In this blog Clodagh O’Brien, Communications Officer at The Advocacy Initiative reflects on the discussions from our 4 th Knowledge Exchange Forum, July 2013, which focused on participation and social justice advocacy.

The aim of the forum was to give social justice advocates an opportunity to share learning and discuss the challenges they face in involving those they represent in their advocacy work. The forum was well attended and included a broad range of organisations from the C&V sector, public sector and academia. Presentations were given by Hugh Frazer, adjunct Professor at NUI who looked at the national and European perspectives on participation and discussed legitimacy. Chris McInerney, Lecturer in Politics & Public Administration at the University of Limerick investigated the question of participation being a case of implementation deficit disorder. You can read both presentations on our website here .

Participation and advocacy are terms that often come up together. It is a chicken and egg situation where in order for one to be effective, you need the other. Involving those who have experienced the issues directly in your advocacy work goes to the heart of many of our strategies, values and ambitions. It can provide greater credibility, enable better policy arguments, have a greater emotional impact, empower people by asserting their rights and enhance democracy. Above all participation provides an issue and organisation with legitimacy which enriches their knowledge and credibility.

However there is a responsibility that comes with involving people in your social justice advocacy work. In order to advocate on behalf of someone, it is essential to know what issues they face, the obstacles they meet on a daily basis and what policy changes could make their lives better. This may seem like common sense, but often finding out those answers is difficult. Often participation is not as easy or straightforward as we would like it to be.

In the first instance there are a number of challenges in getting people to participate. Do they feel the issues you represent are something they can buy into and add to? How do you deal with disillusionment when the process is not going anywhere or taking longer than those involved expected? How do you ensure you are meeting people ‘where they are at’?

Secondly, social justice advocates face challenges of their own such as a lack of resources and time along with reduced capacity. At the Forum many talked about the risk of involving people in token advocacy while others wondered what strategies were most effective when taking into account difficulties such as disability, transport and literacy.

At the start of the event participants were asked to consider three questions:

  1. Why is participation important for your advocacy work?
  2. What participation strategies do you currently use that are proving effective?
  3. What would strengthen your capacity to deliver on your commitments to participation?

These challenging questions resulted in fruitful discussions with many different views on what advocacy is and how people should be involved. As one delegate put it – “Advocacy needs be become more relevant and find a way to filter easily into people’s lives to facilitate full participation”. Ensuring that your organisation is tackling issues of real interest to the people you represent, along with taking the time to develop relationships were seen as essential to participation. One delegate challenged using the term ‘participation’ seeing it as a “used up word” that required new language in order to get people involved. You can read all the contributions from participants here .

The austerity measures in recent years and resulting financial climate have not made an advocate’s job any easier. Life is now much harder for those in vulnerable situations and the negativity that surrounds the country on a daily basis has taken its toll. To quote one participant “How can we make participation about positivity? People are sick of negativity. People may come together more easily to create a positive, rather than to fight a deficit.” So how an issue is raised and tackled is important. Using a positive message rather than a negative one could not only get more people involved, but also empower and engage those forced to deal with difficult issues on a daily basis.

What became clear from the day was that there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy when it comes to particpation and advocacy. Organisations and advocates realise their participation ambitions in very different ways. The type of individual or group involved needs to be taken into account as different strategies work for different people. Solutions to this suggested meeting people at their level so they feel part of the process, and investing time in preparing people for what is required. In addition the need for advocates themselves to be self-aware and build on skills and capacity whenever possible was highlighted as essential.

It is clear that an to be an effective social justice advocate you need effective participation; to influence policy, to speak on behalf of those you represent; to be credible. But the onus is also on us to not just think horizontally and urge participation but ensure we are practicing that participative mantra ourselves. As one participant put it: ‘(If we are) using advocacy as a horizontal tool to tell people: ‘ participate! ’ (That concept) is also for you, you are part of this society, get involved!”

Clodagh O’Brien is Communications Officer for The Advocacy Initiative. You can contact her on .

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