Tools in the Advocate’s Toolbox, Pt. 2

Last month, Lolly argued that the movement among local disability activists away from direct action and toward more incremental change […]

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Last month, Lolly argued that the movement among local disability activists away from direct action and toward more incremental change and legislative work has taken some important tools out of the disability rights toolbox.  This month, she challenges the community to replace some of those tools.

Sometimes organizations hold their advocates back by limiting their freedom to fully participate in advocacy efforts because of the fear of loss of funding or prestige in the community.

Another factor is that some advocates have left the activist community to take other positions or to do work in other fields.  When this happens, while it is the advocate’s personal choice, as a community we should be asking, “What are we losing when this person moves on?  Is there something that could have been done to maintain this person’s participation?  Is this a natural evolution of a civil rights movement?”

Yet another factor is the passing of key advocates like Leah Welsh, Charlie Smith, and now Jay Johnson.  Their absence leaves a huge void.

Finally, six years ago the Consortium For Citizens With Disabilities (CCD) was just coming together and finding its way through a crisis situation with the threat of loss of funding to the PCA and Tefra programs.  The idea was to form a coalition to work together on common ground.
But what happens when there are issues that bring disagreement to the coalition?

It makes it difficult within the coalition when there are differences of opinion about what the consortium is or should be doing, beyond legislative work.  Sometimes there may be strategies that would be effective at promoting systems change work, and which may have nothing directly to do with the legislative work which has become the coalition’s focus, or may even be perceived by some as interfering with that work.  This creates a conflict inside the coalition and outside in the community.  Many times there is a process set up to deal with these conflicts.  But sometimes they are swept under the rug in order to keep the cohesiveness within the coalition, since many advocates would rather avoid the conflict inside just to keep things together.  Six years later CCD finds itself together, but at what cost?

Disagreement or discussion about strategies does not diminish CCD’s accomplishments.  The coalition has made incredible strides for the disability community in the past six years.  It could make even more progress if it would expand its focus to include other strategies beyond
legislative work.
Some advocates have passed up recent opportunities to put the Minnesota disability activist community front and center in regional and national advocacy circles.  These are grindingly slow incremental change opportunities in areas such as; Social Security reform, health care, and housing. 

This kind of advocacy may not be as rewarding or as exciting  as legislative or public policy work.  However, if viewed on a continuum, advocacy and activism must maintain all of these tools in the advocate’s toolbox.  The trick for the advocate is to know when to use what tool or tools and to understand his/her role in utilizing each of them.  For example; some may be more comfortable with confrontation than others, or some may be more comfortable with legislative work.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to think and work outside the box.  This is when we grow the most, and it is also often the time when we can gain the most for those whom we serve.

If the picture on the screen continues to shrink and the tools used by advocates lose their sharpness, the advocate becomes less effective and the work of social change becomes that much harder and takes that much longer.

What’s the solution?  Metro area disability advocates need to take stock of themselves—individually and as an activist community.  They need to be willing to stretch and challenge themselves to do better and reach higher.  They need to learn how to use the different tools in the advocates’ toolbox that they themselves may not be comfortable using.  They need to challenge their organizations when the organization’s politics become stifling to the mission of systems change.  Disability community members need to hold the advocates accountable when change is not happening fast enough (or at all).

Leadership development is also critical.  The advocates doing this work are getting progressively grayer, and there are few young people coming into the field of systems advocacy.  A sense of complacency on the part of young people has become apparent.  This is dangerous.  Complacency may signal the slide down the slope to a loss of hard-won civil rights.

It’s the responsibility of current systems advocates to seek out young people who want to learn about this work, and to teach them the full range of the tools in the advocate’s toolbox.

My hope is that Charlie Smith’s passing will cause this community to look long and hard at itself and where it’s going.  Charlie was an advocate who could do it all.  There are fewer and fewer advocates doing systems work in the metro area disability community who are willing to stretch
themselves to “do it all.”  In the end it’s the people we serve who lose.

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