The Hijacking of Advocacy: Turning a Movement Supporting the Marginalized to Serve the “Needs” of Elites

Posted: 9 July 2010 in Faith and Life
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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).

All in all, the students’ ideas have really helped me to think about advocacy I am engaged in here at home in my small town.  Students have also helped me (as I hope I have helped them) examine how the messiness of power and institutional “needs” get twisted up in advocacy efforts.  Specifically, we analyze how organizations too often engage in advocacy “for” others in ways that are really about creating policies that support the organizations themselves–rather than those they are ostensibly advocating for.  I have seen this most frequently in the domain of international “development” when agencies that receive grants from governments engage in “advocacy” for those living with AIDS, dying of malaria, facing food insecurity, etc. (a long list of needy people), that is really about advocating for more money to go to programs for such groups: money that they hope to get their hands on.  Is there anything wrong with this?  Well, my colleagues who work in this world get pretty mightily angry with me when I suggest that their “advocacy” efforts are self-serving.  Their counterarguments go something like this:

“Look, we do good work and there is a need out there.  So, of course we think the government should be doing more.  Further, we are honest and accountable for the money they do give us so, sure, we think we should get it.  What’s wrong with that?”

I listen but still feel that if they were more focused on “table size and configuration” issues their advocacy might be more honest and more honoring of the people on whose behalf they speak (even if it is not more “effective”–that is a whole different issue).  Like I said, this is the realm in which I have most frequently seen this kind of “advocacy” but, sadly, I am starting to see it here at home in domains with which I am more closely associated.  I need to talk about it but first want to provide a nice framework for thinking about it.  The framework comes from one of the students who, in a final reflection paper, laid out the following distinction which he framed in terms of the roots of “appropriate” advocacy versus the way advocacy is, unfortunately, too often used:

Roots of appropriate advocacy: Love of neighbor leads to seeking our neighbor’s welfare which leads to a concern for justice to be done for them and for advocacy with and for them.
Roots of advocacy as it is often used: Love of our institutions leads to seeking to perpetuate the institution which leads to concern for legislation and policies that help our institutions to survive and to engage in advocacy that supports this end.

I have seen this distinction in play in recent months right here in my hometown and it is not a pretty thing to see.  Essentially, it is about how people use the marginalized to get what they want for their own institutions.  Like most cities our size, we have a group of folks who, for various reasons are living on the edge of or in homelessness.  The reasons are as varied as their individual personalities.  If you have been around folks living in this “world” you know what the issues and challenges are.  And, like most cities our size, we have a small group of agencies that are trying to walk alongside these folks to provide respite, challenge them to think about next steps, push them to consider ways to deal with addictions, connect them to services to which they have a right, and challenge policy makers to consider the implications of cutting said services (something that is becoming pretty frequent).  Also, like most cities our size, we have a group of townsfolk who want to pin all manner of social ills and general criminality on these folks, whom they are most likely to refer to in collective terms like “the homeless” or “transients”. (By the way–it is perfectly acceptable in our oh-so-liberal city to create these collective designations and to engage in other forms of stereo-typing that essentially take a highly heterogeneous population and make them homogeneous.  I am not blind to the challenges that some of these folks face and to the bad behavior of some of them but it is the collective designation that pisses me off).

So we are pretty typical for cities our size.  One church, in the downtown, has offered its buildings so that a local group (yes, I am engaged with this group) can carry out a variety of activities to build relationships with folks who are in need of basic things like lunch, a place to get out of the sun and heat (or cold and rain), referrals to other services, help navigating the opaque state structures, etc.  The church has had a pretty free hand to develop new programs because, it turns out, it has had a special, fairly unrestrictive, zoning arrangement with the city.  As the city has changed, grown, and, like most cities our size, has experienced more crime, some of the neighbors around the church have started to grumble about this special zoning arrangement because, they say, the church is running too many services for “the homeless”, which, attracts them to the downtown where they, in turn, commit all sorts of crime, urinate on lawns, leave drug paraphernalia scattered about and generally make people feel unsafe (this is what the neighbors say and, having read some of what they have written to the local paper in in emails to City Council members I can assure you that I am putting this all mildly).  My purpose here is not to debate whether or not these allegations are true but rather to analyze how their complaints have played out in recent months.

As a result of the neighbors’ complaints, the city council approached the church and basically said, either you agree to enter into negotiations with us and the neighbors to put caps on services offered on your property or we will take away your “special zoning rights”.  And so… the church thumbed its nose at the city and said “Huh-uh, we are a church and we are called by God to minister to the least of these.  We will not accept caps on services to them.  Go ahead and do what YOU have to do and we will do what we have to do…”

Actually, and sadly, they did not do that at all.  Instead they entered into a series of long negotiations with the city and the neighbors, without, I might add, talking to the local group providing services on their property (yes, I work with that group).  You might think you know where this is going… but you might be wrong.  Here is what happened.  In January of 2010, the church and the city (on behalf of the neighbors) signed an MOU that placed caps on numbers that could be served on church property and strictly limited the churches ability (or the ability of any organization offering services on their property) to add new or different services without the city’s (read neighbors’) approval.

So this is where the advocacy took off and, at first, it was pretty cool and of the “appropriate” kind. The very night that the MOU went into effect we had a cold snap AND the church in question was hosting a rotating winter shelter for folks with no other place to sleep.  Due to the caps on services, two people were turned away into the night.  The temperatures dipped into the 20s, word got out and lots of people in the city were, to put it mildly, pretty upset. At the next City Council meeting about a hundred people showed up and about 40 or so addressed the city council.  If you watch and listen to their words their “advocacy” came from a place of concern for the “welfare of our neighbors” (that is, the homeless folks who, nonetheless, call Davis their “home”). Speaker after speaker (which included homeless and former homeless individuals–advocating for themselves) asked the members of the Council how this could happen and what this said about our concern for the marginalized.  I will never forget one speaker–a recent high school grad–who stood up and said something like: “While I was a the high school I was taught to respect all people, to welcome diversity, to not stereotype, and to consider everyone as equal.  This is what YOU taught me.  So, when I see you dehumanizing homeless people I ask, what’s the difference?  Aren’t they deserving of respect too?”  At the end of the evening the council repented. I use that word advisedly but really, they confessed their wrongdoing and (not all of them) changed their vote about the MOU and rescinded the caps and sent the whole thing back to the drawing board.  Pretty powerful stuff.  Pretty amazing.  Advocacy for and with a marginalized group that actually changed policy.

But, unfortunately, not so fast… Skip ahead to three weeks ago… In the intervening period the city went back to the church and renegotiated.  In silence away from public gaze the city and the church worked out a deal:  new caps (higher), same old restrictions on new services and the city reserving the right to decide whether the church (or other agencies working on church property) could add specific new services.  In exchange the church gets to keep its special status…

At the city council meeting THIS time the conversation was very different.  Oh, the “homeless” were invoked again–by the neighbors who showed up to complain that they had been “cut out” of the new deal–but also by a number of people representing the church who “congratulated” the Council for its humane act and its flexibility in signing the new MOU.  Interestingly, no one spoke up about the actual needs of the homeless (as they had done in January).  This one flew under the radar screen (being summer and all we have more important things to do).  Indeed, to hear the church folk gushing out their thanks you would think that the new “order” would serve the needs of homeless individuals perfectly well.  In fact, that is not really the point at all.  What happened had virtually nothing to do with the marginalized folks who had been the key focus of the January meeting.

You have to go back to the student’s framing of advocacy to really see what happened here.  The church (and the Council AND the neighbors) all used the “homeless” to get something: the neighbors got to push for even more restrictions (which they may get–this “fight” is far from over in their minds) in the name of keeping dangerous elements out of their neighborhood.  They used the homeless as a “fear multiplier” to force the city council to frame homelessness as a security issue.  The council used the “homeless” too.  By going back and scrapping the first deal they used them to show how compassionate and forward looking they are while being able to assure the neighbors that they took their “public safety” responsibilities very seriously.  Perhaps saddest of all the church used the “homeless” too to keep the city at bay and keep their privileged zoning status (why they so desperately want to keep it given the kind of restrictive MOU they signed is beyond my understanding).  The church engaged in the kind of advocacy that suited its needs: it loves itself, it can’t imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist with the “rights” that it currently enjoys and it used “advocacy” to assure its own survival (presumably so it can carry out its ministry to the least–but wait!  It can’t!).

Perhaps one or two lonely voices spoke up on behalf of real homeless individuals–refusing to use them as props or “arguing points”.  They actually looked kind of quaint and they were clearly playing the role of the fly that everyone else in the room is trying to swat away.  But, arguably, they were the only ones really engaging in advocacy–at least advocacy in the way my students have taught me to think about it.

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