By Tony Swartz
At last year’s regionals I spoke at length regarding how and whether our personal styles of advocacy and our individual motivations to advocate impact our ability to be effective advocates. Since then, I’ve received a number of requests to present my remarks in writing.
I began by asking each of us to look within ourselves to examine our motivation as advocates and to analyze our personal style of advocacy. For most of us caught up in the demands and activities of daily life, it is all too easy to respond to issues and situations with reaction rather than reflection. I believe we’re particularly vulnerable to the impulse to react emotionally when it comes to our approach to advocacy. It’s understandable. After all, many of us have been drawn to advocacy out of an emotional response to the discrimination we’ve encountered as a result of the public’s misperceptions about vision loss and the persistent doubting of our capabilities. But, emotional reaction so often proves ineffective, and this ineffectiveness often leads to frustration and disillusion. So when our efforts fail, we tend to respond in one of two ways, embitterment or abandonment of the cause. That is, we either resentfully conclude that it’s hopeless to continue our efforts, or we simply give up and walk away.
Looking back over almost 40 years of involvement in advocacy efforts in one form or another, there are several things that I can tell you; the foremost being that I’ve made many mistakes. With some embarrassment and regret, I have to admit early on to having been a rock hurler. My passion guided my actions. I insulted and heaped scorn with the best of them. I regarded those who failed to share my point of view as the ignorant enemy. And truly, it felt so good in the moment, but more often than not, my efforts led to little results. Why? I certainly cared. I was passionate and dedicated. But what I hadn’t learned were two very basic principles of advocacy: the first, to strive for credibility and the second, to maintain lines of communication.
Through the years I have come to understand that rock hurlers are so easy to discredit because so often the tools they employ, insult, bombast, and hyperbole, lead to exaggeration and unsustainable half-truths. Of course it goes without saying, that once the rock has been hurled, the opportunity for meaningful communication has passed.
While passion may be the fuel of our advocacy efforts, it should never control them. Instead, our principle advocacy tools are what I might refer to as the three R’s of advocacy: reflection, research, and reason. First is reflecting upon the history which has led to the current issue requiring redress; second is researching the facts on which our position will be based; and third, through reason, creating an effective strategy.
For every advocacy action for which we might consider involvement, I believe we must ask of ourselves the following 7 questions:
1. Are we certain that we have an adequate grasp of the background and the correct facts concerning the issue for which we propose to advocate?
2. Can we adequately articulate our position, or will we rely upon exaggeration rather than fact as the foundation of our position?
3. Specifically what outcome do we seek to accomplish through our actions?
4. What strategy have we developed for achieving that outcome?
5. Have we considered all the consequences of any actions we would undertake?
6. What is our planned response to any reaction to our action?
7. Do we have the fortitude to see the process through beyond a single action?
If we are advocating in response to an emotional need, or if our actions are rooted in the desire to be in the spotlight, then it is obvious that our agenda isn’t about redress or effecting change; it is all about us. I’ve come to the belief that advocacy guided by emotion and absent of strategy is a product of weakness and indolence. Effective advocacy demands of us the three R’s as well as, patience, dedication, the willingness to engage in hard work, and to accept the possibility that our initial actions may fail.
You might now ask whether the establishment of credibility and the willingness to maintain communication with those whom we disagree prevent us from taking strong and unequivocal stands. Indeed they do not, for advocacy rooted in credibility, communication, and strategy is born of strength, organization, and conviction in a position, which, in the end, provides us the greatest potential for success. I would close by urging each of us, my fellow members of PCB, to strive to be intelligent, committed, but most of all, effective advocates.