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Advocacy is Personal

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyJuly 2021 • July 10, 2021

Photo of silhouette by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Advocacy is defined as the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal. Advocacy may be a big “A” or a small “a” effort. Whether the cause is personal to you or common among many, the underlying process is the same. We see a need, gather evidence, find solutions, demonstrate impact, and make the case to decision makers. We advocate every day, formally and informally. We advance causes for ourselves and others in the workplace, for our children at school, and for our community. Advocacy is always personal as it starts with our unique built-in beliefs and biases. 

Advocacy is a continuum of engagement with education on one end and lobbying on the other.

A presentation to the school board on new research about arts education would be considered educational. When we make the case to decisionmakers for greater student access to the arts through changes in programs and scheduling, we are educating with a more direct ask.  When we engage in action alerts and write/call our legislators about a specific bill or budget item, we are engaged in grassroots lobbying.

Motivation

Motivation for engaging in advocacy typically falls into three areas: the personal, professional or philosophical. If I ask my principal for an increased budget for musical instruments, my motivation may be a blend of all three: 

Personal (I want to be successful in my job.)

Professional (I want my students to be successful.)

Philosophical (I believe that every student has the right to a complete education that includes the arts.) 

Most arts ed stakeholders have a touchstone experience that has shaped their passion for the arts—a reason to be involved in the work. It’s important to understand how those early experiences motivate our actions and also be self-aware enough to know how our messages will be received. If a request is perceived as overtly self-serving by decision makers, too motivated by personal self-interest, then it will have less impact.

Bias

There is a new reckoning around bias as a result of the recent social justice movements. We must dig deep and acknowledge our own unconscious bias about race, class, sex, gender, age, and ethnicity. We must also be careful about the bias of exceptionalism. 

Music and arts teachers have been segregated from other subject areas due to practical issues (teacher release time) as well as facility separations (space requirements and equipment). Arts educators often feel isolated in their building and do not have the same joint planning time that other disciplines enjoy. Arts classes are often called “specials” and arts educators “specialists.” All of which may lead inadvertently to an attitude of exceptionalism or specialness. 

Ironically, decades of making the case for the unique attributes of music and arts in our schools may have a side effect of separating the arts from larger educational issues, making it more difficult to be viewed as part of the whole. We need to widen the lens to include broader educational values and outcomes, all while keeping the arts focus crystal clear.  

Obstacles

The arts ed field is coming around to the idea that advocacy is part of our everyday, not only when we want/need something. Yet we’re good at putting it off. Most commonly heard barriers to advocacy and possible solutions:

Lack of time ◊ A quick phone call or email is often all that’s needed.

Lack of knowledge ◊ Ask a friend; develop reliable go-to resources.

Fear of reprisal ◊ Tread lightly; frame as a question, not a demand.

Someone else will do it (SEWDI) ◊ If not you, then who?

My voice doesn’t count (MVDC) ◊ Yes, it does.

Lean In

Local decision-making rules the day concerning what is taught in our schools. If you’re wondering where to lean in, this is it. Local advocacy has both immediate and long-term potential impact. Advocacy is a long game, with relationships at its core. You can make a real difference here. A simple conversation today will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s support. 

Strengthen your advocacy chops:

Build relationships with decisionmakers.

Leverage good news stories for greater impact, locally and on social media.

Join your professional association!

Join your district’s planning team.

Adopt a district resolution affirming the importance of the arts. 

Attend school board meetings. 

Urge parent booster organizations to take on a stronger advocacy role.

Help

We are fortunate to have power lifters at the national and state level who are sifting through the issues, providing information and messaging, and telling us when to respond to action alerts. They have national and state policy and budgetary issues covered, so you can rely on them for guidance. Music has provided much of the heavy lifting in the public policy arena. These organizations are skilled in mobilizing constituencies for action at the appropriate time.

National Association for Music Merchants (NAMM)

National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Your state professional educator association

Your state arts ed advocacy coalition

Your state arts advocacy coalition

At the end of the day, your personal involvement is critical at the local level. Engaging in advocacy is a gut check, reminding us of what is important as human beings and as members of a global community. Advocacy works. It doesn’t mean you’ll win all the time; however, it does mean that every conversation, every parent meeting, social media post, and school board presentation will move music education forward. And give us hope for the next day, and the next, and the day after that…

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