As we highlighted in our Allyship 101 Workshop, finding your role as an advocate is as much about your own position, resources, values, and personality as it is about the cause you’re advocating for. Taking the time to assess all of these areas and the tools you have at your disposal will help you become a better and stronger advocate.
Your Access to Information
The internet makes millions of bits of information available to us in the time that it takes to type some words into a Google search. This creates many different opportunities to grow and learn as a budding or seasoned advocate. Not only can you find information about the cause itself and multiple sides of any topic up for debate, but you can usually find a wealth of advocates with lived experience to learn from.
If you’re starting out as an advocate, the best first step is to get to reading and learning. Do a web search for an advocacy topic plus the word “toolkit”. This will usually present you with a few different guides with terminology, common mistakes that advocates (at any level) can make, solutions and action points.
But, it is important to do this in a diligent way where you know where the information is coming from. While there are lots of useful information, there is a lot of misinformation and harmful outlooks out there. Taking advice from the wrong source could have to working against the cause or group that you are trying to advocate for.
When assessing toolkits, look for ones that were written by people from within that community, rather than people who are adjacent to it. For example, a quick search of “Autism Advocacy Toolkit” will likely bring up Autism Speaks as the first organization. While the website for this group might state that they are working to advocate for autistic people, it has been revealed that most autistic people find their methods and tips to be problematic and harmful. If you search for “Autism Speaks Controversy”, you will see many examples of why this is a group to steer clear of. You will also see that even huge corporations like Google fell into the trap of believing they were a good choice of advocates to work with.
Honestly, when we were creating the first draft of this series, we included their toolkit without doing the proper research to verify that it was reputable. Luckily, the consultants that we worked with caught this mistake, teaching us a valuable lesson. Just because something is first in a search and a popular option, does not mean it is the best choice. It is your responsibility to know the people behind anything that you are reading or seeing, especially if you are planning to pass that information off to others.
Luckily, there are a number of good examples of toolkits out there:
This toolkit by Learn from Autistics is a much better choice, as all of the advice comes directly from people with lived experience
Lamda Legal offers a great list of toolkits on topics ranging from transgender rights to immigration issues
A List of Black Lives Matter Toolkits
Access to this wealth of information not only makes it easier to do effective allyship and advocacy work, but it also creates a responsibility to check sources and stay on top of new information as it becomes available. Advocates are always evolving along with the evolution of society and need to stay on the forefront of change as much as possible. As you build advocacy into your life, periodically set aside some time to update your research.
Your Privilege and Position
As was discussed in Allyship 101, many thoughts and feelings can come up when you really start understanding your privilege and how history and society have defined your position alongside your own choices and accomplishments. As an advocate, it is important not to fall into a trap of shame, guilt or denial when it comes to your position and instead find ways to use it to further the cause or help those who have not been given the same opportunities and might not have the same access.
When you’re examining your position, it is also important to look around the spaces that you exist in both at work and within your social community to see how diverse, accessible, and welcoming they are for all people. If you find that you are usually surrounded by like-minded people with similar identities to you, this might be because there are communities and groups that do not feel welcome or that are actively being discriminated against or shut out.
While you might not be in a significant “power position”, you do still have the privilege of this access and could have the ear of decision makers. You also likely have the opportunity to open other people’s eyes to the potential issue and there is power in numbers. Raising your voice and being an advocate, especially when you are talking to loved ones and people within your own circle, doesn’t always mean big gestures and acts like attending protests, it is about affecting change within your everyday life.
Your Voice and Voting Power
When you’re speaking out in support of and to help amplify the message of others, it is important to find that balance between using your position for good and speaking over and inadvertently silencing those with lived experience and years of expertise on the topic. The best course of action is to follow the cues of established advocates and speak up when members of that community do not have the access they would need to speak for themselves.
A good example of this was in Georgia in the last federal election. While many knew that there were issues with voter suppression and an issue with people not feeling that their voice would be heard at the polls, many advocates chose to rally behind advocates with lived experience like Stacey Abrams and her team. This article by The Hill highlights some of the women who were behind this successful campaign that ended up being crucial to Biden’s election win.
Another way of using your voice — one that can be very effective — is by voting for candidates on all levels of government that align with your values and share your position on issues of advocacy. Don’t only vote in federal, provincial or state elections. You also need to vote in local elections, where most of the decisions are made in regards to policing, schools and other community services. Do your research to discover where politicians sit on every issue and when the information is not available, send emails or attend events to ask the questions that matter to you. You should also engage with political representatives even when it isn’t an election year. They consistently need to hear what is important to their constituents and will sometimes only change their opinion when their career depends on it.
This website is a great resource if you are looking for your representatives in Canada.
Your Wallet and Time
In the Allyship 101 Workshop, we discussed the dangers of performative allyship. This is when you speak or post on social media about supporting a cause, movement or organization but don’t follow through with your own actions in advocacy. One way to avoid this is to put your time, resources and money behind the causes you’re advocating for.
When looking for places to donate, think outside the box instead of always going for the bigger organizations. For example, if you’re interested in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and in helping to eliminate prejudice, you could support Black-owned businesses or initiatives that serve Black youth, or contact your local Black Lives Matter chapter and ask them where their greatest need is in your community.
When you’re volunteering your time, keep in mind that organizations need volunteers beyond those peak times when they are in the news and trending on social media. Find an organization you are passionate about and feel comfortable coming back to again and again to maximize your impact.
At the end of the day, being an advocate is about engaging with others to promote positive change, build awareness, and further the reach of those affected by an issue. Use your platforms to dispel misinformation, stand up against bias or harmful behavior, and get others to engage and care about a topic they might otherwise ignore. You have the greatest chance of doing this and having a lasting impact with members of your own community and inner circle.
Not only can you help to change the opinions of those close to you and get a cause on their radar, but you can also work to get them engaged enough to become advocates and allies themselves. This might mean inviting them to volunteer or mobilizing behind a letter writing or petitioning campaign. There is power in numbers and it is up to you to spread the word as far as your reach allows.
Try out our Researching Exercise.