The final event of The Advocacy Initiative ‘Breaking Through: The Future of Social Justice Advocacy’ was a time to reflect on the collaborative work over the last five years. It allowed us to draw it together into a coherent whole; acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of countless people who have been part of the journey and to launch a number of legacy projects which will continue the work of building a fairer and more equal society.
For me, when you strip it all away social justice advocacy is about the world that I want to live in, the world I want to share with others. Working with people who have a similar vision, no matter what sector they come from or issue they are concerned about has been an energising and inspiring experience. But it has been more than an experience it has been a journey, a journey that in many ways is still beginning, and one, which will continue into the future.
The founding impulse
In 2008, there was a real sense that advocacy was under threat from the state. The experience of many advocates and their organisations was that the state was actively working to silence advocates through a mixture of control over funding and aggressive behavior. It was this experience that directly led to the establishment of The Advocacy Initiative.
If an image had to be chosen to capture the theme and mood of the final conference it would be a dandelion. The dandelion is commonly thought of as a weed. The definition of which is a plant that is not wanted and growing in the wrong place…. and the way you deal with weeds is to root them out. The experience of being under threat, of being rooted out, was very real for many social justice advocates and their organisations.
But like most things in life, it was not as simple or straightforward as that. In 2008 there were no or few spaces where there could be reflection and dialogue about social justice advocacy: the threats it faced, its purpose, methodologies, effectiveness, assumptions, and legitimacy. Where spaces did exist there were low levels of trust, we often did not share perspectives and there was not always room for dissent from dominant narratives.
In our journey leading up to the final conference there have been a number of important phases. One of our earliest challenges was having the same conversation. Advocacy meant different things to different people and while all forms of advocacy are connected – be it individual, case, self or public policy advocacy, it was the latter, public policy advocacy that we were interested in.
One of the first things we did was generate a working definition. As anyone who has been involved in definition by committee will know, this can be an engaging process without an inspiring outcome! But we did come up with a definition of advocacy as “planned, organised and sustained actions, the purpose of which is to influence public policy outcomes, with or on behalf of the groups and communities we work with”. While that may not be the most exciting statement, it did allow us to make sure everyone was on the same page.
This definition gave us a starting point for articulating why our advocacy is important. Over the years people from all kinds of organisations addressing all kinds of social issues generated a shared view of why the world would be a poorer place without advocacy. While anyone of us could put one or more of these purposes on the back of an envelope, like so much else in the Initiative, the full view was dependent on an emerging dialogue; a journey together, not an end point on a map.
Our advocacy is about engaging citizens and communities to articulate what’s important to them and influence decision that impact them. It is about better outcomes for people. It is about the specific knowledge and expertise that only we can bring. Advocacy is being watchdogs of accountability and providing a longer-term view. It is about articulating the impact of the unintended as well as the intended consequences.
We wanted to know more about who was doing advocacy. According to our Mapping Study more than half of community and voluntary organisations do advocacy across a wide range of areas from social services, to community development, housing, and education to name a few. There is a strong emphasis on public awareness in our work, but many of us have focused on ‘insider’ type strategies - working with the political system to build relationships, present our case and persuade those with power to make changes.
We framed our overall goal around the relationship between advocates and the state. So it was particularly important to us to find out what they think and they were not shy about telling us! Policy-makers asked us to think about our legitimacy and our motives. They asked us to examine our practices and to be more strategic along with collaborating more and better. They asked us to examine some of the contradictions we face in being both policy insiders and critical outsiders while being more creative, more innovative and more ambitious.
However the policy-makers we spoke to also recognised that there were things they needed to do differently – in recognising the diversity of the sector, in creating more spaces for dialogue, in considering the challenges of advocating for unpopular issues. They recognised the need to deal with the financial vulnerability of our sector, and well as the importance of being open to doing things differently.
There were other surprises along the way. Who knew that 72% of the general public could articulate the importance of our organisations campaigning and lobbying? Or that some in the media think that as a sector they ‘go easy’ on charities and non-profits? Or that Trade Unions are concerned that we do not collaborate better towards shared goals?
One of our most challenging pieces of work was the funding study. The questions about the relationship between state funding and social justice advocacy go to the heart of why we formed The Advocacy Initiative, but these questions have also been amongst the most difficult to address.
The first stage of this work was the report Funding Dissent, published in 2013. The next was to explore the ‘ground truth’ — to document the experience of those doing advocacy while in receipt of state funding.
As this research unfolded, it became clear that there are no comfortable answers to the questions being asked. The answers in any case are not simple, and each generates its own set of challenges regardless of whether the state supports, inhibits or suppresses advocacy. This report showed that advocacy, like human life, is messy. There were a wide range of experiences of the state from the positive to the very negative, what it also showed is that it can be challenging to have a constructive dialogue when you don’t recognise the experience of the other, or indeed you simply don’t believe their telling of it.
But this report and many of the other research projects allows us as a sector to articulate collectively the diversity or our experience, and to consider the implications of this in a way that is more informed and with more clarity.
As I look back over the last few years one of the things that strikes me is that we have been engaged in an exercise in ‘reframing’. By ‘reframing’ I mean that when you look at something differently you see it differently: you open up new perspectives, new ways of understanding seeing something.
Late last year we began to think about what would happen when we reached the end of our work programme in August 2014. We knew we had covered a lot of ground, produced lots of insight and learning, but hardly anyone had an overall sense of what this all meant when you put it together.
We decided to look at the thousands of pages of notes, reports, and analysis, to identify the patterns within this and to draw us a map for the future in the report ‘Pulling Together – The synthesis of The Advocacy Initiative 2010-2014’. We covered a lot of ground. The synthesis and website looks at what is advocacy and who is doing it. It tells the story of the Initiative, its sets out what’s next and it provides a gateway to the tools and resources that we and others have produced. But it also draws out six core learning themes. These are the themes that point the way forward which will be taken on through various projects and initiatives by seven legacy partners up to 2017.
1. Awareness and understanding: Outside the community and voluntary sector, social justice advocacy is not well understood. While our polling data showed that there is generally supportive public, very little is known about this work either by the public, or indeed by many policy stakeholders we spoke to. We have a challenge in communicating our role and the purpose of this work, and in demonstrating our legitimacy.
2. Credibility and legitimacy: Policy-makers and influencers are worried about where we get our mandate. How grounded are we, how rooted in experiences of poverty and exclusion. Some worried that the professionalisation of the sector had distanced it, and that sometimes we have become more focused on sustaining our organisations than sustaining our memberships. There is a challenge for us in rigorously focusing on our mandate and communicating it, but equally policy makers need to better recognise the challenges of doing this work, particular with very vulnerable and excluded communities.
3. Respect, relationship building and trust: Respect was a consistent theme. Neither policy-makers nor us felt that our role was respected and valued in what can sometimes be a difficult relationship. We were surprised that respect was such a strong two-way theme and perhaps this speaks to the need to make space for relationship building within our sector and with policy-makers. This theme also raises the question of expectations, what we expect from policy-makers and what they expect from us. These expectations do not always match up.
4. Capacities: We did identify skills and knowledge deficits. Policy-makers worried about the depth of our understanding of the nature of the policy making process, while we were concerned to explore new methods and tools. The Advocacy Initiative leaves behind it many resources that should support this, including our capacity assessment tool, but there is no silver bullet. Capacity development – on both sides – is an on-going project, which needs time, space and energy.
5. Strategies: We tried to develop indicators for effective advocacy. It turns out there is not one simple definition of what is effective, but we do need to plan and strategise, we do need to take a longer term vision, and be more innovative and strategic in our work. More collaboration and co-ordination, more innovation and creativity are important and need to be encouraged and supported by policy makers as well as driven from within. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more open to doing things differently.
6. Independence and resources: The sector has experienced challenges of independence and resources. As I have said policy-makers asked us questions about balancing our service roles (often on behalf of the state) with critical advocacy along with the challenge of being both an insider and an outsider. We explored the particular question of state funding, the answers were messy and complicated. There is no black and white analysis, we know that the state does support advocacy, but there are also moments when state funding compromises independence in very significant ways. Perhaps we can all be more honest about this dynamic and more forthright in protecting the independent role of advocacy.
The Advocacy Initiative was a unique experience. I believe as a model and project it represents an attempt to do things differently and we have learned a huge amount.
As social justice advocates we are leaders; in society and in our organisations. Sometimes we do not carry that characteristic easily, but it is up to us to move forward and make the track for others to follow. As leaders we have what can be an overwhelming responsibility to those on whose behalf we work. Sometimes we may not be able to see how our individual work connects to a much bigger picture, but it does. For that reason we have no choice but to keep going, because as social justice advocates our work is about doing something that really does make a difference.
And sometimes, in moments like these, that shared journey is a very pleasant one. In each other we have a source of energy and inspiration. I hope that each of the legacy projects will continue the work of the Initiative, and will be shaped by the organisation that takes them on and the needs of the sector as they emerge over the next few years. Each of these projects is like a dandelion seed: originating from within The Advocacy Initiative, but blown to spread them far and wide and seed new activity.