Archive for July, 2010

Robert’s Farm (I)

Posted: 30 July 2010 in Robert's Farm

I spent the morning on Robert’s farm.  Cycled out 5 miles and hoed melon rows, pulled up drip irrigation tape and packed tomatoes.  Robert has a vision of farming at human scale: three families on 360 acres feeding 400 families.  Growing chickens, eggs, fruits (berries, peaches, melons…), vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, corn…), milk and meat and… the makings of beer!

It was a morning of knowing… Knowing that I know very little indeed.  And so I begin my apprenticeship and try to figure out how to be part of a future of living within boundaries, within limits.  Boundaries of healing and community.  Limits that open up new possibilities to grow. Wish me luck.

For Part I of this series go here

Definitions of Advocacy

Before reviewing Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State (introduced in Part I) to extract some useful principles for advocacy done “Christianly” I would like to provide a working definition–or perhaps elements of a definition to be used throughout this series.  Experience has shown me that many students enter the course on advocacy with a vague notion that advocacy is signing petitions (typically online these days), writing to elected officials (also, typically, online) or “protesting”, speaking out publicly around “issues” of concern to various groups.  By the end of the course their vision of what advocacy is and how they might engage it has almost always been altered–enlarged but honed, broadened but more connected to their gifts.  Part of what they learn is that the notion of advocacy is quite broad but that those involved in it share certain views about what it is for–if not about how it should be carried out.

Standard texts and manuals on advocacy provide the following definitions of advocacy:

Seeking with, and on behalf of, the poor to address underlying causes of poverty, bring justice and support good development through influencing the policies and practices of the powerful.” (Gordon, 2002: 29)

Advocacy is the pursuit of influencing outcomes … that directly affect people’s lives … Advocacy consists of organized efforts and actions – based on the reality of ‘what is … ’ (T)o influence public attitudes, and to enact and implement laws and public policies so that visions of ‘what should be’ in a just, decent society become a reality. (Cohen et al., 2001: 7–8)

Citizen-centered advocacy is an organized political process that involves the coordinated efforts of people to change policies, practices, ideas, and values that perpetuate inequality, prejudice and exclusion. (VeneKlasen and Miller, 2007: 23)

I have underlined some terms in the foregoing definitions that merit highlighting.  In no particular order I would note the following:

1.  Advocacy is done to bring about change.  Changes sought might be in policies or laws or, less formally, in attitudes.  Whatever the case, change of some kind is sought.

2.  The change sought has to do with injustice within a system that leads to poverty and exclusion–more generally, human oppression.  The injustice is not a theoretical problem but truly affects the lives and opportunities of people.

3. The injustice is an underlying cause of poverty (for example) in two senses (at least): a) it may not be seen as a proximate cause of poverty but acts to keep people from accessing the resources needed to move out of poverty (a lack of income is a proximate cause of poverty but an underlying cause might be, for example, a policy that sets the minimum wage too low); and b) it is somehow part of a system that perpetuates the injustice.

4. Because the injustice is part of a system an organized process of engaging the problem is required.  This is because complex systems are hard to change but also because powerful interests may have reasons–good reasons for them–to keep the system as it is.  And this brings us to a “final” key point.

5. The organized process of engaging the problem focuses on those who have the power to actually do something about it.  As we shall see, this might be not only elected officials but also corporate leaders or larger social groupings who can, collectively, decide to act or live differently.  The point is that the actions of these people can make a difference in terms of reducing the injustice.


In the summer of 2007 I started teaching a course on “advocacy and human rights” to graduate students at Eastern University.  These students were studying “international development” in an explicitly Christian environment and I structured the course to address not only the conventional definitions of advocacy but also to engage the participants in dialogue about their “identity” as advocates, the “means” and “ends” of their advocacy work, and the reality of the institutions within which their advocacy efforts would be carried out (both the agencies for whom they would work and the various institutions towards whom their advocacy work would be directed).  In all honesty, I agreed to teach the course so that I could wrestle with these issues and gain some clarity about the advocacy efforts in which I had been, or desired to be, engaged.

The reality was, I had been involved in international “development” work for over 20 years at that point and I was discouraged by what I saw.  While I don’t want to get into all the issues with which I was wrestling, I was concerned that all the “grass roots” work in which I had been involved for all those years was being fundamentally thwarted by broader–what I had come to call–systemic constraints.  These systemic issues could be as simple as local custom that made it hard for women to participate in decision making about issues of concern to them or their children, to as complex as international trade regimes that simultaneously integrated poor, rural communities in international markets while giving them virtually no power to control the (often devastating) effects that this integration brought to their communities. (more…)

This is a (mostly) true story.  Any factual errors are not really my fault since I was sleep deprived when most of it happened.

So, I rode to the Mexican border from San Francisco (the picture on the left “proves” this–I promise that I did not “photoshop” or otherwise tamper with this photo).  Great trip with my friend Allan (see more on the trip from his perspective here).  From SF to San Luis Obispo was a dream–

At the Mexican Border (Borderlands State Park)

a rider’s dream, a traveler’s dream.  When we hit the “101” south of Lompoc (BTW, the 101 is a very “personal” freeway, unlike the “5” or the “X05’s”–fill in the X–that wind around LA.  The 101 was kind of “fit” between the mountains and the sea and exits are abrupt and seem to end up on people’s front yards–almost like the exit signs should say: “Next exit–the Smiths, the Leonards and the Ruiz families!  Welcome!”), anyway, when we hit the 101 we stopped for a break and talked to a shop owner about the road ahead (Santa Barbara and south).  He said a very simple thing: “You are going to see a lot of pavement and a lot of cars from here on.”  Yea… True… Sadly true.

Malibu was 27 miles long and about a mile wide with trillion dollar houses perched on hillsides, no ocean views to speak of, and a long parking lot of cars that made me wonder, “where are all the people who own these cars?”.  Anyway, that was pretty much it the whole way down.  LA sounded like a cool ride–but wasn’t. Orange County was… well, more on that below. Camp Pendeleton–yes, riding through a military base is just exactly what it sounds like: “tank crossing ahead” is not a comforting thought when you are on a bike.  Anyway, we arrived and after an afternoon hanging out with Allan’s family I headed out on the night bus from San Diego to Bakersfield and beyond.  I took the ferry across San Diego harbor as the full moon rose over the city and cool breezes reminded me that soon enough I would be back in the hot desert of the Central Valley. (more…)

Warning: Christian Theological Stuff Ahead…

James K.A. Smith has written a helpful book.  This is not a book review but rather a reflection on his reflection.  In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), Smith argues that we are not, fundamentally, thinking people (thanks, but no thanks Descartes).  Further, we are not, fundamentally believing people (thanks, but no thanks Dooyeweerd).  Rather we are “loving” people–desiring people–people whose actions tell us what we are “aiming at”, what our conception of the good life is; people whose practices define our fundamental identity.  Smith goes on to argue that our practices–practices that form us into who we are–are our “liturgies”–the pedagogies that teach us and form us to be certain kinds of people

For Smith, liturgies are rituals of ultimate concern and, they are very definitely not confined to what we do in worship spaces (though we can engage in them there).  And because we are “lovers” we can’t not desire certain things and the things that we desire are the things we “aim at” in our liturgies–our formative practices.  He provides examples of what he refers to as “secular liturgies” and it strikes me that the examples (and some others I can think of) are essentially liturgies of autonomy–liturgies that define our identities as, essentially, independent of God, reliant on ourselves and our own ability or the ability of our technique to see us through.  Smith talks about the secular liturgies of the “mall”, the “military-entertainment complex”, and the “university”. (more…)

Since 2007 I have had the privilege of teaching a course on advocacy to graduate students at a small Christian liberal arts university.  Not surprisingly, it has pushed me to not only consider my own engagement in advocacy but also the very meaning of this much used (abused?) term.  One of the first things we do in the course is examine the various definitions of the word and students are required to put forth elements of a working definition that makes most sense to them. They (and I) find this very useful and most conclude that advocacy involves speaking both for and with people and groups who face injustice, oppression and marginalization. The “speaking” is done in numerous ways to a variety of actors who, presumably, have the power to make some changes in the status quo.  Some students push beyond the concepts of “for” and “with” to talk about the need to change the “configuration” or size of the decision making table–in other words, about the need to bring new voices around the table where decisions are made. (see VeneKlasen, L., V. L. Miller, et al. (2007). A new weave of power, people, and politics : the action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Bourton-on-Dunsmore for more on this concept). (more…)