAP
Not everyone understands what it takes to be a good advocate. Sometimes people seek to become advocates to advance their own name recognition or popularity. Whether it’s for a company, campaign or your own resume, it doesn’t matter; if your advocacy is mostly about advancing yourself, you have fallen into the hero trap. But here’s the scary part, you don’t have to have ulterior motives to fall into the hero trap. Sometimes our actions as advocates are well intended, but still benefit ourselves rather than our goal. This may be due to ignorance, or it could be because any more action may lead to significant life change, which is scary. This leads to a humbling truth about good advocacy: a change-making advocate is not a hero, but a bridge.
Let me share another story: A while ago I was given a book about female empowerment. It had an interesting title and promised it was going to enable me to step into my calling and throw away the lies of the world! But, when I sat down to read it, I turned the book over and saw it was written by a man. Hmm… I know he had good intentions, but I don’t believe he knows anything about how it feels to become an empowered woman. More importantly, I didn’t believe he was fully engaged in female empowerment. If he was, he would have actually empowered a woman to write the book! I mean, if your goal is to make women believe they have a big voice, don’t start by silencing them! The author, although well intended, still fell into the hero trap.
I am going to take a moment and specifically, but not exclusively, speak to advocates who, like the author of that book, are not part of the disadvantaged group for which they advocate. These are people with more power, privilege, connections or education. These individuals are in constant danger of accidentally falling into the hero trap, because they can so easily become the spokesperson, or the decision maker, at the expense of the disadvantaged group. Remember this: Your voice should never take away from the voice of the people, group or organization for which you are advocating.
Before every action, take a moment to answer these questions:
By doing this myself, am I silencing someone from the group for which I am advocating?
Is this action going to point to me, or the marginalized?
By doing this myself, am I becoming a hero? Or a strong bridge others can walk over?
Strong bridges are needed for people who face huge gaps. Disadvantaged people need powerful advocates. I know women face huge gaps and we need men who have more power to help us cross them. But, what we don’t need men just telling us we have power, we need men to give us space to use it.
Change happens when those in power lay it down for the benefit of others. Change happens when those with many resources lay them down so those who have less will have more! Change happens when instead of talking for people, we step back and give them a voice. We need to stop being heroes, and start becoming bridges for the people who cannot cross. It’s hard. It’s sacrificial. It’s humbling.
Stay tuned for A is for Advocacy | Part 2: The Enemy Trap.