The Power of the Individual in Advocacy

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyMay 2022 • May 2, 2022

Individuals stand at the heart of advocacy strategy. We advocate every day, formally and informally. We advance causes for ourselves and others in the workplace, for our children at school, and for those within our communities. Advocacy is always personal. It starts with us, with our unique inherent beliefs and biases.

Focusing Your Motivation
Motivation for engaging in advocacy typically falls into three areas: the personal, professional, or philosophical. Your motivation may be a blend of all three.

Most arts and cultural education stakeholders have a touchstone experience that shaped their passion for the arts: a reason to be involved in the work. It’s important to understand how those experiences motivate our actions and be self-aware enough to know how our messages will be received. Think about this touchstone experience in the form of a clear, concise story – your “why.” If an advocacy request is perceived as too motivated by personal self-interest (e.g., your “why” is tied to your own individual benefit), then it is likely to have less impact.

Employing Social Media for Movement Building
Research has shown the power of social media to create social capital through the power of storytelling. The more conversations we have, either formal or informal, the more we build social capital links to a greater community. 

By using social media platforms, practitioners can amplify the voices of individual stakeholders to effect social change. According to Maryman and Scott (2016), social media has several benefits within advocacy efforts. Social media enables individuals to contribute to participatory dialogue about social issues, collaborate on change efforts, and establish a sense of community.

When social media is used in conjunction with personal narratives and concise, effective storytelling, it can create a bond between diverse yet like-minded activists, especially when linked to a larger goal. Using strategic hashtags and interconnectedness between social media platforms, this bond can create an amplified effect of messaging that can reach millions of people with a common message. This process in turn generates powerful social capital among participants in the movement carrying the same message. This social capital acts as currency in engaging systems change.

Words Matter, So Choose Wisely
As humans, we tend to “go with our gut,” letting our emotions rule over reason. Research on decision-making shows we make effective decisions when we slow down and think about our thinking, using both emotional and cognitive parts of our brain (Lehrer, 2010). This is a good reminder when thinking about bias. We must dig deep and acknowledge our own unconscious bias about race, class, sex, gender, orientation, age, religion, ethnicity, and the like.

We must also be careful about the bias of exceptionalism. Decades of making the case for the unique contributions of music and the arts may have a side effect of separating the arts from the larger community, making it more difficult to be viewed as part of the whole.

Form Strong Relationships…Locally
Most education policy is made by district or municipal decision-makers. So, if a practitioner is wondering where to spend time forming relationships, you can make a real difference here. A simple conversation today will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s support. A few actions you can take:

Build relationships with decision makers.

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

Join a trusted professional association.

Use your voice to amplify messages tied to a specific goal.

Widen your network to include colleagues outside your usual circle.

So, Let’s Get Moving

The arts and arts education fields are coming around to the idea that advocacy is part of our everyday life, not only when we want or need something. Yet, we’re also good at putting it off.

Some common barriers to advocacy and possible solutions:

Lack of time … A quick phone call, email or post 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 … If not you, then who?

My voice doesn’t count … Yes, it does.

At the end of the day, your personal involvement is critical. Engaging in advocacy reminds us of what is important as human beings and as members of a global community. It doesn’t mean you’ll win all the time. It does mean every conversation, every parent meeting, social media post, and board presentation will move the arts and arts education forward. And give us hope for the next day, and the next, and the day after that…

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education. 

This article is derived from a post originally published by Creative Generation and ElevateArtsEd in March 2022.

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